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Policy, procedures, processes, and failure
Examine any organisation and you will find a myriad of policy and procedures that are designed to inform its processes and guide employees. On paper, these formalised ideals and directions make absolute sense but frequently they bear no relationship to reality and rather than empowering, they constrain and often demoralise. These idealistic notions of how an organisation should function facilitate the dehumanising effects of managerial diktat and engender an internalisation of failure amongst employees.
By way of an example, in the 1990s police forces began to consider notions of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in respect of crime investigation. These SOPs seemed on the face of it to be a good idea. The police service, driven by government notions of New Public Management, were being measured on crime reduction and crime detection. Performance indicators were propped up by idealistic notions coming out of government supported by HMIC and the now defunct Audit Commission that catching more criminals would engender a virtuous circle resulting in crime reduction. Nothing of course, was further from the truth. But the introduction of SOPs was meant to attempt to address police failings. These, certainly in one force, were at the outset seen as a guide, a minimum standard required in an investigation. They weren’t intended to constrain.
A small department was set up in this force to measure adherence to these SOPs and to report back where there were inherent failures. For example, on attending a house burglary, the attendant officers were required to take a statement from the householder, and they were required to carry out house to house enquiries in the vicinity. At the very least, they needed to knock on doors either side of the house that had been burgled and a couple of houses across the road. Frequently the statement wasn’t taken, or the house-to-house enquiries hadn’t been completed. It became clear that the officers were failing to carry out simple procedures. Measuring adherence to SOPs and providing feedback to promote improvement soon resulted in measuring adherence in order to enforce compliance.
In hindsight, there should have been a realisation that the SOPs, far from being helpful were in fact having a detrimental effect. Where officers could have carried out further investigations based on their professional judgement, they adhered to the minimum required in the SOPs or simply failed to comply with them fully. This was partially resultant of a notion amongst officers that discretion was being curtailed, but more notably it was driven by other processes and organisational priorities. These other processes were to do with attendance at other incidents. Graded as a priority by the control room, officers were being pulled off the burglary investigation and therefore couldn’t comply with the burglary investigation SOPs. Police forces were also being measured on how quickly they responded to and arrived at various calls for service. There was clearly a direct conflict between management ideals and reality with the officers being set up to fail in one aspect or another. There were simply not enough staff to do all the work and to manage the overwhelming demands at certain times.
One way of dealing with the failures was to link these to the performance and development review (PDR) process. The development aspect was a somewhat redundant term as the PDR was all about performance. Of course, each time the PDR came around the officers had failed to achieve their objectives. This provided lots of evidence of people not doing their job properly. In the wider gamut of crime figures officers at various levels began to realise that the only way to avoid accusations of poor performance was to manipulate the crime figures. In the meantime, those driving the behaviours, washed their hands of them whenever someone was found out, often hiding behind the SOPs and policy. The misuse of the PDR process and the consistent scrutiny of performance metrics resulted in the internalising of failure by staff. Whole systems and processes had been set up to measure failure, after all how could success be measured if it could never be achieved. Of course, it could never be achieved because the ambition and driving force behind this, government’s notions of crime control, were based on ideals and rhetoric not science. But the overriding fact was that it could never be achieved because there were never enough resources to achieve it.
The failure of course wasn’t in the officers that didn’t adhere to the SOPs or those that manipulated crime figures to try to avoid overbearing scrutiny, it was the failure of managers to provide adequate resources. It was a failure of managers to try to understand what reality looked like and it was a failure of managers to deal with the dehumanising effects of policy, procedure and processes.
Having left the police, I thought higher education would somehow be different. I don’t think I need to say anymore.
Policies for the ideal, reality for the rest.
This week saw the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention announced on world mental health day (BBC), and an article in The Guardian observing that mental health resources are woefully underfunded.
My thoughts first turned to the fact that the appointment of a minister to address the problem was reminiscent of New Labour’s previous attempts to address issues with the appointment of various czars, none of which were very successful (BBC). Allied to the appointments were the inevitable plethora of new policies, many failing at the first hurdle. Nonetheless their longevity and to some extent durability lay in ministers’ and state agency managers’ egos, and inability to see beyond fantasy and media pleasing rhetoric. However, it would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge that some policies and strategies are conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, both at the macro and micro.
The old saying that ‘no plan last[s] beyond the first encounter with the enemy’ (Hughes, 1993:14) probably explains why so many policies fail, not because the essence of the policy is wrong but because politicians and those in charge fail to take into account or to rationalise that at the very core of the policy intentions, lay people. People are unpredictable, people do not conform to ideals or preconceived ideas and, yet policies are formulated to address ideal situations and an ideal homogenous population. No one member of the public is the same, whether they are a victim of crime, an offender, a person in need of medical care or mental health services, a worker, a student or a user of a service. They can be one of these things or a combination of them, they are a product of so many differing socioeconomic influences that any one policy cannot ever hope to deal with the multitude of issues they bring. People are both complex and complicated. A plan or policy needs to be adapted and changed as it progresses, or it will inevitably fail.
That brings me very nicely to one of my favourite authors Michael Lipsky. Lipsky presents those working at the coal face of public services as street-level bureaucrats. Attempting to navigate policy and strategy implementation whilst dealing with predominately less than ideal clients. Lipsky observes that in doing so the street-level bureaucrats are faced with a number of different issues:
- Resources are chronically inadequate relative to the tasks workers are asked to perform.
- The demand for services tends to increase to meet the supply.
- Goal expectations for the agencies in which they work tend to be ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.
- Performance oriented goal achievement tends to be difficult if not impossible to measure.
- Clients are typically nonvoluntary; partly as a result, clients for the most part do not serve as primary bureaucratic reference groups.
(Lipsky 1983, 27:28)
Policies and strategies are difficult to implement, if they are formulated purely on ideals without ever having recourse to those, i.e. the street level bureaucrats, that are required to implement them, they will inevitably fail. If plans rarely survive the first contact, then they need to be adapted or ditched, those best placed to advise on changes are of course those at the coal face. Herein lies the rub, politicians and managers do not like to be told their policy is failing or that it will not work in the first place. They inevitably place the failure of policies, or reluctance to implement them, on those at the coal face with little or no knowledge of the issues that are encountered. The raising of such issues are simply seen as an excuse, laziness or a reluctance to change. More often than not, the opposite is true, street level bureaucrats want change, but for the better not for the sake of it or to be seen to be doing something.
It is difficult to see how the appointment of a new czar will make a difference to suicide rates without fundamental changes in the way that policies and strategies are conceived. Those thinking of writing policy whether at the macro or micro, would do well to get a hold of Lipsky’s book and to reimagine the ‘real’ world.
Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services, New York: Russell Foundation.
Hughes, D (ed) (1993) Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Random House, (ebook)