Bureaucracy causes endless frustration. Most of us will have been given a nonsensical reason why something that’s eminently sensible can’t be done. At it’s worst, it distances people from others. This episode of Bookshambles with Tim Harford is fascinating, particularly where he looks at how bureaucracy was used as a means of social control and to dehumanise people during the Holocaust. People were doing their jobs, focused on the means, not the ends.
But when tragedies like Grenfell Tower occur that just seem Dickensian, we can also see the purpose of regulation.
The public sector and social care has understandably strong governance and accountability structures (as an aside it’s worth checking out Richard McLean’s post on governance, and likewise Dave Mckenna’s efforts). But how do we ensure that empathy remains a core social work value whilst also safeguarding people?
This year, Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults have kickstarted our podcasts, which include a fascinating series on Risks, Rights and the Role of the State. There are some great episodes coming up, and I found Dez Holmes’ discussion with Dr. Danielle Turney on Grounded Professional Judgement particularly fascinating.
Danielle has been comparing and contrasting practice structures in England and Norway. In England there is a rule governed, formalised system. This makes sense when working in cause and effect environments like manufacturing, but often narrows options to one size fits all solutions, which in reality benefit very few. I have blogged about this previously when I first joined Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults.
By comparison, Norway has no assessment framework and limited guidance on what should happen. This offers the freedom to tailor approaches, but throws up a different set of problems. It makes professional judgement unchallengeable — by what grounds can people challenge decisions and poor service if we’re saying that staff make the ultimate call on what a service looks like?
It’s worth looking back to Max Weber’s original theory of bureaucracy. It sounds like hell on earth to me, but it does have the concept of efficiency at its heart, which seems unthinkable given what it’s come to mean.
“A rigid division of labor is established that clearly identifies regular tasks and duties of the particular bureaucratic system.
“Regulations describe firmly established chains of command and the duties and capacity to coerce others to comply.
“Hiring people with particular, certified qualifications supports regular and continuous execution of the assigned duties.”
This *might* work in a manufacturing process, but in complex environments it’s a bit of a shocker. Essentially it means separating work from the knowledge of how the work takes place and embeds hierarchy into inflexible and unresponsive structures. As a comparator, it’s interesting to see how organisations like Beetroot are working on Minimum Viable Bureaucracy (HT Paul Taylor).
This fits into Danielle’s discussion on Tame and Wicked problems. For wicked problems there are no one size fits all right answers. Child protection is understood as a tame problem in England, and as a wicked problem in Norway.
If the Norwegian approach allows for a different way of working away from from a rule governed, procedural, compliance culture (as outlined in The Munro Review), how can we ensure that we create an effective environment for grounded professional judgement? Here’s what I took from the podcast.
Transparency and reflection
We need to work openly and transparently. There are lots of good reasons for this, with better accountability being just one of them. I’ve long been interested in how Open Data can improve collaboration, and as GDPR is kicking in (which I am wholly on board with by the way), purposeful data sharing is more important than ever. The Open Data Impact Report provides the rationale for why we need to do more of this.
Organisations like Buffer are putting radical transparency into practice. It’s particularly worth checking out their post after they laid off staff, which is a breath of fresh air. I love how they show their workings out in real time, which enable them to be both interrogated and challenged.
I’m also really interested in how organisations can apply the rationale behind working out loud, which is something that I’ve blogged about previously.
No blame Culture
Danielle talks about how we need an organisational environment that’s open to challenge and questions. Part of this is about moving from a traditional leadership space (which I’ve been learning about this year) into one where failure becomes part of organisational learning.
So how do we identify what kind of culture we’re working in? I really like the Culture Map that Ben Proctor has blogged about for The Satori Lab, particularly because it helps to identify a lot of what is left unsaid — what are the unofficial rules, and what types of behaviour are actually rewarded? This is especially important in social work, where values are at the core of everything that we do. We need to move beyond processy tick box exercises and sloganeering and double down on using our morals as a compass.
I think reflection is linked to culture. Do we enable people within our organisations to take time to reflect on their work. Do we really value reflection by actively allocating time to it? There’s loads that other public services could learn from social work on this, but even in our sector it can be seen as a luxury — it’s worth checking out Harry Ferguson’s research on how social workers reflect in action and when and why they don’t (as nicked from another great podcast of ours on risk and values with Lisa Smith and Lydia Guthrie). We need to be working in an environment that’s not constrained by fear, compliance and blame if we want honest reflection.
It’s easy to be cynical about the public sector. God knows I am. But whilst we should never stop trying to make it better (we all know there’s a long way to go), it’s the safeguarding, governance and values that make us what we are. The next time someone decries the fact that we’re not as innovative as a tech startup, please remember this:
- Amazon are tax avoiding, workforce exploiting, bookshop closing miscreants.
- Facebook — will willingly sell your data and attention to the highest bidder, or to any bidder….. at the cost of democracy.
- Google — track everything that you do, everywhere you are, all the time. Even when you’re not using Google products.
- Spotify — pay artists nothing because they literally don’t care about music or the people that make it. They are the definition of exploitative capitalism.
- Twitter — changed the face of discourse into divisive ugly hatred for many people and has created an environment where the Alt-Right have prospered.
- Uber — sexist, misogynist, greedy and exploitative. They don’t care about safety because they‘re not a fit and proper company.
I wouldn’t want any of these people to run public services, and whilst we definitely don’t have things nailed, we need to remember that it’s our values that make us what we are. We are what we do, and we’ve chosen to serve the public. Let’s do that the best that we can.