Tag Archives: ethics

Surviving in times of cuts II – politics, values and ideology

The UK is experiencing a big series of changes which are being introduced at breakneck speed by the new coalition government. The most dramatic changes are taking place in the public sector: schools are being heavily encouraged to become academies which are independent of local authorities: health budgets will be transferred to GPs; the financial settlement on local authorities is being drastically cut back which will lead to widespread loss of jobs, and even the defence forces will be scaled back. This will be accompanied by a huge hike in fees for students wanting to study at university, accelerating the transition from understanding education as a public good to privatising and individualising it. One theme of  justification put forward by the current government, which is a familiar one amongst conservatives everywhere, is that the public sector is ‘unproductive’ and ‘crowds out’ the private sector. Cutting back the public sector thus allows the private sector to flourish just as cutting back shrubs in the garden enables border plants to thrive.

All governments are ideologically committed even when they are pretending not to be. So for example the Blair government in the early years talked of having moved beyond ideology, following Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, Anthony Giddens: not left, not right, but what works was the mantra for at least the first term (Giddens’ work Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics was published in 1994). There was much talk of  ‘evidence-based policy’ until a series of high-profile occasions where government ministers took decisions that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence they were being offered by leading scientists (see previous post). What Giddens was suggesting, and what the new Blair government wanted to believe, was that it could be possible to come up with policies with which all rational-thinking people could agree. Somehow political policies could be ‘objectively’ correct, because they were based on ‘the evidence’. The idea, then, is that evidence interprets itself: the ‘science’ , according to ministers, speaks for itself. What policies meant in terms of value propositions were thought to be of secondary importance, or of no importance at all, until of course the values-implications of certain courses of action became obvious even to government ministers themselves and could not  contemplate carrying them out despite ‘the evidence’. Continue reading


Social development as economic rationality

In a recent report which was published to coincide with the election of the new coalition government in Britain, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has brought out a report entitled Scaling Up for the Big Society. The report argues that if the voluntary sector is to respond to the challenge of decreased government spending, and increased participation of civil society in the solution of society’s problems, then civil servants, philanthropists and other funders will need reliable ways of telling whether a successful social project can be scaled up or not. NPC’s guide is intended to offer such a guide, and turns on the idea of achieving ‘results’.

Three guiding principles inform NPC’s thinking. The first is that charities should be assessed according to how they perform and what they achieve: ‘there should be no room for sentimentality, valuing charity simply for their existence.’ The second principle is that government can contract out service delivery to charities in areas where the state has traditionally failed to make a difference. And the third is that charities can also ‘deliver’ value for the taxpayer. Based on these three principles, NPC then goes on to identify the ways in which the civil servant/investor might go about choosing which charities to fund and scale up.

Both the guiding principles and the methods offered in the report give a very good example of what the scholar Barbara Townley refers to as economic rationality, where social phenomena, in this case social development, is reduced to a means to an end. It becomes a matter of rational calculation only whether to persist with a form of social development: practitioners, and the objects of their practice, almost completely disappear. Continue reading

How the ‘ought’ obscures the ‘is’

Over the last few years I have come across a number of examples of the way in which the current managerial preoccupation with abstractions, often expressed as policies, procedures or putatively comprehensive ‘systems‘, severely inhibits managers from discussing and dealing with important organisational events which occur right under their noses. This is not to mount a case against having policies and procedures, but is a warning about the false sense of security and comfort that can arise from talking about things in the abstract rather than paying attention to organisational experience. Continue reading

Science, protest and meaning

In a further twist to Tolstoy’s famous quotation that ‘Science is meaningless because it gives us no answer to our question, the only question important to us: “what shall we do and how shall we live?'” the climate scientist Mike Hulme has recently been commenting on the hacking of e-mails at the climate research unit, University of East Anglia. He argues that : ‘Science offers unique insights into how the physical world works and the potential consequences of different policy choices. But scientific enquiry is no substitute for political argument.’ In an article that echoes some of the postings on this site (see below: ‘Being evidence based’) about politics and evidence he goes on to argue that just as politics clouds scientific disciplines, so science can appear to subvert politics. ‘Producing the trump card of science to settle a dispute is not healthy for democracy,’ he says. ‘ We owe it to our fellow citizens to listen and understand the reasons for their scepticism over man-made cliamte change. It is not all irrational fundementalism.’ Hume calls for both good quality scientific practice as well as robust political debate. Making a claim that political action need only be armed with peer reviewed science, as the protesters at the Heathrow climate change protest in 2007 did, undervalues the strength of their moral argument, Hume argues.

Politics, power, belief and evidence

spliffThere have been a number of examples this week in the UK which demonstrate the complex social processes that surround the use and interpretation  of evidence and how it influences political decision-making, belief, values and  human behaviour. Evidence gets taken up in interactions between people who then use it in their struggles over ideology and power, morality and ethical choices. These struggles can also evoke strong feelings of shame and anger. Continue reading

Management, professionalism and ethics

In a previous post we drew attention to the work of the scholar Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who put forward the idea that the teaching of management had been corrupted and diverted by a particularly narrow view of the role of managers promoted by the Chicago monetarists. Instead of managers seeing themselves as members of a professional discipline, Khurana argued, they had become ‘hired hands’, rentable by shareholders looking to maximise their investment. As the fortunes of managers became more closely tied into the fortunes of shareholders, so they were able to abandon their commitment to a broader set of stakeholders, to their own discipline, in order to pursue  self-interest.

Khurana has recently supported an initiative by a group of graduating MBAs at HBS who wanted to sign up to the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath. In swearing the oath the graduating managers would agree to ‘serve the greater good’, to ‘act with utmost integrity’ and to guard against ‘decisions and behaviour that advance my own narrow ambitions, but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.’ The Economist magazine which covered the story indulged in some of the sniggering that they accused other critics of giving in to. Who were these graduates from an elite institution who were just preparing themselves for high-flying jobs in blue chip institutions to lecture to anyone else, and aren’t we all motivated by greed and self interest? Continue reading

How to manage in times of cuts

I was talking with a group of managers in the public service  about what it means to lead in situations where resources become very tight which seems to bring out the worst in senior managers and politicians.  There may be an expectation that  everyone will be asked to ‘do more’  for the money they are being paid. Managers may be asked to manage across additional services in ways which begin to compromise the safety of the people for whom the services are being provided. Reflective, thoughtful discussion in which there is an attempt to try out different scenarios in an atmosphere of trust with colleagues is not always possible. Continue reading

Rules, advice and tips II

I have just been reading a chapter on clinical risk assessment in health care by a graduate of the DMan programme, Dr Karen Norman, which is published in the book  Complexity and the experience of managing in public sector organizations, London: Routledge (2005). In it she makes the helpful distinction between systems used as tools at work to help with things like work-flow, or risk assessment, and thinking about an organisation as if it were a system. As director of nursing a number of different hospitals, Karen has worked extensively with medical staff to identify and ameliorate risk to patients from medical mistakes. Risk

So in terms of risk assessment it can be helpful to have a number of steps identified, or clear pieces of advice on how to mitigate risk in a particular area of clinical care. However, these are not enough on their own. She recounts how  clinical practice often improves following an incident when things have gone wrong, only to go awry again some time later when the focus is on something else. What proves important, then, is the quality of relationships between staff which sustain conversations and reflection about practice over time. It demands teams of staff paying attention to and describing how they are taking up these ways of working in their daily practice with others and what happens as a result. Continue reading

It’s not about the system III

‘I have done nothing wrong.’ ‘ My conscience is clear.’ ‘I have done nothing that the rules don’t allow’. Some of these defences by MPs to criticism of their conduct are intriguing since they are so clearly not believed by many British people and provoke even more anger. It is interesting to consider why the MPs think this would be an adequate defence. What lies at the heart of such a response and why would anyone think that this is credible? Perhaps the answer is that they are not thinking, or rather not thinking enough. Continue reading

It’s not about the system II

The different responses the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of the Opposition David Cameron to the current MPs’ expenses scandal is an interesting one. The Prime Minister keeps repeating his commitment to reforming ‘the system’ which he says is a bad one. He recongises it is a bad one, everyone recognises it’s a bad one, so we should just change the system. Cameron, meanwhile, has carpeted all his MPs and told them that if their expense claims don’t stack up then they should repay the money or cease to be a Conservative MP.


In portraying the situation as a systemic failure the Prime Minister seems to be glossing over the fact that even with the system that exists, which by no stretch of the imagination could be interpreted as supporting some of the behaviour that has been reported, some MPs have behaved very modestly and others outrageously. There is no such thing as a system that is distinct from the daily actions and  choices of human beings. Simply interacting with others in our lives we are obliged to make ethical choices, system or no system. When interpreting a set of rules which have evolved over time, some MPs have clearly understood them to mean that they claim almost what they wanted to, while others have acted more modestly.  One could take the position that MPs who have claimed minimally are only doing what they should and need not be praised. But in an environment where the majority of people are acting to interpret the rules to their maximum benefit it is hard to stand against the crowd and do what you think is right. There will have been a strong group tendency to conform.

So to judge between the two leaders and how they have responded to the situation they have found themselves in, irrespective of their motivation and their own personal integrity, it seems clear that Cameron has acted much more decisively and has put his finger on the ethical issue. Rather than blaming an abstract ‘system’ as if this absolves  personal behaviour, Cameron has called for changes in the rules and has tackled each of his colleagues on their personal spending at the same time.