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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.
The logic of time
So why the love of clocks, well I’m sure some of it has to do with my propensity to logic. Old clocks are mechanical, none of this new fangled electronic circuitry and consequently it is possible to see how they operate. When a clock doesn’t work, there is always some logical reason why this is so, and a logical approach needed to fix it.
This then gives me the opportunity to investigate, explore the mechanics of the clock, work out how it ought to operate and set about repairing it. In doing so I am often handling a mechanism that is over a hundred years old, in the case of my current project, nearly three hundred years old.
There is a sense of wonderment in handling all the parts. Some appear quite rudimentary and yet other parts such as the cogs are precision pieces. Many of the parts are made by hand but clearly some are made by machines albeit fairly crude ones. How the makers managed the precision required to ensure that cogs mesh freely baffles me. What is clear though is that the makers of the clocks were skilled artisans and possessed skills that I dare say have all but been lost over the years.
Messing around with clocks (I can’t say I do more than that) also allows me to delve into history. The clock I’m currently tinkering with only has an hour hand, no minute or second hand. Whilst the hours and half hours are clearly marked on the dial, where you would normally expect to see minutes, the hours are simply divided up into quarters. A bit of social history, people didn’t have a need to know minutes, they were predominantly only concerned with the hour.
My pride and joy, a grandfather clock, dates to the 1830s. When I took it apart I found several dates and a name scratched into the back of the face plate. The dates related to when it had been serviced and by whom. I was servicing a clock that had been handled by someone over a hundred and fifty years previously. I bet they weren’t standing in a nice warm house drinking a hot cup of coffee contemplating how to service the clock. We take so much for granted and I guess the clocks allow me to reflect on what it was like when they were made and how lucky we are now. Although I do also wonder whether simple notions such as not having the need to concern ourselves with every minute might not be better for the soul.
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me*
Last week in my blog I mentioned that time is finite, and certainly where mere mortals are concerned. I want to extend that notion of finite time a little further by considering the concepts of constraints placed upon our time by what might at times be arbitrary processes and other times the natural order of things.
There are only 24 hours in a day, such an obvious statement, but one which provides me with a good starting point. Within that twenty fours we need to sleep and eat and perform other necessary functions such as washing etc. This leaves us only a certain amount of time in which we can perform other functions such as work or study. If we examine this closer, it becomes clear that the time available to us is further reduced by other ‘stuff’ we do. I like the term ‘stuff’ because everyone has a sense of what it is, but it doesn’t need to be specific. ‘Stuff’ in this instance might be, travelling to and from work or places of study, it might be setting up a laptop ready to work, making a cup of coffee, popping to the toilet, having a conversation with a colleague or someone else, either about work or something far more interesting, or taking a five-minute break from the endless staring at a computer screen. The point is that ‘stuff’ is necessary but it eats into our time and consequently the time to work or study is limited. My previous research around police patrol staffing included ‘stuff’, managerialists would turn in their graves, and therefore it became rapidly apparent that availability to do patrol work was only just over half the shift. So, thinking about time and how finite it is, we only have a small window in a 24-hour period to do work or study. Reduced even further if we try to do both.
I mentioned in my previous blog that I’m renovating a house and have carried out most of the work myself. We have a moving in date, a bit arbitrary but there are financial implications of not moving in on that date, so the date is fixed. One of the skills that I have yet to master is plastering. I can patch plaster but whole walls are currently just not feasible. I know this, having had to scrape plaster from several walls in the past and the fact that there was more plaster on the floor and me than there was on the wall. I also know that with some coaching and practice, over time, I could become quite accomplished, but I do not have time as the moving in date is fixed. And so, I employ plasterers to do the work. But what if I could not employ plasterers, what if, I had to do the work myself and I had to learn to do it whilst the deadline is fast approaching? Time is finite, I can try to extend it a little by spending more time learning in each 24-hour segment but ‘stuff’, my proper job and necessary functions such as sleeping will limit what I can do. Inevitably the walls will not be plastered when we move in or the walls will be plastered but so will the floor and me. I will probably be plastered in a different sense from sheer exacerbation. The knock-on effect is that I cannot move on to learn about, let alone carry out, decorating or carpet fitting or floor laying or any part of renovating a house.
As the work on the house progresses, I have become increasingly tired, but the biggest impact has been that my knees have really started to give me trouble to the extent that some days walking up and down stairs is a slow and painful process. I am therefore limited as to how quickly I can do things by my temporary disability. Where it took me a few minutes to carry something up the stairs, it now takes two to three times the amount of time. So, more time is required to do the work and there is still the need to sleep and do ‘stuff’ in a finite time that is rapidly running out.
You might think well so what? Let me ask you now to think about students in higher education. Using my plastering skills as an analogy, what if students embarking on higher education do not have the basic skills to the standard that higher education requires? What if they can read (patch plaster) but are not able to read to the standard that is needed (plastering whole walls)? How might we start to take them onto bigger concepts, how might they understand how to carry out a literature review for example? Time is not waiting for them to learn the basics, time moves on, there is a set time in which to complete a degree. Just as I cannot decorate until the walls are plastered so too can the students not embark on higher education studies until they have the ability to read to a requisite standard. So, what would the result be? Probably no assignments completed, or completed very poorly or perhaps, just as I have paid for plastering to be done….
Now think about my temporary disability, what if, like me, it takes students twice as long to complete a task, such as reading an article, because they have a disability? There is only so much time in a day and if they, like everyone else, have ‘stuff’ to do then is it not possible that they are likely to run out of time? We give students with learning difficulties and disabilities extra time in exams, but where is the extra time in the course of weekly learning? We accept that those with disabilities have to work harder, but if working harder means spending more time on something then what are they not spending time on? Why should students with disabilities have less time to do ‘stuff’?
The structure and processes within HE fails to take cognisance of time. Surely a rethink is needed if HE is not to be condemned as institutionally failing those with disabilities and learning difficulties. Widening participation has widening implications that seem to have been neglected. I’ll leave you with those thoughts, a quick glance at my watch and I had best go because in the words of the white rabbit, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late’ (Carroll, 1998: 10).
Carroll, L. (1998) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: The centenary edition, London: Penguin books.
*Richards, K. and Jagger, M (1974) Time waits for no one. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
A Matter of Time
Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before. It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock. Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect. The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below). The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours. It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.
Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking. Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas. I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding? On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics. I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it. But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour. Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value. This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’. I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.
Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing. It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature. So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.
Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked? On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them. That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day. I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it. I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things. The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed. My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.
And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on. My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable. I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).
Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.
Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.