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Just some more meaningless populism…

Photograph by Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock in The Guardian

As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.

Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:

…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.

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.

Higher education, students, the strikes and me*

It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid).  I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday.  I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’.  I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time.  So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours.  That to me, is illogical.  

I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.  

But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students.  It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system.  Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot.  A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral.  A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live.  A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable.  Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible.  I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues.  Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit. 

The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case.  Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people.  We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.    

*The first part of this entry can be found here.

Organisational reputation: A euphemism for institutional corruption and violence

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published a damming report regarding child protection in religious organisations and settings. One of the findings was that ‘In many cases, concerns about external involvement are connected to a desire to protect the reputation of a religious organisation’.  Of course, there are many other issues highlighted in the report, but I wanted to concentrate on this notion of protecting organisational reputation. When I hear the phrase ‘organisational reputation’ my blood generally runs cold because I know that behind these words lay a multitude of sins.

Companies and public sector bodies have policies that are designed, at least in part to protect organisational reputation. The rationale behind these policies often lacks transparency. It might be that the protection of the organisation’s reputation ensures it maintains its customer or client base, an enhanced reputation sees more customers or clients, a poor reputation might see this dwindle, to the detriment of the organisation and ultimately to the detriment of its employees and owners.  It is difficult to recover from a poor reputation and in the case of business, this is sometimes catastrophic.

However, behind the notions of organisational reputation and policies lays a multi-layer of complex organisational and human behaviours which ultimately lead to institutional corruption and violence. Things will go wrong in organisations, whether that be as a result of human behaviour such as poor decision making or illegal activity or as a result of system failure, such as the failure of software or hardware.  Any of these failures might harm the reputation of the organisation and herein lies the nub of the matter.  When there are failures, because of organisational culture, which often finds its basis in finding someone to blame, there is a propensity to try to keep the issues ‘in house’, to protect the organisation. By doing so, managers and those in charge ensure that they are not scrutinised regarding the failure, be that individual failures, failures of policies or failures of systems and processes.  So, the organisational reputation is not necessarily about protecting the organisation, it is more about avoiding scrutiny of those individuals in power. The mention of organisational reputation in policies and processes has another effect, it silences employees. Whistle blowing policies are subjugated to notions of organisational reputation and as a result silence is maintained for fear of some form of informal sanction.  The maintenance of silence ensures organisational reputation, but this corruption also ensures continued institutional violence and corrupt practices. The longer it continues the more those in power have a vested interest in ensuring that the issues are not addressed, lest they are uncovered as offenders through their inaction.  ‘We are all in this together’ takes on a new meaning.  Thus, corrupt or criminal practices simply continue.

And if the wrongdoing is uncovered, becomes public, then the first reaction is to find a scapegoat thus avoiding the scrutiny of those in power. Rarely in these inquiries do we find that those put in the dock are the managing directors, the chief constables, the heads of children’s services, the archbishops or politicians.  Rarely do we see those that caused the problem through inadequate or unworkable policies or strategies or working conditions are ever brought to book. Often its simply portrayed as one or two bad apples in the organisation. Thus, organisational reputation is maintained by further institutional violence perpetrated against the employee. That is not to say that in some cases, the employee should not be brought to book, but rarely should they be standing in the dock on their own.

For ‘organisational reputation, just read institutional corruption and violence.

The pathology of performance management: obscuration, manipulation and power

My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations.  This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management.  For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’.  Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.

Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies.  But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data.  In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide.  Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.  

Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission.  This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data.  Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style.  At first both were seen as progressive.  Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.

As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’.  Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups.  How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem?  Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was.  If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat.  To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.

In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy.  The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion.  The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again.  In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening.  So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated.  For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.   

But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level.  The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro.  For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner.  In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data.  This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries.  It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities.  The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available.  It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis.  The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.

With data, it seems, comes power.  It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively.  Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data.  Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data.  And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are.  I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’.  How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters.  The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts.  How else would managers hold you to account without that data?  And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse.  Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.

The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career.  Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it.  But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia.  You really would have thought they’d know better. 

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