Building a nation of psychopaths

Rookwood, Going Postal
Loved war so much he sent other people to fight in five of them
“HM2_7563” by Web Summit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is us, the new radicals, a Labour party modernised, that must undertake this historic mission. To liberate Britain, from all the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things that will not do in this world of change. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair

There is always a high price to pay for rebellion. Be it natural or human law, the physical world, or indeed just our social units, there are rules in place to limit the unavoidable descent into chaos should we unwisely decide to ignore this simple maxim. Change, historically, moves at a glacial pace, and it was not until the Renaissance that Homo Sapiens stepped upon the cultural, philosophical and technological escalator symbiotically equivalent to Moore’s law, where the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years or so. Since then, the pace of change has been rapid, every decade, every year – and now every month – bringing unprecedented transformation, some of it comforting, some decidedly dystopian and evil. We have become so accustomed to constant change that we rarely pause and think about the ongoing implications, nor do we attempt to dig around in the dirt of history in a forensic attempt to discover the rotting remains of a once treasured and valued ethos, satisfied that the cause of death was modernity rather than something more sinister. Such thinking acts as an effective smokescreen for those whose motives are impure, and blurs the boundaries between those who genuinely wish to innovate for the genuine benefit of all, and those determined to wreck institutions to facilitate their own esoteric agenda. For once the true picture finally appears – to the collective gasps of horror, it is too late. The destruction has already been done, and rebuilding will be well nigh impossible upon the remaining bed of smouldering ashes.

Such is the reality of the history of New Labour. Ushered in as an antidote to a tired, weary and discredited Conservative reign, I honestly can’t remember anyone who was not just that little bit more optimistic on the 2nd of May 1997. As time wore on, it became clear that New Labour was far from a regular political wolf in sheep’s clothing, rather than merely consuming the individual victim for food or sport, this bestial assassin was determined to wipe out the entire genus of Ovis aries. As the body count mounted, both literally and metaphorically, much heat but very little light was generated as to the true reason for such disillusionment that has resulted in Tony Blair, with the probable exception of Margaret Thatcher, being categorised as the most despised post-war Prime Minister. Much has been written about the Thatcher revolution, and an identical mountain of trope about Blair. Political correctness, Immigration, Minimum wage, Common purpose; on and on the list continues, yet we remain oblivious to the more subtle changes that have undermined our nation, neutering and destroying our institutions in the process. This poison is far more deadly, for it is almost impossible to avoid, and once in place in the institution, extremely difficult to remove. I am talking here about the measurement or target culture, or to give it the veneer of popular vernacular, “The box ticking exercise.” It is ironic that the previous Conservative government was instrumental in introducing such embryonic measures, but it took the fresh dynamism of New Labour to truly exploit the potential.

Please don’t get me wrong here. Coming from an engineering background, I would be lost without measurement. Used in the proper context, measurement is an essential diagnostic and systems process, executed in the correct way, and with accurate interpretation, it is a highly effective tool. However, part of the danger of blindly relying on measurement is that it can lead you to a false conclusion unless you are experienced enough to appreciate that the results you are getting are only as accurate as the quality of instrument you are using and the consistency of the surroundings. You also have to take into account the fact that whenever you measure something, you are potentially changing the environment of what you are measuring in subtle or dramatic ways. This can be illustrated by a simple measurement, the temperature of a cup of coffee. If I dip a traditional mercury thermometer in there, it is highly unlikely that the thermometer will be at the exact same temperature as the coffee. It might be higher, it might be lower, but irrespective of that, the temperature of the coffee will change accordingly. If the thermometer is hotter, it will increase the temperature slightly, if cooler, the exact opposite. To get an accurate reading, I have to wait for a period of time for the reading to stabilise. Even then, if the ambient temperature is very high or low, this will affect the temperature of the coffee. Is it in a polystyrene cup, a glass beaker, a thermally insulated Thermos? All of these factors have to be taken into account, and before anyone suggests I use one of these new laser thermometers, they bring a different set of problems to the table. Depending on the reflectivity and distance from the object measured, the results will be different. While cruder and less invasive measurement techniques are unlikely to affect the outcome, for instance a ruler and a brick, the more complex the system you attempt to measure, the greater the chance you will introduce error or be beguiled by the result.

So what has this got to do with politics? Simply put, the New Labour government was obsessed to the point of insanity when it came down to using measurement to control and affect change. Every institution in the public sector – hospitals, police, prisons, local and indeed national government – were given targets to reach in the name of efficiency, and woe betide anyone who railed against this methodology or attempted to point out this corporate madness. As a manager facing such a “Scientific” diktat, it was sold on the basis of efficiency, accountability and truth. The sales pitch was simple, prove to us that you are meeting the goals of this government and you will be left alone to get on with your job. This spawned a new industry and layer of bureaucrats, those only concerned with key performance indicators (KPI’s), the administrative equivalent of the Quality Control Manager, another role that was despised in the late 70’s. The outcome was predictable, akin to demanding a legless man be healed and get up and walk, the statistics were inevitably fudged to prevent the descending wrath of a political Stasi that were oblivious to the issues on the ground, yet still demanded performance.

Lots of noise was made about accountability, and consequentially audit teams started to penetrate areas of business that had been previously left to their own devices. This created a lot of resentment, not just because staff felt singled out, but also as the audit teams rarely understood the complexities of individual, specialised business units. Often both actors spoke an entirely different language, and this resulted in the spawning of specialist auditors, which just compounded any issues. Business units, if they were any good, already knew the problems, be it under resourcing, lack of communication from senior management, or the fools errand. Suspecting that audits were being used as a management tool to disrupt rather than reform was frequently confirmed when major issues raised affecting performance were declared as “Out of scope”. The independence and objectivity of those performing the audit was seriously questioned, as it all seemed very one way traffic. I remember my indignation at being criticised for not patching a particular IT system that was clearly end of life and would not support an upgrade, despite my repeated earlier requests to management for resource to upgrade it and move it to a more secure platform. Many years after I left the organisation in question, a similar system I developed is still running 24/7, albeit unpatched and unsecured, much to my chagrin.

Much is being said about the new proposed environment of social “Bubbles” in wake of the COVID-19 crisis. This is just a physical manifestation of a long term culture of isolation, division and pushing individuals more and more towards viewing life through a lens of paranoia. Everywhere you go, your feedback is requested, pursued, demanded. After spending thousands on a new central heating boiler, I was given a form to sign and tick the boxes to say I was happy with the service. I had a good laugh with the engineer, who admitted few actually read what was on the page. I should have put a line through it all and written “A phone call to ask a week later would have been preferable.” Like so much of this administrative wickedness, the real reason is not as innocent as it would appear. If I sign such a document in good faith, a cowboy supplier could quite easily argue I was happy with the commissioning and tell me to get lost if I had any problems later. The wording is almost always written in a way to illicit a positive response, a loaded question if you prefer. It is not there to determine the truth or to ascertain quality, rather it is an overgrown fig leaf to cover the nascent, tumescent penis of the god of systemic bureaucratic corruption. As long as the KPI is met, we can all sleep safe at night.

Nowhere is this evil more prevalent than our former institutions dedicated to civil duty and public service. From “Hello nurses” to public consultations, what is more important is that any truth contained in the data is kicked upstream to be gilded, reformatted and processed into a shadow of what reality, before measurement, actually was. A lot of this responsibility falls on the transformation officer, a senior management role common in both the public and private sector. A better example of the fox guarding the hen house I cannot think of, especially as changing organisations is an extremely difficult task. It is supremely easy to mark your own homework. Akin to the ubiquitous project manager, they frequently can be easily identified as only bringing problems rather than workable solutions to the table. Like so many of these roles, they suffer from frequent employee “Churn” as the promised deliverables cannot possibly delivered and the appointee bails out to “Move on to greater opportunities” or whatever. Sadly, our public services have been plagued by such ethical miscreants for quite some time now. Even more tragic is the long term damage they leave in their wake, I know of numerous organisations in both sectors that have fallen victim to the seduction such modern management philosophy openly encourages. Crippled or fatally wounded by the seduction of a “New vision”, they have either gone to the wall or have paid a very high price.

If we are to move on from the current organisational and social paralysis, we have to consider the impact that such transformation agents and “Disrupters” ultimately have, not just on on institutions, but wider society. One of the better known examples is Common Purpose, a cult effectively masquerading as a change agent. While it is easy to pigeon-hole people and groups, we must never forget that the devil is in the detail, and the subtle clues are always important. What are the implications if the traditional hierarchy of personal accountability is distorted or removed to be replaced by such inelastic or inaccurate methods of measurement? Not only do we limit freedom of expression, as the tick boxes do not allow us to communicate the true context or environment, but we, ourselves, become programmed like the Pavlovian dog to think in the way our master wishes us to think. Best case, we just tick away. Worst case, as a manager facing intolerable pressure from all directions, it is an easy choice to game the system for the benefit of the group or the department. Censure or my job. Once that culture is absorbed, the slide down the pole from lies to lack of empathy, guilt, or conscience becomes so easy and institutional. You, in effect, build a nation of psychopaths.


Adam Curtis Video
BMJ – Goodbye Hello nurse

© Rookwood 2020

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file