In a recent column, The Guardian's George Monbiot noted that,‘Of all the varieties of media bias, the deepest is the bias against relevance. The more important the issue, the less it is discussed’, since opening it up might trigger demands for change that would threaten powerful vested interests.
What aroused Monbiot’s ire was the lack of concern over the collapse of nature. But he could have been talking about management. Management is ubiquitous, the invisible link between between the ideology of the day and what we do every day at work. It’s astonishing that although the discipline draws more students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level (God help them, and us) than any other subject, no one writes or talks about what they are being taught in the mainstream media. It is simply treated as a given. So no one would guess that that our conceptual understanding of management lags far behind that of any proper science, while the practice of managment is not even standing still: it is clearly getting worse. At least we are beginning to understand our effect on the rest of nature – but it’s not clear that the same can be said for the effects on ourselves.
The ultimate reasons go right to the top, to the heart of corporate governance. But here I want to invoke a few of the small absurdities and inhumanities we are subjected to, which also speak of the bigger ones behind.
Take first a despairing article by an anonymous policeman in The Guardian describing the near intolerable pressures of policing in the capital. Like one in five of his colleagues in the Met, according to a recent report, the writer suffers from PTSD. He believes the police have lost control of the streets and with just 10 officers in his borough available at any one time to attend to an emergency, admits to being scared himself. Direct cuts of 20,000 police officers (thank you, Mrs May) are bad enough; but equally sapping are reductions not only in police support staff but also in related services – ‘our duties are being stretched beyond our capabilities to include non-criminal matters regarding mental health and social services, because cuts have debilitated those sectors too.’ Unlike hospitals, the police can’t close their doors when they’re full. Instread, they turn off their telephones – so, with foot patrols almost non-existent, intelligence suffers and the chance of anything less than serious crime being dealt with falls to Zero. Finally, unofficial targets for things like stop and search not only divert attention from real purpose but increase the public disengagement and distrust that makes police work harder. This is the very opposite of smart policing: dumb, stupid, bullshit public service that disillusions both people who suffer crime and those who are supposed to prevent it.
Item two is my GP of the last 15 years, a cheerful, no-nonsense senior partner of a busy central London practice. At my last appointment, she announced that she was retiring early because although she loved the work, the strain had become unbearable. The last straw was an inspection, preparation for which had terrified staff and consumed huge amounts of time that should have been devoted to patients. The surgery passed the inspection – but only after the doctor had endured to five hours of hostile interrogation which, she said, clearly started from the assumption that she was incompetent or hiding something. She went home, wept for two hours, persuaded her husband not to track down the inspectors and punch them in the face, and resigned the same evening.
My doctor isn’t alone. Most GPs are intending to retire before the age of 60, according to a recent Pulse survey, blaming overwork, rampant bureaucracy and a plummeting standard of living. GP leaders said the flux of doctors was a “genuine tragedy and waste”’. Again, this is anti-management – practice that makes the condition worse.
Item three may seem trivial, but it’s a symptom of the same deadly disease. At the university where my wife works, departments used to have their own administrators, who knew both staff and students and formed a friendly and effective link between them. To ‘streamline and professionalise’ this arrangement, administrators were brought into a central grouping, redubbed ‘professional services’. This performed the feat of upsetting staff, students and administrators themselves, who, having lost their links with people they had worked with for years, now stay in the job for months rather than years. To remedy the situation, managers are now proposing to edit and circulate a monthly newsletter describing new developments and ‘enhancements’ to a service which is infinitely less effective, more cumbersome and more costly than before. Words fail me.
Writ large, the dire financial consequences of such institutionalised idiocy can be read almost every week on the website of the National Audit Office in a report on a new shared services, outsourcing or IT project disaster. Recent examples include the complete failure of the privatised probation service (step forward, Chris Grayling), the ferry-with-no-ships saga (ditto), and, a new one on me, the lamentable story of the Emergency Services Network: years late, the new communications system for the emergency services is now forecast to cost £9.3bn, 50 per cent more than originally anticipated – and with much of the technology still not proven, the NAO doubts whether it will meet its ‘reset’ launch date of 2022. Doesn’t anyone learn anything?
Aside from mind-boggling financial ineptitude, what all these things, small and large, have in common, is contempt for the human – most directly obvious in the public service examples, but equally present, in compounded form, in the NAO cases. Failed IT projects always grossly overestimate the relative importance of the technology versus that of the humans that use it, for example.
The private sector is no better – in fact it is often worse. As author Dan Lyons noted in a recent RSA presentation self-explanatorily entitled ‘Why modern work makes us miserable’, companies obsessively trying to make humans fit with what computers want rather than the other way round have given up even pretending that workers are assets. The result is not only hateful service (automated tills, chatbots, interactive voice systems) but also dehumanising work practices (gigs and precarity, or alternatively long hours under tight surveillance). It’s not even ‘efficient’: Gary Hamel estimates that excess bureaucracy costs the US private sector, supposedly the leanest in the world, trillions of dollars a year. Even Chinese workers are getting restive under the country’s ‘996’ (9 till 9 six days a week) works system. Jeff Pfeffer in his angry Dying for a Paycheck calculated that simply going to work was the fifth biggest killer in the US, with extra costs to the health system of $2bn a year.
Do we live to work or work to live? The balance has swung so far towards the former that it sometimes seems that far from advancing, we are being propelled back to Victorian levels of exploitation and inequality. Until there’s a sharp change of direction, and we start seriously talking about what management is doing to us, humanity may be in as much danger of collapse as the planet's rainforests or the oceans.