Monday, 28 July 2014

On the psychology of public service incompetence

A fascinating editorial in the Guardian last week suggested a parallel between styles of military command and the sclerosis of public service management under Blair and Brown – improved under the coalition but not nearly enough.

I have been wondering about this and have been reading a psychological classic to find out more.

Norman Dixon was in the Royal Engineers before he was a psychology professor, and so he was well qualified to write On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. I have been scouring the book for evidence of what I have suspected for some time – that there is a parallel between military incompetence and public service incompetence.

One sends soldiers over the top to disaster, or leads them to freeze to death as in the Crimea. The other allows elderly patients to die of thirst.

Dixon’s thesis was that the old idea that military incompetence as something to do with stupidity had to be set aside. Not only were the features of incompetence extraordinarily common from military disaster to military disaster, but the military itself tended to choose people with these same repeated psychological flaws.

Dixon was a little too Freudian for modern taste – the book was first published in 1976 (the long hot summer when I did my A Levels and England changed forever). But I believe the basic thesis goes way beyond the military.

So here we are; here are his common features of military incompetence:

1. Arrogant underestimation of the enemy: for public services, this is about an arrogant underestimation of the problem.

2. An equating of war with sport. Not sure about that one, except for the strange way that the chairmen of NHS trusts tend to be part-timers, and therefore amateurs.

3. Inability to learn from past experience. The problem with public service incompetence is that it usually involves an inability to learn at all.

4. Resistance to using new technologies or new tactics. Public service incompetence often seems to be stuck in the technological era before last – massive IT systems in an age of apps, management systems which make it next to impossible to try anything new anyway.

5. Aversion to reconnaissance and intelligence: this is common also in public service incompetence – a refusal to listen to information from the frontline.

6. Great physical bravery but little moral courage. The lack of moral courage is almost a definition of public service incompetence, and often involves hiding from the truth about what is happening.

7. Imperviousness to loss of life or human suffering. Is there any other explanation for Mid Staffs and the other scandals in social care?

8. Passivity and indecisiveness.

9. A tendency to lay the blame on others.

10. Love of the frontal assault, which I take to mean – at least in public services – that no cleverness, no human solutions, no unconventional approaches are allowed to interfere with the business of generating outcome figures for the commissioners.  No solution which fails to achieve this is acceptable.

11. Love of smartness, precision and the military pecking order, which in public services means that at all costs the outward signs must be preserved – meet the targets, polish the corporate logo, and so on, rather than seeing the reality for what it is.

12. High regard for tradition – not so sure about that one.

13. Lack of creativity, ingenuity, open-mindedness. Precisely the problem in public services too.

14. Tendency to eschew moderate risks for tasks so difficult that failure might seem excusable. Public service managers also deluded by their own gung-ho facade, taking on tasks which they know to be impossible, perhaps knowing that heroic failure will raise their status.

15. Procrastination. Enough said.

Does this matter? Well, I think it does. Dixon felt that the military had traditionally been recruiting authoritarians with a fatal leaning towards these pitfalls.

He showed how what he called the 'authoritarian' mindset found it difficult to focus on the right information when it was coming from multiple places.  This is the heart of the problem: managers who are unable to grasp the truth - they think they are keeping an eye on the data, but they are actually relying on a few, flawed pieces of information and assumptions.

There is no parallel about perfect parade ground drill and military readiness. But our public services recruited managers in the not too distant past – and particularly I believe during the New Labour years – who were fatally wedded to unthinking target and outcome figures in the same way.

Neither could tell the difference. Most of us can see that parade ground perfection does not make for fighting ability (and sometimes means the reverse). Most of us can see that target output perfection does not make for a good service (and sometimes means the reverse).

But in both cases, the incompetents can’t see it. They are not stupid, but they really can’t see the gap – in our case between data and reality.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Having had some experience with the military, and quite a bit of experience with incompetence (my own and other peoples), I was always unimpressed by Dixon's book. It was too steeped in Freudianism, as you noted, and the argument boiled down essentially to "well incompetent people have the following personality traits" without much attempt to amass systematic evidence.

My alternative explanation is that incompetence is a mixture of stupidity and knavery, as you would expect.

There are some honorable exceptions where managers appear to be incompetent, but in reality they are attempting to grapple with a really difficult or impossible problem, or the incompetence is located higher up the food chain.

I've found limited variations in the types of incompetent managers, though the style will change over time. For example, throughing temper tantrums is now pretty much out, all managers will make some attempt at seeming friendly and reasonable, even if they really aren't.

There are variations among organizations in the degree to which they encourage and allow incompetence. As organizations age, inevitably more stupid and vicious executives appear in their ranks, until it gets to the point that there are few other types and the organization eventually dies. But the rate that this happens can be speeded or slowed, and there are cases of sick organizations recovering if reformed early enough.