Governance

The Mess We Are In

Posted by David Pilgrim

The dossier to the Charity Commission

I will summarise the story of the efforts of a group of psychologists with whom I have been involved. We have engaged with the Charity Commission about  what we understand to be a highly dysfunctional organisation. We compiled a dossier of accounts and this was sent the Commission. At the outset, we were not necessarily aware of one another and nor were our concerns about the same topics. The range of the latter and the diversity of the complainants itself are telling. 

A common theme across the story of the emergent dossier is that all of us had genuinely tried to use the complaints process available. On each and every occasion this had failed miserably. Complaining to the Charity Commission was a tactic of last resort and neither frivolous nor mischievous. 

Moreover, in compiling the dossier we discovered that some other complainants had simply given up in a state of anger and demoralisation. Some left the Society exasperated. Others plodded on, motivated by a sense of clear injustice about the organisational failure that they were being victim of and were witnessing. 

The broad picture we were seeing was of the BPS being an evasive top heavy organisation that is insensitive to the ordinary and reasonable expectations of its members. (In a separate posting it will be useful for us to get to grips conceptually with the question ‘who or what is the BPS?’ but here for now I am referring to its Trustees and the employees of the Society it directs).

A further lesson at this stage of compiling the dossier was that it was obvious that as complainants we were the tip of the iceberg. However, we had no clear measure of what lay beneath the waterline. In sharing our accounts of frustration with the Society, we had a common experience. In the build up to each complaint our concerns were shared with trusted colleagues. Many of the latter often sympathised not just empathised: they concurred completely with the content of the complaint and were glad it was being made. However, they were too frightened to put their names publicly to a joint communication, be it a formal complaint or letter of concern. 

Psychologists in work, with mortgages and bills to pay, intuitively know that complaining (about anything which is serious) is not the best career move. In an addition, because of the controversial content of some of the complaints people also feared vilification on social media or even for their personal safety. For future reference we have learned that many people do not complain because of these understandable fears and so a functioning  membership organisation will have to work hard to encourage meaningful representative feedback, especially in the toxic culture of social media. When and if complaints are made in this contemporary context, then each one should be taken seriously and investigated speedily and efficiently. At present this is not the norm in the Society.

It is little surprising that the editors of this blog are experienced psychologists but, with the inevitability of time passing, they are also retired. Our careers cannot be damaged because they are in the past. As people who have been managers in the NHS, we also understand organisational complexity and dysfunction and the serious challenges of ensuring genuine probity. Those with more to lose than us were driven by important concerns about public protection and were not complaining for any personal gain. We were joining in a reasonable and reasoned effort of whistleblowing to the Charity Commission. Our campaign was value-driven, not perverse or vindictive. If successful it would rescue the BPS not lead to its downfall.  

Returning to the fallow period just prior to the dossier, gradually some of us fighting on with our complaints began to become aware of one another, via professional networks or collegial relationships. From this came the group decision to construct a joint document to send to the Charity Commission. Each case study provided was individually authored and left unedited, in relation to its style and content, for inclusion. However, a preface to the dossier was drafted and then agreed by all the contributors, in order to summarise for the investigators at the Commission the lessons obvious about systemic failings. Here I summarise those points from the preface for clarity for the reader here. There were seven separate case studies offered, followed by some observations of cross-cutting themes: 

1. The Memory Based Evidence Group was closed down without explanation. This review had been agreed in principle but now was closed in a peremptory manner by an unidentified BPS official. This now has implications for public protection, especially in relation to evidence about childhood trauma and the controversy about ‘false memories’. The expert literature review and consideration of contestation in the field are now stalled. Several efforts had been made to raise concerns about the inadequacy of the extant and outdated policy but they had been met with non-responses from the BPS.

2. Routine failures of the complaints process. This summarised empirical evidence for the Charity Commission, across a range of examples, of how the complaints process is both inefficient and at times is misused by senior elected and non-elected members of the Society to evade responsibility. These failures have included the latter referring down complaints about themselves to those more junior in the organisation for investigation

3.  Email petition to the BPS being flatly ignored about the risks of extending prescribing rights to psychologists. In this case, there was a complete failure to respond to a letter of concern, about a proposal under consultation by the Society, which was signed by over 100 members. This was sent to the CEO and the President and forwarded to the Chair of the Practice Board. Follow up mails were ignored. The complaint focused on the manipulation of the above consultation process, as well as the public activities of the Chair of the ‘Task and Finish Group’ leading the same consultation. She had already made public statements prejudicially in favour of a pro-prescribing position.  At the time of writing, these repeated representations have been ignored by the Trustees of the BPS.

4. Letters to the current President being ignored. Two letters were offered in evidence to the Charity Commission, referred to dishonest public communications by the Society and potential harm to minors. Neither of these letter received a reply.

5. Past financial irregularities reported and not investigated. The Charity Commission was supplied with evidence outlining financial and procedural irregularities, intimidation and policy breaches by senior elected and non-elected members of the Society. 

6. Complaints about the current policy of the BPS on gender were ignored. This reported a catalogue of failures to respond to a complaint, about the academic adequacy of this document, made over a period of several months in 2020. Concerns about the document failing to represent a range of critical voices in the discipline were dismissed and follow up letters were simply ignored. The CEO and Head of the Complaints Department also failed to respond, when requested to, by the Society President

7. Complaints about censorship and the subversion of academic freedom. This provided a detailed report of how these complaints were ignored or evaded, by both the CEO and the President. Interference with editorial independence and the censorship of articles agreed for publication were cited in evidence. The claims that the BPS is a ‘learned society’ were shown to be hollow rhetoric, given that today it cannot even defend academic freedom in relation to its own publishing custom and practice.

These seven case studies were offered then to illustrate current failures in the Society. Those submitting the dossier made the following summary points in its preface, for clarity to the Charity Commission:

1. There are repeated instances of serious reputational damage to the organisation and to members of the discipline and professions it represents and, even more gravely, of risk of harm to the public, including to minors.

2. There is a consistent pattern of senior salaried and non-salaried staff, including the current President, ignoring representations about serious matters put to them from ordinary members of the Society. This is reflected in emails being routinely unanswered. At times deceit and manipulation by salaried and non-salaried staff are evident.

3 Members of the Society feel ignored, demoralised and threatened, when they raise complaints. This is particularly concerning when the content of the latter relates to the protection of the public.

 4. The Trustee structure is not fit for purpose, being dominated by senior executives and non- elected post-holding psychologists. There are no lay members of the Board and thus no independent scrutiny. Letters of concern addressed to the Trustees are often not responded to. This gives a sense of a group acting in a defensive manner, in order to preserve the status quo and resist corrective feedback.

5. There are accounts of activities by senior salaried and non-salaried staff that may be described as threatening and intimidating. 

6. There is a lack of transparency regarding financial management and allegations of financial irregularities benefiting certain members of the organisation.

7. There has been a disregard of proper process in a number of areas, such as in formal consultations.

Conclusions about the mess we are in

My own view is that a root and branch reform to the Society is now required. The overall systemic failure is reflected in the emergence of a closed and self-protective leadership. We might call this a ‘cabal’ suffering from ‘groupthink’, or a slow to change and poorly accountable ‘rigid oligarchy’. These and other attributions now need to be explored publicly for their empirical fit. Whatever terms makes most sense is up for debate but what is not in doubt is that a core feature of probity expected in any charitable organisation is clearly missing. This refers to good practice in an organisation, of knowingly separating direction from oversight, with their working relationship then being transparent to anyone inside or outside of its confines. In particular, the Trustees should focus on oversight, but given the evidence offered to the Charity Commission this has been habitually absent. 

As far as direction is concerned, those leading the organisation in its executive wing need to have a clear set of aims, which are transparent and open to scrutiny. The daily operational aspects of the organisation should reflect that direction of travel and, when they do not, then corrective mechanisms should be put in place. That ongoing process and its degree of success should then be subject to routine critical scrutiny by independent Trustees. 

Currently in the BPS the Trustees are not independent and the oversight priorities expected of them are missing. What has emerged instead is that non-elected senior managers now dominate the Trustee culture, when they should be genuinely ‘in attendance’ in order to expose themselves to full scrutiny. These managers are not psychologists, and like football club managers, NHS Trust CEOs or university VCs they can pass through the system rapidly. (Contrast that scenario with the hundreds of years of BPS membership embodied in those writing the dossier described.) 

My interpretation at this stage of this faulty Trustee system is that a groupthink culture may have emerged and there is no independent presence, representing the public’s interest, to offer routine reality testing about successful oversight. Like many people, I am involved as a Trustee for a charity and this direction and oversight distinction is well known to even the smallest organisation, so how and why has it apparently gone missing as an organisational feature of the BPS? 

The latter is not insignificant, if its membership is a measure of its size and its public profile a feature of its role in wider society. Psychology is a popular undergraduate choice and psychologists now inform public policy and media discussions recurrently. Given this picture, the mess we are in requires serious consideration and rectification, given that the BPS is the organisation providing apparent legitimacy to, and public confidence in, the authoritative role of psychologists in wider society.

The concerns expressed above, from a group of psychologists now seeking to expose the operational and cultural failings of the BPS, pointedly are in relation to its current poor leadership and governance. For the bulk of those working in the organisation in more junior roles, they will be as much a victim of these failings as the members and the public. Those employees, as in most organisations, are decent hard working people but they are being asked at times to carry through dubious directives from above. 

Sometimes this is manifestly unfair (for example when junior staff are being asked to investigate complaints against their senior colleagues). The criticisms from the authors in the dossier quite clearly are not directed at this level of the organisation; our concern is solely with its leadership. A caveat to this is that poor leaders provide poor role models for those they lead and so no one, at this stage, can vouch for the empirical impact lower down the employment hierarchy.

If a root and branch reform fails to occur then, as with other dysfunctional organisations described in the past, homeostatic pressures will ensure that the same problems will recur. Particular risks evidenced from past organisational case studies include dealing with bad apples, rather than the state of the barrel, and ‘shooting the messenger’. Whistle-blowers typically are new to systems and not yet invested in, or compliant with, its cultural norms or they are people who have been chronically excluded from offering corrective feedback about poor practice. This galvanises them to speak out. Some passive bystanders on the inside, or on-looking nearby, then gradually join their ranks or come to admit the validity of the claims. 

Case studies are legion and revealed by inquiries into organisational failings in ‘scandal hospitals’, large business corporations, pension schemes and policing. While sex and money are often the drivers of individual malpractice, the recurring context is one of systems being isolated (culturally or physically) and affording the expression of those common human foibles. We cannot alter the ubiquity of the latter but we can reduce the conditions of possibility of their expression. Good governance and constant independent scrutiny are central to this task.

An irony is that whistle-blowers often initially are punished but, with time, they are then vindicated. Their mental health and careers might be casualties.  My hope is that we can rescue the organisational integrity of the BPS, without that price being paid by its members who are seeking remedial action. The next few months are important for ‘the BPS’.

7 thoughts on “The Mess We Are In”

  1. I am very interested to read about all of this and begins to make sense of quite a few of my experiences …

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  2. I can’t say that there is much of this that I agree with.

    It seems vexatious in nature.

    I’m aware of claims that there was insufficient consultation on the issue of prescribing rights for psychologists. I could not support that claim as I was aware of this issue and had the opportunity to submit my opinion on this matter.

    Additionally, I am also aware of the letter submitted to the BPS regarding approaches to Gender Identity. Again, I would not agree with the issues raised in that letter. The NHS and the BPS are both signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy for both Sexuality and Gender Identity. I would question the ethical stance of those who seeks to challenge the Memorandum of Understanding on these issues.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Heather. As I understand it, the term vexatious applies to “frivolous concerns raised for the sole purpose of irritating someone”. My purpose in being part of this blog is anything but. Having been closely associated with the BPS over many years I am extremely concerned about its governance, its responsiveness to legitimate concerns from its membership, its representativeness and its ability to allow open and free debate on controversial topics. Hardly frivolous. Peter Harvey.

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