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Evasion as a management strategy

David Pilgrim posts….

At the time of writing, the Charity Commission is taking an active interest in the governance of the BPS. This is happening because it has received many complaints from BPS members about a range of topics, some of which we have reported on this blog. The Charity Commission is likely to find this process somewhat difficult. The complexities of the misgovernance that we have done our best to expose are one part of the challenge and the other is a culture of managerial evasiveness. 

At the time of writing, the Charity Commission is taking an active interest in the governance of the BPS. This is happening because it has received many complaints from BPS members about a range of topics, some of which we have reported on this blog. The Charity Commission is likely to find this process somewhat difficult. The complexities of the misgovernance that we have done our best to expose are one part of the challenge and the other is a culture of managerial evasiveness.

This always leads back, at some point, to the common malaise of governance failure. For all we know, things may be worse than we have uncovered, given our limited powers of investigation. What is clear though is that dark clouds are building slowly over the Board of Trustees, which at some point must be held responsible for the mess we are in. The Vice President may well have been wise to jump ship. Other Trustees have resigned, the Finance Director left after less than two years in post. Who would wish to seek election for President this year – will they want to shore up the old regime or face the task of managing a reckoning about misgovernance?

This not only reflects a current crisis but also a long-standing cultural norm, such as the lack of independence of the Trustees and their common conflicts of interest. Some is more recent and can be located in the culture of the New Public Management Model (NPM) that is common now in public bodies. As a charity the BPS is legally ambiguous in this regard; its responsibilities towards the public mean that it acts like a public body in much the same way as say the NHS. The long-term cultural inadequacies seem to have combined with the new management broom of the past couple of years as a tipping point to create manifest organisational dysfunction.

The NPM, augmented by new forms of digital governance (‘computer says “no”’), is commonly experienced by us all as citizens. Those working in higher education have suffered its consequences and enjoyed its advantages for a while now. This has been the case in the NHS for even longer. We have enough case studies now to know how and when it works well and when it does not. A particular problem in the case of the BPS is that the Senior Management Team (SMT) is dominated by individuals who are not psychologists and have no practical appreciation of academic cultural norms or the ethics of psychological practice. 

Accordingly, the BPS as a recent expression of this new managerialism, is a case of ‘could do very much better’. But that is our judgment and not those of those currently on the Board. From them, the message is very clear and repeated: ‘problem what problem?’. That is the guiding message or ‘party line’ we find when any matter is raised of concern with them. It is the reason this blog was established. It is the reason we contacted the Charity Commission with our dossier. It is the reason the latter now are taking action. It is also the reason why the Board at some point must be held to account for the mess we are in.

Dealing with those at the top of the BPS is like meeting a client for the first time in a therapy session who sees absolutely no point in being there because they have no problems in their life. That is, other than you, who, to their irritation, has other ideas. You are wasting their time. You have the problem not them. This is exactly how we are now experiencing the BPS and, empirically, their evasiveness takes on many forms. Whether Board members subjectively really believe that there is no fundamental problem in the way the Society is currently governed is unknown for now.

Malcontents and the faux system of complaints

Encountering the mysteries of the BPS complaints process for the first time is not for people of a nervous disposition or lack of determination. The current complaints procedure in the BPS is highly dysfunctional. Indeed, the Society itself acknowledges as much, when it has a stated commitment to ‘…undertaking a full root and branch review of the complaints process and the member code of conduct rules and procedures…” (email from SMT to Peter Harvey, 17 February 2021). However, to date there has been no sign that this intention will be put into practice.  A lack of trust in rhetorically-stated intentions is evidenced by the many examples that we have accumulated of the evasive tactics deployed by Board members, when challenged about any matter of concern (whether or not this is explicitly framed as a complaint). 

Sometimes complaints receive no reply at all, others are acknowledged but nothing further is heard, and yet others receive no more than a cryptic reference to a Society document, which fails to engage properly with the substance of the complaint. We have several email trails of this ‘no reply’ evasion and its variants. Sometimes when members express a concern about a problem, and they are requesting a needed respectful dialogue about it with a relevant responsible person in the BPS, the contact is converted into a complaint. We can evidence when this has happened on several occasions, even when the member is explicitly requesting that it is not a complaint.

Complaints might not be investigated, dismissed vacuously or merely viewed as an organisational irritant. A minute of the Board of Trustees Meeting of December 2020 states, “This year has seen a trend for the potential misuse (sic) of the complaints process, where it has been used to express a difference of opinion or dissatisfaction with a consultation outcome.”. The minute also states, “The volume of complaints is a strategic risk for the Society and was considered at the Risk Committee.”. 

Thus complaints are seen as a risk to the Society rather than matters to be addressed in their own right or as opportunities for organisational learning. Currently, the BPS is the opposite of what in the literature is called a ‘learning organization’. The minute reflects an explicit antagonism to the latter prospect. Complainants are merely malcontents to be batted away. This leaves us with an important sub-text: the BPS would work just fine if its members simply paid their subscriptions and remained silent or only offered praise not criticism.

When and if complaints are dealt with, it is common for the complaints team not to record who the investigating officer was or who within the BPS has provided a form of words being passed on by an administrative operative. The complaints team is at times being used inappropriately as a foil to evade managerial accountability. This is not fair on BPS employees operating below Board level, especially when they are being asked to investigate complaints against their own managers. 

We have not a single record of an occasion in which a member felt that the process and outcome of their complaint were satisfactory. To use a standard set by the Professional Standards Authority, the BPS complaints process currently is not characterised by ‘…sound decisions that are fair, transparent, consistent and explained clearly…’.

Cancellation as the ultimate evasion

Some members of the SMT at times refuse adamantly to discuss matters any more with those ordinary members who continue to be assertive about their concerns . Here are some very recent examples from March 2021.

I have been in communication with the BPS for the past year, at first with the CEO (not then ‘away from his office’). I have mainly complained about a lack of academic freedom, especially the creeping culture of censorship in the BPS. Recently I offered to follow up, on behalf of colleagues, the lack of a satisfactory response about the prescribing rights ‘consultation’. The Deputy CEO, Diane Ashby, replied by not addressing the content (about prescribing) but by using ad hominem logic.  She complained of my ‘…excessive level of correspondence…’ in recent times. Also, she complained that my mails were ‘…duplicates…’ because previous responses were not satisfactory. These responses according to Ms Ashby were ‘…fully answered…’. Of course, if that had been the case then I would have had no need to write again. She concluded that any more communication from her to me would be a waste of BPS resources and that she had instructed all staff not to reply to my mails. Given that this personal dismissal of me then completely side-stepped the content of the mail (the mystification about the consultation on extending prescribing rights to psychologists), this left us all none the wiser.

Accordingly, the evasion was picked up immediately by Pat Harvey. She too attempted to get a straight answer from Ms Ashby about the implausible account of the management of the prescribing rights consultation. Remember that over a hundred psychologists had written complaining about this matter, with zero response. A follow-up letter of concern about that situation was also then ignored. It was completely legitimate for us to continue to press for clarification. Pat Harvey’s request for clarification received no such clarification. Ms Ashby made it clear instead that she had nothing more to say on the prescribing matter to any member. This is hardly a shining example of the ‘openness and transparency’ boasted of rhetorically by the BPS Board.

A parallel process of blocking as the ultimate evasion of accountability was encountered by Peter Harvey when he tried to inquire about the continuing serious concerns about the peremptory closure of the memory and law group. A member of the SMT told him, after the commonly needed prompt, that his views were ‘…noted…’, and they would have to ‘…agree to disagree…’. Peter replied pointing out this was not a trivial difference of opinion but a grave matter implicating public protection. He received back a dismissal in style the same as above. The SMT member insisted that Peter’s concerns had been addressed and that the correspondence was now ‘…closed…’.

This cancellation scenario suggests a threadbare claim to be a learned organisation and certainly the antithesis of a learning organisation. The BPS now has a management culture which is rigid, defensive and high handed, closing down discussions that do not suit it and treating its members as irritants, obstructing a modernising ‘change programme’.  Change is certainly needed in the BPS. However, what we are arguing for and what is envisaged by these recently imported NPM advocates, with no wise appreciation of pure and applied psychology, are quite clearly different.

The rabbit hole of the complaints process

The focus from the SMT entailed in this blocking is on how unresolved concerns, followed up by needed multiple prompts from dissatisfied complainants, are simply an irritant and a tiresome opportunity cost. Accordingly, they are framed by the SMT as the complainants harassing BPS employees, rather than them being ongoing attempts, in good faith, to ensure accountability about unresolved concerns. The examples just given are the tip of the iceberg. Many colleagues have had similar experiences of being ignored or receiving responses full of blandishments that do not address the concern being raised. Many give up in confusion and some resign from the Society in despair. 

This mystification seems to be at its worst over the matter of whether the BPS does or does not investigate complaints against members alleged to have transgressed the code of conduct. The poor state of the complaints’ infrastructure in the BPS at present allows the SMT and other Board members to make arbitrary judgments about what or who is investigated. This has a slight Alice in Wonderland feel when an ordinary member (or a member of the public) tries to make a complaint. 

Some will simply not get off first base with this stock answer from the BPS websites FAQs, where we find this blunt admission: ‘…the Society does not have a function to investigate complaints against its members…’.  However, we do have some clear evidence that when the Board is minded, occasionally and selectively, it will investigate members. This is mystifying: does the BPS, or does it not, to use its own statement cited, ‘…have a function to investigate complaints….’?   And what criteria are being invoked, or interests at play, when this case is being investigated but another is ignored?

The arbitrariness at play here is striking and reveals a very particular symptom of the general problem of misgovernance. Either there is a complaints process that exists, with a properly resourced infrastructure of investigation and discipline or there is not. If it does exist, then why are all complaints not dealt with equally and thoroughly, with due process ensured? If it does not exist (as the FAQ citation claims), then why does the Board agree for some complaints to be investigated and not others? This means that it has arbitrary power, but it does not have credible authority (in its ethical sense).

Conclusion

Those of us producing BPSWatch.com hope that these grave shortcomings about members raising concerns in the Society, will be addressed thoroughly by the Charity Commission. We also hope that the upcoming assessment by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) of the application by the BPS to have an accredited register, will take into serious consideration the governance chaos and the structural shortcomings evident. We have no information as to whether or not the BPS has admitted to its own internal difficulties when making the application. 

What is clear to us is that, for now at least, the cultural norms of the Society could not offer confidence to the public about its complaints policy, which is a complete mess. We will continue to make our views about the ongoing problems in the BPS clear to both the Charity Commission and the PSA.

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