Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The fake lure of efficiency

The Guardian looks back at the social work system, one year on from the Baby P case. A lot of this sums up what Into The Machine is all about - how the use of technology affects our ability to actually do the job. For instance, one social worker complains that:

"It is obvious to social workers that the orders from above are focused on a social worker's ability to fill in forms"

while Helga Pile from Unison notes:

"When I speak to social workers in child services, excessive workload is the top problem they face and a big part of this is the integrated computer system, which is making work very difficult."

This highlights the function that top-down, "efficiency" management attitudes play in the failure of the system.

We should emphasise the word "top" in that last sentence. This is not middle-down management, this is a system put in place by those who see an organisation in terms of money-saving, rather than output-production. Compare this to our attitude towards management more broadly:

"Sixty-eight per cent said they had fallen into the role by chance."

"And 40% admitted they had not wanted the responsibility of managing people at all."

What is this about spending most of our efforts on managing our efforts? At what point does management become a vicious circle? The idea that one should get one's own affairs in order to offer a better service is a noble, and indeed proper one. But it is useless if that improvement is a lip-service publicity sham, or has no sense of time, or changes direction continuously.

It is useless if it loses sight.

Should we stop seeing "management" as the outcome of "promotion", and instead see it as being the same thing that we set up IT projects for - i.e. the transmission of a ruleset and the enforcement of systemic norms?

Should we ask whether these rules and norms are for the good of the people the system was set up to support?

Should we start questioning whether "efficiency" is actually more desirable than "improvement" if this "efficiency" starts to eat into the very purpose and sustainability of the service it is meant to support?

Monday, April 20, 2009

This is not a Police State: an Introduction to the Power Culture

This is not a Police State. It is, however, more Orwellian than the term "Orwellian" is generally given credit for. For the idea of a "Police State" implies something very specific - the rule of citizens by force, wielded by a particular arm of the State. Force not only as a technique to achieve the separation of the "dangerous" from the "normal", but also force as a deterrent in and of itself. Intimidation alongside Internment.

Coming back from a week in France, though, the difference becomes clear; not just the difference between France and the UK, but between the idea of a "Police State" and that of a "Power Culture". This was embedded into me moment ago by nothing to do with G20 protests, or the rights of photographers, but by attitudes towards customers on Southern Rail. We have a <i>culture</i> of hierarchy. One that is growing.

That such an otherwise everyday moment was the trigger for such a shift in realisation is tantamount to how insidious the whole thing has become, how inherent to our society it is, and how accepted it is as part of our culture, like cheese and hip-hop. My visit to France was a disturbing pleasure, not least by way of the <i>respect</i> and courtesy that people seemed to show each other. It became clear that - on this side of the Channel - we are anything but equal, in each other's eyes.

The "Power Culture" is subtle, and can be mistaken easily for a Police State, but in reality the Police State is merely a subset of the Power Culture. To be more specific, we can identify a couple of general aspects that are applicable to the notion of a Police State, but that manifest far more widely than that to be restricted to such an institutional term:

  • The provider of a service has power (ultimately, physical power) over the consumer of that service

  • There is little or no effective route of feedback to change this balance

Nothing particularly fancy about that - power without control. C'est la politique, non?

What intrigues me now is the effects that this power without control has; how does it make the leap from "State" to "Culture"? Why and how does this obvious imbalance become accepted, and indeed encouraged without resorting to further physical force?

I hope to find time over the next few blog posts to pick up on some of these effects, but a shortlist would look something like this:

  • There are those who, noticing the imbalance of power, try to change the service.

  • There are those who, noticing, do something else.

  • There are those who, also noticing, decide that it is easier to put up with the good points (i.e. it is not them being punished, or that a crap service is better than no service and that to complain would be to disrupt what exists, possibly detrimentally)

  • There are those who, noticing or not, actively become proud of this new level of service/treatment, and find a certain satisfaction or reward in celebrating it

  • There are those who actively rebel against the service, but without the notion of changing it - in fact, in extreme cases, the existence of something to rebel against can even cause the sprouting of a new form of identity ("you rebel scum") entirely dependent on the fact that service consumers are treated like crap

  • At this point we wrap around to the start of the list, as very little really separates the rebels with a cause from the rebels without, if the Power Culture is sufficiently resilient to feedback.

Intriguingly, while the Power Culture seeks to disrupt the old cycle of feedback-change, it actively sets up a new cycle to capture and redirect this feedback. In some ways, this re-direction becomes an entirely new "arm" of the Power Culture - people are employed to listen, to take the flak, to be understanding if not actually effective.

These rules apply to any organisation or industry in which there is little chance or opportunity for the scale of feedback to match or threaten the scale of the organisation's workings. For example, there may be thousands, or tens of thousands, or people working at one moment in time for a rail company, or a monopolistic telephone company, but as long as customers, consumers, citizens are encouraged to submit complaints through the individualising, objectifying machinery of bureaucracy, the organisation's power and scale will always be resistant. Less "Divide and Conquer", and more "Divide and Defend".

The same aspect of "individualisation" applies not just to customers and clients, but also to those working lower down the organisation's ranks. For individuality - competition - breeds fear: Fear of being shunted out of the all-feeding organisation for someone else ready and willing to toe the line. Fear that passing the message of change on will bring the almighty glowing eye of the organisation onto oneself.

This notion of individualisation on both sides of the divide is important, and deserves a blog post to itself. For now, we have introduced the idea of a Power Culture over and above that of a Police State, and in doing so we should realise that the "war", if you wish to see it in such a way (not that I particularly do), is not us-verses-them, but us-versus-us. It is everywhere.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Arrested for handing in stolen phone

The Lib Dems bring news of a teenager arrested for handing in a lost mobile phone, including DNA swab and photo record. As Paul, the young man in question notes, "I would not go to the police in future. I would arrange for it to be collected by the last caller."

Why bother? Why not just keep it? Chances are, if someone finds out, it's easier to lie or apologise than to take the risk of being arrested - being in trouble with someone else is less hassles than being in trouble with the state.

Well done Policepeople. Once again you prove just how well Britain has alienated and disgusted its upcoming generation. I could go into the issues with removing DNA from the database, but without an attitude of innocence in the first place, all that just seems kind of detail, really.

Monday, March 30, 2009

CCTV network shut down

Westminster's mobile CCTV network switched off, just before G20, because resolution not high enough.

Somehow I feel this isn't the complete story. The timing is a bit suspicious, isn't it?