Given my obsession with the effect of organisational change on staff while writing my dissertation (admittedly I was mainly obsessed with self-determination theory) I’m amazed I did not come across this paper, Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organisations Empowers and Alienates1 instead seeing it highlighted on Twitter (a platform I have largely been eschewing but am occasionally dipping into, and thanks to Ben Taylor for tweeting it) far too late to be useful.

The original poster highlighted the Lovecraftian nature of organisations being uncovered with one quote from a research participant:

The CEO, after being walked through the map, sat down, put his head on the table, and said, “This is even more f**cked up than I imagined.” The CEO revealed that not only was the operation of his organisation out of his control but that his grasp on it was imaginary.

What, however, I found perhaps more concerning from the paper were the references to the belief in the immutability of organisations. Rather than seeing an organisation as a human-man construct it was a permanent and necessary entity that existed of itself:

they had objectified the organisation, talking about and treating organisational divisions, senior management, functional boundaries, job roles, and rules as “things” having a reality and existence of their own … the organisation increasingly becomes discussed, imagined, and treated as a naturalised, necessary structure. The idea that organisations are an ongoing human product was a provocative insight for these employees.

While there might be few things more depressing than the sentiment “it’s always been that way, it will never change” once the staff involved gained the insight that they were working in a human-made organisation that humans could change the effect was transformative:

Observing the organisation as continuously in the making gave employees an overwhelming sense of possibility, sparking ambition.

It resonated with one of the key findings from research, that autonomy was key to ensuring that staff had intrinsic motivation. In short when they had some control they were happier and got better results. While my research was in education, there are plenty of other examples that illustrate similar results, like Buurtzorg in healthcare in the Netherlands, or the generally positive impact of autonomous (pre-Covid) homeworking on productivity.

It’s not hard to draw parallels with the current situation. Would the response be better if we weren’t trying to deliver centralised public health models in the UK? Could locally directed responses be more agile, and increase our knowledge of what works faster, than cumbersome nationally directed response? Would our response to a tiny virus be better with we didn’t let ‘the economy’ — an imaginary construct with no independent existence — determine so much of that response?

Like my failed attempt at cycling I can’t help thinking that there was so much evidence that things could be different and better before some got to directly experience that difference during the pandemic. But we are just ignoring it all in a rush to return to the old ways of doing things and To keep city centre Prets open. I am less of a fan of Friedrich Milton than I once was but do wish the government, presumably bigger fans, would pay heed to one of his more useful quotes: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

We are trapped by the fallacy that what we built before was perfect and permanent when we should be picking up the ideas that have been lying around for years.

  1. Huising, R. 2019, “Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organizational Operations Empowers and Alienates”, Organization science (Providence, R.I.), vol. 30, no. 5, pp. 1054-1075.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of having to go into work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I am obviously luckier than some to have a job but that offered me no protection against the envy I felt towards those working from home. As reduced timetables pushed my daily commute to nearly two-and-a-half hours combined with my pre-existing belief that I am more productive working from home I would trek into work, grumbling about work-life balance, as I passed other people taking advantage of their reclaimed travel travel time by going for a run or a stroll.

It was almost inevitable I would start cycling in. First of all with a borrowed Brompton which I’d use to miss a few stations at the beginning and end of the commute as I built up to using my hefty old bike that would creak and groan as I finessed my form and route to get the daily travel time well under two hours. And I enjoyed it.

Even during this summer’s heatwave I would cycle to and from work, taking it a little easier in the morning to try not to get too sweaty but making it a little more challenging on the way home. I would set little goals. Try to stay in higher gears a bit longer uphill, have secret races with cars that could clearly beat me on the straight but had to slow right down for traffic calming. I’d obsess over segments on Strava, usually wondering why it was so slow when I’d felt so quick. It all added to the enjoyment.

When it wasn’t a fair-weather thing, and I found myself opting for the bike knowing I’d have a headwind the whole way or that I’d get soaked in the rain, I felt I had become a proper cyclist. I was just enjoying it.

And then I stopped enjoying it. I don’t know exactly when. But at some stage I realised I’d not had a moment’s pleasure while cycling for a while. It had changed. No longer free and fun, it had become more stressful. The secret races with cars morphed into constant threat assessment. Do they know I’m here? Are they really going to try to turn left just in front of me? Did they really need to pass so aggressively? And the journey got slower as cars blocked cycle-lanes using them to peek out so they could turn, or drove close to the curb preventing cyclists getting to the head of the line at lights. While I optimistically assume that most of this was unintentional, rather than anti-cyclist, behaviour there isn’t much room for nuance when competing against one-and-a-half tonnes of car.

Looking for an upside I only had one incident of abuse, but that’s probably because that’s mainly reserved for women.

It was also quite notable that it felt distinctly worse cycling in Wandsworth (my commute would take in four boroughs). I don’t know if this was something to do with the nature of Wandsworth drivers or the transport policy in Wandsworth Council. My previous experience suggests the latter, although the recent entitled outcries by drivers aggrieved at cyclist-friendly policies might suggest the former has a part to play as well. It was both sad and sadly predictable that Wandsworth, in so many ways a like a discount version of the current government, would u-turn on its attempts at rebalancing streets in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

I do, of course, get why people would want to drive. Public transport is filling up and might not feel safe. Time tables are still restricted. Buses a split between schools and everyone else. But the pressures on people to get back to work to save Pret A Manger are there. I get that there are a mix of motivations and that while there are undoubtedly some who fervently believe in their God-given right to drive an over-sized 4×4 on narrow urban stress most are probably just doing what they think is right. And perhaps they are, it’s quite hard to know what is right when the current rules are that you should work from home except that you should go to work but never be with more than six people unless there’s money involved because it’s a shop or a pub when you should wear a face covering apart from when you shouldn’t.

It is just another example of mismanagement, both nationally and locally, the pandemic and its consequences. It just feels a shame that having seen so many benefits of a city with fewer cars bring air and noise pollution we are so desperate lose them all. It does, I suppose, just add one more reason why I rather like home-working.

It is difficult, sometimes, to pinpoint the exact cause of the depressive pessimism that it the mood music of 2020. Is it Covid-19? Or is it the government’s strange inability to collect and publish statistics on it? Or their tendency to blame others for problems rather than solving them? Is it that nagging sense that while the way contracts are being handed out might not be corrupt technically, it’s hard to avoid the whiff of something a bit off?

Is it the incompetence of the handling of A-level results? Or is it the bizarre situation where we’ll get worked up about a handful of people braving the Channel in a dinghy because they, bizarrely, think that life will be better here than any other European country? Or maybe it’s the utterly surreal suggestion by Priti Patel that they are trying to escape French intolerance?

I have started wondering if, actually, it’s because of all the polarisation it’s the one between optimism and pessimism that is most profound. It’s hard to imagine how making ourselves economically weaker while stoking intolerance is a cause for optimism but, when packaged up with terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘control’, it seems that even a government that’s equal parts ideology and incompetence can provide enough of the population with hope that it can dominate a broken electoral system like first-past-the-post.

The difficulty is that there is a finite capacity for pessimism and outrage. So, taking the A-level results, while there is so much focus on young people missing out their Oxbridge places there is hardly any media attention given to those elsewhere on the spectrum such as those who will miss out on a university place entirely. Those for whom the downgrading doesn’t mean the difference between a prestigious university education and slightly less prestigious university education but, instead, is a set-back that will last, with a huge economic cost, for the rest of their lives.

Or, looking beyond this, year, the fact that the algorithms have simply highlighted (and perhaps amplified) an annual inequality that downgrades the potential of children from deprived areas every single year of their education. Surely that is where the outrage should be: by limiting their potential we hold back the whole country.

I’m obviously one of the 55% or so that finds little cause for optimism in the UK. Perhaps the biggest cause of pessimism is that I don’t really expect the government to do anything to appeal to me, why should it? There is no need for consensus building when it can achieve electoral success by just appealing to its base.

Once upon a time politics was about hope and optimism. Remember that Obama poster? Perhaps that is an analogy, something that started positively but ended in disappointment and court battles. But politics was about hope. From Attlee’s ‘Face the Future’ manifesto in 1945, Thatcher in 1979 exhorting people to vote for a ‘better life’, Blair in 1997 offering the country a ‘new life’. Even May’s shambolic 2017 election, despite the comically memorable ‘Strong and Stable’, was under a manifesto entitled ‘Forward, Together’. The consistent theme is that, as a country, things can be better. And now…?

If there could be a more visceral image of a government destroying hope than downgrading the exam results of thousands and thousands of young people, mostly from less affluent areas I do not want to know what it is. Can we really take four more years of it?

I am now enjoying a short break between jobs. Fortunately (and I know there are many in a less fortunate position) it is a planned break. Originally intended to include the Paris marathon and a lengthy break with the family my plans have changed to pretty much just staying at home. Even the things I can still do are affected. I no longer run in a straight line as I curve around people mutually maximising our social distance. My plans to make up for lost time as a school governor have transformed from lesson walks and observations to video meetings and a focus on health and safety and safeguarding.

If it was a badly timed break it is also a badly timed job start. I am, after a brief dalliance in the private sector, returning to the NHS. I cannot pretend it’s a noble move: it was not COVID-19 motivated and by the time I’ve got to grips with my role, new organisation and relationships we may well be past the pandemic peak but the virus will still make starting a job in any organisation an unusual experience.

But the pandemic does highlight why I am going back to the NHS. I was a late and accidental joiner but felt a strong sense of purpose from my very first day. Part of the reason I’m returning is because, even though remained in healthcare, I never felt that same sense of purpose after I left. The NHS is a huge and complex organisation and my contribution was, and will be, small. But the NHS is the sum of those small contributions and each one is worthwhile.

As I stood at my front door joining in the last night I was reminded of the Nigel Lawson comment that the NHS was the nearest thing this country has to a national religion. He, of course, made that comment with the sneering contempt you would expect him to have for a public sector institution. It was clear last night, though, the public attitude would be very different.

The NHS, despite its imperfections (often introduced, I would argue, in the attempts to ‘improve’ by introducing the market) and years of underfunding, remains one of this country’s greatest assets. I’m very much looking forward to having some time with my family but incredibly proud and excited and just a little impatient to be back in the NHS.

An interesting take in The Guardian on the impact of a decade of reform on the response to Coronavirus. England’s ravaged public health system just can’t cope with the coronavirus:

The impoverishment of the NHS and the public health system in England is not the only depletion that has occurred in civil society that makes us ill-equipped to respond effectively to the greatest global health crisis in a century.

One of the first acts of the coalition government when it came to power in 2010 was to dismantle the regional structures that had provided a coherent mechanism for integrating and carrying out government policy within the English regions…the coalition also stripped the NHS of its regional management tier following the wide-ranging “reforms” of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

The result is the absence of any integrational, coordinating or management function at a regional level in England that could operate between Whitehall departments and the various bodies, often very local, that are charged with implementing government policy. The fact that some national bodies have adopted internal organisational boundaries that cover completely different geographical territories has also complicated the situation. This is notably and unfortunately true with respect to the key health bodies, NHS England and Public Health England.

I had been pondering what impact the reforms introduced since 2010 have had. Things like the move of public health from the NHS to local government can make it more responsive to local needs but also more at the mercy of local financing whims and at the cost of losing central control.

I am, by instinct, a localist but there is a lot to the argument that stripping out the middle tier and fragmenting other provision across the public, private and third sector has harmed our initial ability to mobilise against the pandemic.

I’m not unusual in becoming COVID-19 obsessed. It’s affecting my professional life (I work in the health sector, although not a part directly affected), I’ve been thinking about it a lot as a school governor (not just the potential impact but also about how the messages are shared with anxious children) and my attempt to be pretend I’m an academic just happened to hit a stage of studying global health as a live case study was unfolding on a daily basis.

What has been somewhat disconcerting is that we have to deal with a pandemic at exactly the time we have a government almost uniquely incapable of dealing with it. The example of Nadine Dorries, a health minister, continuing with her schedule despite being symptomatic, causes me some concern about the quality of political decision-making. And while on 5 March the Chief Medical Officer was telling MPs we were mainly in the delay phase Boris Johnson thought we were still in the contain phase four days later. Then a few days later we have other government advisors who appear to have misunderstood how herd immunity works and suggested a plan that appears to amount to everyone just getting COVID-19. Which brings us to being presented today with an over-70s quarantine plan that isn’t fully formed (details will come later) and I can’t help feeling the government is just trying to style this one out.

At a time we need calm, authoritative, advice—and sometimes decisive action—that helps slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable in our society we are stuck with a government for whom the best thing you can say is that at least they aren’t Trump.1

  1. Having pretty much left social media, and felt so much better for it, I still needed the teeniest vent for this. The first duty of a government is to protect its people and I (along with hundreds of scientists) just have no confidence in this government in this situation. I hope I’m wrong. 

A few hundred people listening to the first-timers’ briefing Clapham Common parkrun this morning. There a touch over 1,100 runners and walkers in total, the biggest one ever (until next week, which is likely to be even bigger).

I’d always, intellectually, understood the benefits of parkrun but it wasn’t until I got involved with Clapham Common that I realised how powerful it is, not just because of the physical activity, but also because of the sense of community and volunteering it entails. However you might want to be involved I can not recommend it highly enough.

Had to queue to vote today. First time I’ve ever seen that.

But for all the progressive optimism in my queue I worry that there were lots of (what I would think) the wrong type of queue in lots of the wrong places.

Many years ago when I was dabbling in student politics RON was a candidate at the bottom of every ballot paper. If you didn’t like the candidates a vote for RON, or re-open nominations, was there to express that opinion. And if RON won, it was back to square one for the election as if it hadn’t happened. I managed to get RONned once, losing my first bid to become college president (in a fit of stupidity I stood again, this time winning but having learned a valuable lesson about hubris).

The general election has left me thinking about the RON option a lot, wondering if it might be the winner in an election where it’s so hard to feel positively towards either of the two main parties. Despite my past (which I increasingly try to keep secret) as an elected Conservative I just cannot see why anyone would vote for a Conservative Party that seems to be led by people whose only vision is that governing is their birthright and have absolutely no capacity for empathy. But it’s equally hard to come up with positive reasons to vote for a Labour Party that clearly has a problem with anti-Semitism and, more generally, with tolerating  anyone who is not an adherent to the particular Corbyn brand of Labour. How lovely it must have been to live in a period of political consensus when people in politics were mature grown-ups who could tolerate difference.

And how lovely it must be to live in a constituency where you are not forced into voting for a least worst option with the moral ambiguity that entails.

I have spent a long time thinking about how to choose that least worse option. Can you net off Labour anti-Semitism by the fact that the Tories appear to be anti-everyone? Is Johnson worse for having no principles than Corbyn is for having strong principles with which you disagree? And how do you decide between a shadow Cabinet with some lamentably weak members and an actual Cabinet in which any form of intellectual ability seems to be a disqualification from office?

Of course, this is to make it more of a dilemma than it actually is: Brexit looms large over the election and, as such, the only option I have is to vote tactically. Personally, I could never vote for a Conservative Party that has moved so far to the extremes. It is delightful that Boris Johnson has been able to satisfy his personal ambition and so many Tory members get to indulge their fetishistic prejudice that it’s the foreigner that ills this country, I just don’t think making the country poorer and weaker and depriving the next generations of opportunity is a price worth paying for that.

There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic about tomorrow’s election but if you have any sense that Britain should be a proud, progression nation voting tactically will keep the hope alive.