Strategy as politics

For those readers not from the UK, the story about the collapse of the not-for-profit Kids Company, an organisation set up to work with children and young people with complex needs in inner cities, may have passed them by. The organisation was founded by a very charismatic and telegenic psychotherapist 20 years ago who continued to be the organisation’s director. She became the darling of governments of all persuasions and seems to have been very successful at direct lobbying of senior ministers, and even the Prime Minister, for money and attention.

The organisation collapsed very dramatically and very suddenly despite the current government donating a £3 million grant, and on a weekly basis the newspapers carry stories of claim and counter-claim and mutual recrimination. These back and forth arguments resolve around the extent to which the organisation was or wasn’t well managed, did or didn’t produce good outcomes for children, had or hadn’t been audited properly, did or didn’t have an effective governing body. This post will focus on the struggle over the definition of what it means to be well managed, particularly with regard to strategy.

There is so much smoke around the organisation that it is really hard to know how too form an option about what happened. I hold no candle for this organisation and have as much understanding of what went on as anyone else who has followed the story in the media. The claims that there are more innovative models of service provision involving clients and users, or that the promotion of one organisation lead to the marginalisation of others, could be well-founded.   But the speed with which governments and public figures rushed to support Kids Company is matched only by the speed with which they have retreated since it fell from grace. Despite the contemporary emphasis on outcomes, audit, performance, Big Society, austerity and hard-headed business-like decision-making, even in not-for-profits, what appears before our very eyes is charisma, personal lobbying, influence, political calculation about status and face-saving, rhetoric and persuasion.

There is a clear separation between the rational narrative, about what an organisation ‘should’ be focusing on in terms of strategy, governance and impact, and what actually happens in order to achieve any of these things. Managers in organisations may well have a strategic framework, may well produce performance information and ‘results’ and at the same time they will present their organisation to the good, lobby, persuade and twist arms to ensure survival. One might understand both of these approaches as being ‘strategic’, the public and shadow narrative of strategy if you will.

It’s also interesting to note the horror expressed by some commentators that the organisation was financially precarious. During my 30 years or so experience of being involved in the public and voluntary sectors as employee, consultant, board member, and client/patient, I know of very few organisations which are anything other than financially precarious, particularly given our straitened financial times and the culture of bidding for grants with criteria which constantly change. This is a point reiterated in a recent post on The Conversation:

“…the critics have no understanding of the stringent criteria laid on such organisations or the endlessly counter-intuitive and contradictory demands placed on them from funders and auditors.”

If all organisations which are financially unstable were to be closed, we would be in deep trouble in the UK. NHS Foundation Trusts, for example, are predicted to be £2bn in the red by the end of the financial year. It is also interesting to note one story carried by the BBC that the organisation ‘bullied’ ministers to part with more cash – I’m sure that his will come as a big surprise to employees in many, many public sector and voluntary sector organisations whose daily experience is bullying in the opposite direction by donors and civil servants.

What interests me additionally about  the heat generated around the organisation’s collapse, which is not just to do with the organisation itself, is the clashing of variety of different discourses and ideological positions. The case allows for the re-assertion of some taken-for-granted orthodoxies as though we would all agree with them.

Take, for example, the managerialist position, that the organisation collapsed because of a failure of an ability to manage strategically. This argument was made recently by Prof Carey Cooper in the Guardian newspaper. Cooper seizes on the fact that the founder-director was still doing case work with clients at the time of the organisation’s collapse and sees this as a good example of an inability to understand the importance of the ‘strategic role’. It would have been better if the director had ‘spen(t) more time managing and engaging in the strategic role that will take their organisation forward.’ This is a very common, taken-for-granted idea of the abstracted, detached position of a director who has moved away from working with clients and focuses instead on ‘strategy’ with a view from nowhere . Strategy is the ‘big picture’, although there is little insight about the details from which the picture is built up.

I think it would be possible to take entirely different position, particularly in not-for-profit organisations focused on caring, that if senior leaders and managers spent less time in their offices discussing ‘strategy’, whatever is meant by that, and got out and about to find out what was going on in their organisations, their ability to manage them, strategically or otherwise, would be enhanced. I am not making the case that there is a wood or trees choice here, but a perspective of both the airman and the swimmer, as I argued in my recent book. Employees in many pubic and voluntary sector organisations struggle to implement the ‘strategic changes’ deemed necessary by senior managers precisely because they are described from an abstract position away from the detail of the work and often make little sense to practitioners who have a feel for the game.

Whatever we might mean by strategy, it can only arise from a longer term understanding or an organisation’s history and becoming in the context in which it was formed, as well as a detailed grasp of emergent themes of importance which arise in the every day hurly-burly of organisational life. It also involves politics and the struggle over symbolic power in terms of who has the most convincing narrative of ‘what really happened’.


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