Governance

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

David Pilgrim posts….

The recent description of the BPS as a ‘stultifying bureaucracy’, characterised by ‘administrative incompetence and deliberate procrastination’, seems to be completely fair comment. The evidence to confirm the conclusion, using a range of case studies, was sent in our dossier to the Charity Commission, which I summarised in the earlier posting The Mess We Are In. 

Do all charities descend into these cultural norms: are they all on the same tramlines of determination? Possibly the tendency is there in for all, but clearly some of them function better than others. Moreover, when the whistle is blown on problems such as those in the dossier, they do not all react in the same way. As in all open human systems, there is variability of outcome and so precise predictions are offered at our peril. So, we might ask, what is peculiar about the BPS? Its concrete singularity as a dysfunctional charity bears examination. 

A personal look back

My own starting point is a memory from long ago when I had just qualified as a clinical psychologist. I was at a conference and was chatting in the bar with Don Bannister about the BPS (a body I had recently joined but knew little about). For those who do not know the name, he was a leader in personal construct psychology, who never shied away from criticising his own discipline. Don was a smart and impish intellectual. 

This was in the late 1970s, and I vaguely saw the Society as probably a stuffy but benign organisation, whereas Don had already seen it for what it was. He was of the view that on paper the BPS was indeed a democratic membership organisation. However, in actual practice, this was not the case. The reason, he argued, was that only a self-selecting group of psychologists could be bothered with its bureaucratic intricacies (for their own personality or careerist reasons). They then got their feet under the table and would not budge for years on end. 

Today that picture still remains obvious and is why I describe the organisation not just as a ‘bureaucracy’ but also an ‘oligarchy’. I would re-frame the combination as this: it is an oligarchy that uses bureaucratic means to protect the status quo and ward off critical scrutiny. In Orwellian fashion it uses the rhetoric of democracy and transparency to do the very opposite of its claims. Our dossier offers extensive evidence for that conclusion. 

Another rhetorical point to note is that ‘recycled’ bureaucratic authority is not declared publicly in a state of shame about personally monopolising a democratic structure. Instead, these oligarchs see themselves clearly as serving the organisation and its membership; a point they make proudly on their CVs and personal websites.  (The bankrolling of some of them came to an end just a few years ago, but the status implications remain the same for those working for expenses only.) Of course, some people genuinely move in and on quickly, in a spirit of true democracy but many do not.

As confirmatory evidence that Don Bannister had got it about right, another but more recent memory comes to mind. In 2015, with John Hall and Graham Turpin I edited a book (sponsored by both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History & Philosophy Section), Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives. It was launched at the DCP Conference and was discussed enthusiastically. 

Many of the contributors to the book, who were on the brink of launching the break away group the Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP), came to the launch. However, out of disdain for the legitimacy of the DCP and the BPS they refused to pay the conference fee.  These aging rebels were of the understandable view that they had written their contributions pro bono so why pay? They pitched up anyway and, in a proud act of delinquency, they set up a table and offered their very own prepared laminated badges for those going into the room. The game was up; these were psychologists who themselves had played by the rules of the bureaucratic oligarchy for many years and could not take it anymore.

Cultural history

Here are some ideas about history to account for the above state of affairs. First, from the outset, the emerging autonomy of psychology in Britain tussled with the established disciplines in the academy of philosophy and medicine. Both, in their own way, tried to constrain its development or colonise its agenda. This created a scenario of assertiveness (and some might say arrogance) for the fledgling discipline of psychology in the early 20th century. The knowledge base of the discipline may have been contested but the self-confidence of all concerned, whatever their competing views, soon became evident. 

Second, until the second half of the 20th century academic psychologists in the Society dominated its leadership, placing those going off to professionalise their wares in applied settings in a secondary position. This led to a paradox of the latter legitimising psychology in public life externally but the Society itself being more dominated by academic leaders internally. A complaint then of applied psychologists was that they had less power than academics and their concerns were not taken as seriously. The BPS was established as a learned society primarily, with its unifying characteristic of being an academic discipline. Its professional applications, which eventually were expressed in its Divisional structure seen today, were self-confident but they also, of necessity, played second fiddle politically to the legacy of organisational history.  

The formation of the ACP was one eventual culmination of the contradictions of this legacy. I assume similar imagined futures for applied psychologists in the other Divisions are now abroad.  The tension was manifested by a trend over time for applied psychologists to put themselves forwards more for the role of President, though this did not quieten disaffection in Divisional ranks. Moreover, Presidents, whatever their background in the discipline, have tended to ensure cultural reproduction, rather than challenge fundamental organisational roles and norms. When challenge has occurred, it has been met with systemic resistance and personal animosity to the attempted new broom. The genuinely challenging President is a marked man or woman in the BPS.

A recent example of the continuing dominance of academic psychologists being in tension with the views of applied psychologists was the Memory and Law debacle. Collusion between academics on the Research Board ensured that experimentalists favouring the claims of the False Memory Society had taken precedence over the evidence from applied psychology of widespread child sexual abuse in Society. The rapid closure of the group meant that the latter cautions were not to be fully reviewed, with the public protection implications left free floating. As a relevant aside here, I attended the tense exploratory meeting to relaunch this now aborted group in 2018. I applied to be on the substantive group, in order to ensure a proper discussion of the scale and mental health consequences of child sexual abuse. My application to join the substantive group was rejected, despite the fact that I had just finished the book Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? I was given no explanation by a senior manager, who was not a psychologist. She has now left and. I have been unable to ascertain who advised her to reject me and on what grounds. 

Third, the separation of the applied from academic wings culminated in the Society abandoning a unified investigatory and disciplinary system to ensure public protection. This then left the Society with no clear role, embarrassingly leaving the matter of ethical impropriety to regulatory bodies like the HCPC on the one hand or employers on the other. Justice for complainants remains then a hit and miss affair.  We are in the process of preparing a fuller post about this. If selective management attention is in doubt about this gap in the system, witness how the complaints process is applied assiduously in some cases, while others are just ignored. This is not just inefficiency (though it includes that). It is mainly about interest work that inflects what is investigated properly and what is treated in a tawdry fashion. For example, anyone seriously challenging the status quo about a flawed policy is simply ignored (emails are not answered) or the complaint peters out, with no serious discussion of learning from the process by those running the Society. If a training film was needed on how not to be a ‘learning organisation’, the BPS would be an excellent start. 

Fourth, in the past few years the more general shift in organisations to the New Public Management Model and its increasing reliance on digital governance (‘computer says “no”’) has been obvious in the Society. This brings with it the same problems witnessed first in the NHS and then in higher education, with a new management class emerging to control all others. Once this emerges, considerations about the power, status and salaries of this new management elite predominate in decision-making. A ponderous slow-moving bureaucracy then is ensured. Culturally now there is the added sense of being in a lesser amusing episode of The Thick of It, with the unending obsession of BPS leaders with control over both information and people. In this case, ipso facto, this has been at the expense of openness and transparency and a healthy version of membership democracy. Moreover, unlike in the NHS and higher education, where senior managers have often actually had some proper role in their organisations over many years, in the Third Sector we witness a form of managerialism, which can be readily disconnected from the content of the employing body.

Democracy and managerialism in tension

Why should senior managers in the BPS genuinely care about outcomes preferred by the membership, or ensure lay representation within management structures like the Board of Trustees? Like politicians, their short-term interest is mainly in their own domain of power and influence. Other communities of interest might undermine managerialism and so they are instrumentally ignored, or control sought over them. Unlike its ordinary members, managers have no long-term commitment to the Society. The departed employee who kept me out of the Memory and Law group was symptomatic of this here today, gone tomorrow, managerialist culture. Witness the history of the recently and suddenly departed Finance Director, who moved on to a completely different charity before Christmas. As usual, the membership had to find out about this fact; they were not informed.

The oligarchy I describe here and in previous postings then reflects that convergence of interest between a core group of elected or appointed psychologists hanging around in the Society, for years on end, with these career managers.  Thus the recycled authority of the same names (tipped off to me in the late 1970s by Don Bannister) no longer represents the single elite group in the Society. It is now jostling for position with the new senior managers, leaving ordinary members and the general public demoted in importance or out in the cold. 

For those who are prepared to enter the Machiavellian world of this new political amalgam, and work hard at that insinuation, there are certainly gains to be made. This has been evident in the capture of sub-systems by some activists from within identity politics. Witness their persistent and recurring role over the BPS policies on gender, prescribing rights and the Memorandum of Understanding about conversion therapy. In some cases, this has meant policy indolence in the face of legal circumstances. 

For example, the Judicial Review in December 2020 changed the law on biomedical paediatric gender transition. The BPS should have immediately reviewed its policies of relevance but has refused to do so, despite representations. Its magazine The Psychologist instead of reporting the Judicial Review as a game changing legal event and exploring its ethical implications for research and practice instead issued a single pre-prepared biased account, in defiance of the unanimous judicial ruling. Witness also how managers in the BPS have signally failed to rectify the implications of this policy capture in the public interest, with most members probably being unaware of the chicanery involved. This same point applies to those representing the biased interests of the False Memory Society, noted above, embedded in the Research Board over many years.

What Next?

Where is all this going? One scenario is more of the same. The Board of Trustees might continue with its ‘problem what problem?’ approach. It will just carry on protecting the incumbent interests of the oligarchy, with its wilful blindness to endemic poor governance. (An exception here was the resignation recently of the Deputy President, citing the latter as the main reason.) Another is that more and more members will leave in frustration and this might coalesce into new organisational formations, in addition to the ACP. If this is a large fracture, with applied psychology setting up shop elsewhere, then the BPS may need to re-name itself something like ‘The Society for Psychology Graduates’. A final scenario is that a root and branch reform of the Society will ensue, to at last ensure its proper governance, prompted by a combination of press interest and Charity Commission engagement and investigation.

Watch this space.

2 thoughts on “How Did We Get Into This Mess?”

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