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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.

From Criminal to the ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson’s border policy on refugees

Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images in The Guardian

Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.

Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.

Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.

With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.

Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?

It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?

Photograph by Areg Balayan, Government of Armenia, from The Armenian Weekly

Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.

References

Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.

Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.

Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.

Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.

They think it’s all over…….

https://www.northampton.ac.uk/news/covid-blog-they-think-its-all-over/

Probably the most famous quote in the history of English football was that made by Kenneth Wolstenholme at the end of the 1966 World Cup final where he stated as Geoff Hurst broke clear of the West German defence to score the 4th goal that “Some people are on the pitch…. they think it’s all over…….it is now”. I have been reminded of this quote as we reach April 1st, 2022 when all Coronavirus restrictions in England essentially come to an end. We are moving from a period of pandemic restrictions to one of “living with Covid”. Whilst the prevailing narrative has focussed on “it’s over” the national data sets would suggest it is most definitely not. We are currently experiencing another wave of infections driven by the Omicron BA-2 variant. Cases of Covid infection have been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and we are now seeing hospital admissions and deaths rise too. This has led to an interesting tension between current politically driven and public health driven advice.

The overriding question then is why remove all restrictions now if infection rates are so high. The answer sits with science and the success of the vaccination programme, and the protection it affords, which to date has seen 86% of the eligible population have two jabs and 68% boosted with a third. Furthermore, we are now at the start of the Spring booster programme for the over 75s and the most vulnerable. The introduction of the vaccine has seen a dramatic fall in serious illness associated with infection and the UK government now believe that this is a virus we can live with and we should get on with our lives in a sensible and cautious way without the need for mandated restrictions. The advances gained in both the vaccination programme, anti-viral therapies and treatments have been enormous and underpin completely the current and future situation. So, the narrative shifts to one that emphasises learning to live with the virus and to that end the Government has provided us with guidance. The UK Government’s “Living with Covid Plan” COVID-19 Response – Living with COVID-19.docx (publishing.service.gov.uk) has four key principles at its heart:

  • Removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice, in common with longstanding ways of managing most other respiratory illnesses;
  • Protecting people most vulnerable to COVID-19: vaccination guided by Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, and deploying targeted testing;
  • Maintaining resilience: ongoing surveillance, contingency planning and the ability to reintroduce key capabilities such as mass vaccination and testing in an emergency; and
  • Securing innovations and opportunities from the COVID-19 response, including investment in life sciences.

So, in addition to the restrictions already removed from 1 April, the Government will:

  • Remove the current guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification in domestic settings and no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
  • Update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people. This will align with the changes to testing.
  • No longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England.
  • Consolidate guidance to the public and businesses, in line with public health advice.
  • Remove the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.
  • Replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance

My major concern with these changes is the massive scaling back of infection testing. In doing so we run the risk of creating a data vacuum. Being able to test and undertake scientific surveillance of the virus’s future development would help us identify any future threats from new variants; particularly those classified as being “of concern”. What we should have learned from the past two years is that the ability to understand the virus and rapidly scale up our response is critical.

What is also now abundantly clear from the current data is that this is far from over and it is going to take some time for us to adapt as a society. The ongoing consequences for the most vulnerable sections of our society are still incredibly challenging. It will not be a surprise to any health professional that the pandemic was keenest felt in communities already negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since the publication of the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980), which showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of the UK.  Indeed, there is evidence that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately located in socially deprived communities. Consequently, there is a genuine concern that the most vulnerable to the virus could be left behind in isolation as the rest of society moves on. However, we are now at a new critical moment which most will celebrate. Regardless of whether you believe the rolling back of restrictions is right or not, this moment in time allows us an opportunity to reflect on the past two years and indeed look forward to what has changed and what could happen in terms of both Coronavirus and any other future pandemic.

Looking back, I have no doubt that the last two years have changed life considerably in several  positive and negative ways. Of course, we tend to migrate to the negative first and the overall cost of life, levels of infection and the long-term consequences have been immense. The longer-term implications of Covid (Long Covid) is still something we need to take seriously and fully understand. What is not in doubt is the toll this has had on individuals, families, communities and the future burden it places on our NHS. The psychological impact of social isolation and restrictions has been enormous and especially so for our children, young people, the vulnerable and the elderly. The social and educational development of school children is of particular concern. The wider economic implications of the pandemic will take some time to recover. Yet, whilst the negative implications cause us grave concern many features of our lives have improved. Many have identified that this pandemic has helped them re-asses what is important in life, how important key workers are in ensuring society continues to operate smoothly and the critical role health and social services must play in times of health crisis. Changing perspectives on work, work life balance and alternative ways of conducting business have been embraced and many argue that the world of work will never be the same again.

On that final note it’s important that as a society we have learned from what I have previously described as the greatest public health crisis in my lifetime. Pandemic planning was shown to be woefully inadequate and we must get this better because there is no doubt there will be another pandemic of this magnitude at some point in the future. Proper support for health and social services are critical and the state of the NHS at the start of all this was telling. Yes, it rose to the challenge as it always does but health and social care systems were badly let down in the early stages of this pandemic with disastrous consequences. Proper investment in science and research is paramount, for let’s be honest it was science that came to our rescue and did so in record time. There will inevitably be a large public enquiry into all aspects of the pandemic, its management and outcomes. We can only hope that lessons have been learned and we are better prepared for both the ongoing management of this pandemic and inevitably the next one.

Dr Stephen O’Brien

FHES

Originally posted here

DIE in Solidarity with Diversity-Inclusion-Equality

As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.


Some issues force you to protest

the way oppression knocks on your front door

and you can’t block out the noise

“protest peacefully, non-violently”

I have heard people say

show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability

be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home

show them you’re just as capable of being liked

enough for promotion into the canteen,

protest with kindness and humour

make allusions to smiling resisters in literature

they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly

but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny

Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent

the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots

the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet

interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription

I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest

I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai

and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity

with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity

I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base

for the neoliberal university culture we work in today

I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990

and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency

they want protesters to be frugal in activism,

don’t decolonise the curriculum

they say decolonise

they mean monetise, let’s diversify …

but not that sort of diversity

nothing too political, critical, intellectual

transform lives, inspire change?

But no,

they will make problems out of people who complain

it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate

in workplaces that separate the work you do

from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

they make you the problem

they make you want to leave

unwilling to acknowledge that universities

discriminate against staff and students systemically

POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT

but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks

while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs

Universities are gaslighting their staff and students, enough is enough (Getty Images)

staff and students chequered with severe floggings

body maps of indenture and slavery

like hieroglyphics made of flesh

but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning

workers rights, students’ rights to education

so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem

we are beyond respectability now

however, you know universities will DIE on that hill

instead,

treat us well when we’re tired

productive, upset, frustrated

when we’re in back-to-back global crises

COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,

failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,

the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,

women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t

have the right last name; when we’re suicidal

when people are anxious, depressed, autistic

tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics

all permeates through workers’ and student rights

When you see staff on strike now,

we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,

but also, the after-effects

as institutions always protect themselves

so sometimes I think about

when senior management vote on policies…

if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes

and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?

I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],

how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives

how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries

like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …

upholding canteen cultures of policing

Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more

than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang

tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,

so why is it used in meetings as lip service –

Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

why aren’t staff hired in

in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies

why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this

why are mediocre white men failing upwards,

they tell me we have misunderstood

but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist

bell hooks called this

imperialist heteropatriarchal white supremacy

you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest

we must protest how we want to protest

we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical 

Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?! 


Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.

Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].

Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.

Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].

Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].

Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].

“…the result is the same:  beasts of prey and ignorant thieves”

Photograph by AP in The Guardian

Since the ousting of a close Putin ally (ex-President Viktor Yanukovich) from Ukrainian politics and territory in 2014 during the Euromaidan revolution, the closeness the country had come to actually joining the defensive NATO alliance seems to have irked Putin enough to swiftly “recognise the independence” of, as with Crimea in 2014, two Eastern-Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is not a new politically strategic move and certainly not unique to Russia. Examples of this kind of act can be seen around the world in regions where complex power interplays are rendering regional enclaves powerless in garnering enough support for the recognition of their own independence from oppressive regimes, genocide or in securing mere rights to self-determination (e.g. Kashmir in Northern India, Artsakh in South-Eastern Armenia etc.).

Yesterday morning we awoke to the news that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had ordered a full-scale attack on Ukrainian sovereign territory, in violation of international law (among many other violations of basic morality and human decency). I should emphasise here that this is a Putin-centred issue rather than one which encompasses the Russian Federation, since it is not inconceivable to suggest that ordinary Russian citizens are not particularly excited that their relatives, friends, children are being sent to die like cattle in another country while their billionaire leader basks in complete safety in his ivory tower. With an attack from the northern, eastern and southern borders of the country…and now the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine’s capital Kiev…this does not seem like just a case of Putin’s desire to rebuild a modern-day Russian empire incorporating its former Soviet nations, but a much deeper personal desperation to be seen to be the only globally-remaining strong leader.

The stepping down of Angela Merkel in Germany, ousting of Donald Trump from the US, and the failure of Brexit in achieving what he thought would be a political and economic disaster for the European Union, have all contributed to Putin’s desperation. The poisoning and subsequent arrest/detention of Alexei Navalny, the populist Russian opposition leader who in recent years managed to almost successfully stage a political coop against Putin, demonstrates the lengths Putin will go to convince his increasingly oppressed citizens that the alternative to his leadership will equate to the kinds of political and economic failures they have witnessed of Western nations.

It is clear that the UK’s sanctions have not gone near far enough in preventing the kinds of miscarriages of justice that will inevitably follow from Putin’s appointment of a de facto Russian leader on Ukrainian soil without democratic support from the Ukrainian people. But I wonder whether the seemingly lazy response from Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party is indicative of the deeply-rooted corruption which helped his eventual election into British politics. We had for many years been aware of the extent of foreign money laundering through UK banks by Russian and Azerbaijani oligarchs, the billions of pounds’ worth of UK property owned by those with close ties to the Kremlin, the millions donated to fund the Conservative Party, and perhaps most significantly, the “we’ll return the favour” investments by Conservative politicians in Russian-owned banks, stocks and shares. Is it then surprising that Putin was so supportive of the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, both seemingly aimed at destabilising the West; the US, UK and EU? Surely, now is the time for the British public to demand the highest level of openness and transparency of their politicians, particularly those who have already been elected under the banner of lies. Perhaps this will help in our collective political and economic response to miscarriages abroad, as well as within our borders.

NATO nations’ unwillingness to intervene, militarily, in this conflict is evidently the green light Putin needed to set foot in sovereign territory under the guise of “denazification” (bizarre considering Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the current Ukrainian President –  is himself Jewish).  This should form a stark reminder to former Soviet nations not to be seduced by the thought of reliving some kind of Soviet nostalgia of perceived religious and cultural similarities with Russia which has been drip-fed for many years since the collapse of the USSR. Those living in this hazy nostalgic dream will soon forget the reality that the experience of a Russian invasion will be grounded not in the form of communism which once secured its citizens with guaranteed housing, easy employment, and annual trips to the sanatorium…but in a dangerous oppressive dictatorship and an isolationist economic model. To quote a well-known message from a 1993 Russian film Window to Paris: ‘Sure. You brought up builders of communism. Now, it’s builders of capitalism. And the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves’.

Former Soviet nations not aiding and abetting the current aggression in Ukraine (as Belarus is doing) should now be alert to the fact that they will never be safe in a military limbo, nor under Putin’s wing. It is a time where citizens of these regions should let go of any hope of a return to a “simpler way of life” and move to securing effective political and military support for their nations away from Russian influence.

Meet the Team: Dan Petrosian, Lecturer in Criminology

Hi all! My name is Dan Petrosian and I have recently joined the Criminology team as a Lecturer. I also teach at The Open University where I am a member of the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative, and have previously taught at Croydon University Centre and University of Westminster, where I am part of the Convict Criminology Research Group. Currently I am still working on my PhD with the aim of submitting later this year.

Having thought initially about studying law for my undergraduate degree, I couldn’t imagine the prospect of spending 3-4 years of my life trawling through pages on Corporate and Tort Law to eventually specialise in an area I was really interested in. Just as well…studying Criminology from a critical and holistic angle, it became clear to me that Law was never really my area of interest at all. Almost instantly, I knew Criminology was where life would take me for the long-haul. The ‘common-sense’ and ‘taken-for-granted’ narrative about crime/criminality that I had long been accustomed to suddenly looked flawed…and, in many ways, deliberately tilted towards those who had the power to set the narrative. Over the years, I became particularly interested in how this power manifests itself in different areas of society, how it is exercised through the use of ‘video activism’ and the media in general, and how language and discourse is used in order to shape collective stereotypes about some groups but not others.

My PhD focusses specifically on racial (in)justice; how dominant mainstream media and political discourse is used to ‘frame’ immigration, how this is then challenged by the broader anti-racist movement in the UK through the use of ‘video activism’, and what types of knowledge are produced from this process which can help us understand the complex power interplay between the state and those within its borders. It would be amazing to meet and work with other academics interested in these areas of research!

Although I still have deeply-rooted Imposter Syndrome from having migrated to the UK in the 90s without speaking a word of English and trying to ‘fit in’, studying and working in higher education has taught me that there is always a gap that can be filled at the right time in the right place…a gap that can flip every self-critical flaw into momentary virtue. Joining the Criminology team at Northampton has become part of my learning curve, and I am very much looking forward to working closely with the team and meeting all our students when teaching starts this semester!

A microcosm of deviancy

A little over a week ago our university introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks indoors.  This included wearing of masks in classrooms as well as common areas and offices.  Some may argue that the new rules were introduced a little too late in the day, whilst I’m sure others will point to the fact that government guidance is that the wearing of face masks is advisory and therefore the introduction of the new rules was unwarranted. Let’s be honest the government and their political party haven’t set much of an example regarding the basic safety ideas, let alone rules, as evidenced by the recent Conservative party conference.  The new rules at the university, however, are not enforced, instead there is a reliance that students and staff will comply.  This of course creates several dilemmas for students and staff where there is a failure to comply and it makes for some interesting observations about general human behaviour and deviance. To that extent, university life might be viewed as a microcosm of life in the general population and this lends itself quite nicely to the analogy of behaviours whilst driving on a road.

Driving behaviours vary, from those drivers that consistently and diligently stick to the speed limit despite what others may be doing, to those that have complete disregard for limits or indeed others including those that police the roads.  Let us be quite clear at this stage, speed limits are nearly always there for a reason. There is ample research that speed kills and that reductions in speed limits injuries and saves life. Whilst those drivers that drive over the speed limit will not always be involved in a collision and that a collision will not always result in serious injury or death, there is a much greater potential for this. The risks of course are spread across the population in the locality, the impact is not just felt by the speeding driver but other drivers and pedestrians as well. To some extent we can make the comparison to the risks associated with catching Covid and the wearing of masks and social distancing, failure to comply increases risks to all. As a quick reminder, the wearing of masks is to protect others more so than it is to protect the individual mask wearer.

Observations of behaviours regarding staff and students wearing masks at the university are interesting.  There are those that comply, regardless of what others are doing, some of these will have been wearing masks indoors before the new rules came in.  Not dissimilar to the careful driver, sticking to the speed limit but also prepared to drive slower where they perceive there is a greater risk.   Then there is the well-intentioned mask wearer, the one that knows the rules and will stick to them but through absent mindedness or through some of life’s many distractions, they fail to wear their masks at various points of the day.  As with the well-meaning driver, they are easily reminded and often apologetic, even if it is only to themselves. Of course, there is the ‘follow the flock’ wearer, the person that could quite easily be persuaded to not wear their mask by the rest of the flock as they fail to wear theirs. The driver that joins the rest and drives at 40mph in a 30mph limit because the rest of the traffic is doing so.  Next is the deviant that has disregard for the rules as long as no one in authority is looking.  The person that keeps their mask handy, probably under their chin and then when challenged in some way, perhaps by a disapproving look from a member of staff or by a direct challenge, puts their mask on but only for the duration they are under observation. Not dissimilar to the speedster that slows down when they see a police vehicle or a static speed camera only to speed up again when the danger of being caught and sanctioned has passed. Finally, there is the person that has complete disregard for any rules, they will blatantly fail to wear a mask and wave away with complete disdain any attempt by student ambassadors positioned at the door to offer them a mask. They like the speeding driver that fails to obey any of the rules of the road have complete disregard for the rules or indeed any rules.

Whilst we may lament the fact that some people forget, are distracted but are generally well meaning, we probably wouldn’t want to impose any sanction for their deviance. But what of those that have complete disregard for the rules? It is worth returning here to the general ethos of wearing masks; to protect others. The disregard for the rules is inter alia a disregard for the safety of others. Whilst we might observe that the deviancy is apparent amongst several students (a problem that might be generalised to society), it is somewhat disconcerting that there are a significant number of staff who clearly do not think the rules apply to them. They seem to neither care about their colleagues nor the students and it would seem consider themselves above the rules. Another comparable trait in general society where those in positions of power seem to have a disregard for rules and others. Finally, we might consider how we could police these new rules as clearly our university society of students and staff are unable to do so. I can hear the cries now, haven’t you got anything better to do, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and all the usual rhetoric endured by the police across the land. If you make a rule, you must be prepared to enforce it otherwise there’s no point in having it. Imposing an unenforceable rule is simply playing politics and attempting to appease those that question the conditions in which students and staff work. Imagine speed limits on the road but no enforcement cameras, no police and no sanctions for breaches. It will be interesting to see how long the general population at the university follow the new rules, recent observations are that the flock of sheep mentality is starting to come to the fore. As a parting thought, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to study crime and deviance.

“Sheep” by James Good is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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. 

Not so Priti politics: setting a clear example

Of course Priti Patel the home secretary is correct when she declared that England fans have a right to boo England football players taking the knee before the England versus Croatia match on Sunday.  Correct that is, in considering the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 10, Freedom of Expression. This being encapsulated in our own Human Rights Act 1998. But whilst, the home secretary considers such booing, lets call it a form of protest, acceptable, she then adds that the ‘taking of the knee’ is simply ‘gesture politics’ and finds this form of protest unacceptable.  The players and others through television advertising have made it clear that the statement is not political, it is simply a reminder of the need to tackle inequality and racism.

So, I’m left considering this, according to Priti Patel, it is acceptable to protest against those that oppose inequality and in particular racism, but it is not acceptable to protest against that in equality and racism.  The first is a right, the second is some form of gesture politics.  Ms Patel doesn’t end it there though but bemoans the Black Lives Matter protests and the ‘devastating impact they had on policing’.  Somehow, I think she’s missed the point.  If it is simply about the resources required to police the BLM protests, well the right of expression you say people have (you can boo if you want to) was simply being exercised and the police have a duty to facilitate those protests, devastating or not.  If the devastation was about some other impact such as morale, then I think a bit of introspection wouldn’t go amiss. There is far too much evidence to show that the criminal justice system and the application of policing in particular is unequal, unfair and in need of change.   

The home secretary is ultimately in charge of policing in this country.  A politician, yes, but also supposedly a leader, who should be leading by example.  What sort of example have her views set police forces across the country?  Carry on folks, this is just gesture politics.  No empathy, no understanding and a devil may care attitude, suggests that tackling inequality is not on the home secretary’s, let alone this government’s, agenda.  This is not politics of the right, this smacks of politics of the far right.  This is something we should all be worried about.  

Fifty Pounds Per Child Per Year

Usually I consume my news through the BBC app, although occasionally I enjoy getting the run down of political affairs from the horses mouth, so to speak. Often I watch the Prime Ministers Questions, getting riled up at the majority of topics raised. However, yesterday (9/06/21), I found myself getting particularly outraged and passionate at a certain issue that has also been highly reported in the news.

Earlier last week, the Prime Minister outlined his Covid recovery package for schools, he pledged £1.4bn to enable students to catch up on the work, education and socialisation that has been missed. The controversy appears when comparing this figure to £13.5bn, originally suggested by Education Policy Institute (Education Policy Institute, 2021). To put it into perspective, £1.4bn equates to about £50 per child, per year- apparently you certainly can put a price on children’s education. Even with Johnson’s additional £1bn funding that will stretch across the next three years, the ‘recovery’ package is frankly laughable, it was a move that saw the education recovery commissioner, Kevan Collins, resign in protest.

Putting funding and economics aside, I think that this was a prime example of how the importance of education is once again, being forgotten. The potential power of the education system is not being utilised by any means. Politicians are still not realising that education reform doesn’t have to mean tougher discipline and it doesn’t have to mean more Ofsted checks and it certainly doesn’t have to mean more stressful, ‘rigorous testing’ of students, something which former education secretary Michael Gove pushed for in 2013 (Adams, 2013).

“Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards nor mean that students will be prepared for a job.”

~ Brian Lightman (Adams, 2013)

Forcing misbehaved children out of school through punitive disciplinary actions, suspensions and exclusions simply puts them on the road to loosing faith in the education system and increases their likely hood of antisocial behaviour, which can lead to criminal careers later in life. The importance of creating an educational environment that students actually want to be a part of cannot be understated.

Furthermore, the importance of altering the current curriculum is completely overlooked. School has the potential to give children and teenagers the ability to have more autonomy over so many aspects of their later life; adequate lessons about political ideology, history and the voting system, done in an accessible way, has the potential to raise more politically aware, inclined individuals that feel equipped to engage and participate in the democratic process on a local and national scale.

Appropriate finance and law classes could eventually go on to raise a higher number of adults who feel able to handle their money situations in a better, healthier way; they could also begin to understand their rights and the court processes better. Finally, focusing on the decolonisation of the curriculum could allow ethnic minorities and other marginalised demographics to learn about their ancestors, history and culture in a more mainstream, impartial way. The impacts of restructuring the standard and the content of the schooling curriculum could have an abundance of benefits, not only to individuals but to society itself.

However, with no clear moves for the education secretary to explore theses benefits further and implement any changes, along with the promised £50 per pupil, per year, it is evident that the potential power of the education system has once again been understated and that, education is, indeed, not a priority for the current government.

Adams, R., 2013. GCSEs to become more demanding and rigorous, says Michael Gove. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jun/11/gcse-demanding-rigorous-michael-gove&gt;

Education Policy Institute. 2021. EPI responds to the government’s new education recovery package – Education Policy Institute. [online] Available at: <https://epi.org.uk/comments/epi-responds-to-the-governments-new-education-recovery-package/&gt;

A link for the Prime Minister’s Questions episode: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zQkiEAZ2oh0&feature=youtu.be
A link for the Prime Minister’s Question with BSL: https://youtu.be/ZgcnQqbChZs

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