David Pilgrim posts….
Readers of The Psychologist (first edition of the New Year) may or may not be inspired by the joint piece from Katherine Carpenter (BPS President) and Sarb Bajwa (BPS CEO), who are offering to lead us into a shiny new future. Your credulity is likely to rely on your answers to two starting questions. First, do you believe that the future of any system can be invented without reference to the reality of its past? Second, do you have grounds for trusting those currently leading the Society? My view is that both invite a negative response and here is why.
The future detached from the past
In open systems (and all human systems are open systems) future predictions are difficult. Nothing can be ruled out or ruled in for certain, apart from our individual deaths. However, systems theorists making this point (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Wilden, 1972) also recognise that there are ‘patterns that connect through time’. We can only make sense of the present by a careful description and appraisal of the past. If we do not, then we do so at our peril. The well-known cliché and truism is the adage from George Santayana, that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An equally relevant insight came from George Orwell in 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” In this case, those controlling the present are silencing the past and imagining a future that ipso facto cannot be gainsaid.
The piece from Carpenter and Bajwa was accompanied by a reassuring photograph of them side by side. This must be a very recent snap, because the CEO has just returned to his office after a year’s suspension, in the wake of the large fraud being investigated internally, and externally by the Leicestershire police. For those still in the dark, the initial magistrate’s hearing of the ex-employee is in January. The progress of the case will be tracked by journalists but an account in The Psychologist is probably unlikely.
Carpenter, was installed to replace the stitched up and spat out President Elect, Nigel MacLennan, during Bajwa’s paid absence. So this new alliance at the top of the organisation has leapt into action quickly to make the best of a bad job. Remember that Carpenter’s election debarred the membership voting for any of their peers as is the norm; only those on the Board of Trustees (BoT) or Senate could be candidates. The BoT just made this rule up to suit themselves at the time. In my view, and that of many now, Carpenter is an illegitimate President.
Maybe this sounds harsh or unfair, until we place the joint statement in a wider historical context; the very exercise being avoided by the two sources of central power in the Society, for now. It is silent about the details of both the current political mess and its relevant antecedents. The usual vague statements about shared difficulties in recent times are there. It is true that we have all been in the same Covid-19 boat, even if some of us have had a better cabin or window seat. But what about the political meltdown of 2020? Did we all just imagine it? Carpenter and Bajwa are coy about this, so this is what happened, for the understandably uninformed.
Bajwa was suspended and then returned after 12 months (sic). The BoT fully supported his return in November. However, note carefully, the Board are not independent Trustees. Since 1965 the latter status has been totally absent in the BPS. That is (one reason) why the Charity Commission remain ‘engaged’ with the BPS , though the former are being slow in their efforts and the latter seem to be oblivious to the moral and legal implications of their non-compliance to date. The BoT are, though, accountable for their responsibilities in relation to financial probity, so the fraud must have been an unnerving scenario for them. Even resigning is not an answer because Trustees still have a ‘legacy liability’. Leaving the sinking ship is not a personal solution for Trustees, even if it may have a protective value for employees who have moved on.
With regard to the elephant in the room of independence, those involved in a charitable organization (as employees or volunteers) should be accountable to Trustees. Instead, in the BPS the ‘Trustees’ are appointed from within the organization or (in the case of the Presidential triumvirate elected but from the membership not the external public). Thus they may be Trustees, as self-defined since 1965 in the Royal Charter of the Society, but they are not properly independent and so they cannot offer impartial oversight, in accordance with expectations of good governance in a charity today.
Even for well-intentioned people, of good faith, in the BPS these faux-trustees will inevitably have conflicts of interest. The latter are endemic to the culture of the BPS. An independent Trustee, in any charity, is one who is able to walk away from the role with no personal implications for their income, career or vested interests. This basic expectation is missing in the BPS and it has had, and continues to have, dysfunctional consequences.
Thus a structural flaw inherited from 1965 has now afforded a dysfunctional leadership culture. This well predated the additional dynamics triggered by the installation of a highly paid Senior Management Team after 2018. It is tempting to reduce the recent crisis to its appearance. Yes some of them are carpetbaggers with little or no historical understanding of British psychology or academic values. They may well flit in and out of the Society. Yes, they indulged in arm wrestling with the BoT about who was running the BPS, that is until the meltdown created by the fraud. Then they had to spin their way out of the problem together. Yes, they colluded with the BoT in a kangaroo court to ruin the career of an honest man trying to deal with the misgovernance he had correctly identified. The scapegoating of the whistle blower Nigel MacLennan, on trumped up charges, served to create an ephemeral moment of seeming unity at the top.
All of this is true. If it is not true then a full and frank account from the SMT or BoT for the membership would be most welcomed and we will post it on this blog. However, the systemic problem in the BPS (Bateson’s ‘pattern that connects through time’) predates 2018. If a determined historian, forensic accountant or investigative journalist were to try to describe events in their entirety in the Society in the past 30 years, they would be considerably challenged for two reasons.
First, a letter of permission would be required to access all the minutes of all the Boards (but especially the BoT). Second, and of more relevance, if that permission were granted they would find minutes that were skeletal, with important information absent or massaged to create the correct impression. This is not just about post hoc redactions. It is also what was chosen by those at meetings to record. Most readers will have witnessed the ‘this is not for minuting’ moment in many meetings in their careers. However, that tendency will have been in overdrive in the past decades of the BPS for its leaders to maintain, albeit implausibly, a ‘problem what problem?’ stance for so long.
Whether we examine the official accounts of the old oligarchy running the BPS (e.g. The Psychologist, 2017; The Psychologist, 2006) or the SMT driven-impression management more recently (to ‘control the narrative’) there has been no bad news forthcoming. When it has been hinted at, it has either been diversionary (e.g. forget the mess we created and look at our shared victimhood about Covid-19) or so vague that it is meaningless.
For example, when in that ill-advised performance Carol McGuinness read out the disparagement of Nigel MacLennan in advance of his appeal, there were vague allusions to a challenging year and being at a cross-roads. This YouTube clip available to the general public, link conveniently provided by the ever-biddable editor of The Psychologist, was an extraordinary exercise in bullshit.
Did McGuinness tell us why the year had been challenging? No. Did she tell us what the directions on the signpost said? No. Did she tell us the relevant substance about why MacLennan has been expelled? No. Did she mention that the BPS was facing a scandal about a large fraud? No. Did she explain just how the BoT was going to respond properly and in good faith to the requests for governance change from the Charity Commission? No. Did she explain why it was worth spending £6 million on an ill-formulated ‘Change Programme’, installed without full consultation by the SMT? No. Did she mention the NCVO observation about a toxic culture in the BPS? No. Did she mention the resignation of David Murphy and his concerns about governance and finance? No. The BPS lost three elected Presidents in a period of two months in 2021, making Oscar Wilde’s comments on losing two parents a lesser joke in comparison. The list of silences goes on and on.
This context of obfuscation provides ordinary members with few grounds for vertical trust in the BPS. It is important to contrast that problem with horizontal trust. Those in say local branches or Sections tend to develop good collegial relationships with their volunteer peers and they have to suffer little or no bullshit from one another. That horizontal trust might even at times tempt some sub-systems to break away from the main body (see my conclusions below).
Bullshit then is everything that is said and not said for the powerful to remain in power. What chance then our imaginary researcher being able to grasp the recent historical picture of how the BPS has functioned at the centre in the past few decades? This question has both an empirical aspect, with its implied methodological challenge, and an ethical one about the emergence of a longstanding culture of amorality at the centre of the BPS.
The History of Psychology Centre
If you go on to the BPS website one of the little boxes you can open is about the History of Psychology Centre. This is a personal interest (I am a past Chair of the History & Philosophy Section and its current Honorary Secretary). In that Section we are keen to encourage a serious (i.e. bullshit- free) interest in the history of British psychology and the BPS. That part of the website has many gaps and there is clearly still much un-archived material. This is not the fault of the few people doing the archiving to date, who have been over-worked and underpaid.
If we dig deeper we find a concern about political and budgetary priorities in the BPS. The Centre has struggled on for years now with a part-time archivist, technically challenged by a transitional period between hard copy and digital material to deal with. The BoT (via the Research Board) has done absolutely nothing to reinvigorate the Centre and the SMT have ignored it as a political priority. It needs more than one full time archivist and an academic director, whose role independence is guaranteed in advance. (Given the compromised role of the editor of The Psychologist, this should stand as a warning about the need for an arms-length approach to a scholarly history of the Society.)
This point about reinvigorating the Centre and its guaranteed academic protection has been made several times from those of us in the History & Philosophy Section to no avail. The Centre remains in a parlous state (the part-time archivist has recently left and not been replaced). Compare the lack of funding of the Centre with other BoT preferences, such as the controversial £6 million change programme, paid lawyers to advise on the expulsion of critics or the campaign to regain registration powers by encouraging new members in the mental health workforce, who are not psychology graduates. The costs noted here are direct (large amounts of the members’ subscriptions or the Society’s reserves) and indirect (the transactional time involved for all concerned). The History of Psychology Centre has been ignored as an organizational priority in this context of tellingly preferred projects.
A final ideological reflection
Here is a final summary thought then on the ideological point I am making here. This is gleaned from what is called, in the technical jargon of philosophy, an ‘omissive critique’ (Pilgrim, 2020). Why do we ask some questions but not others? Why do we invest time, effort and money on some goals and policies but not others? Why do we support and enlarge this part of the organizational structure but not that part? Turning that skeptical reflection on what has been happening in the BPS, and which priorities its leaders have emphasized at the expense of others, the shiny vision from Katherine Carpenter and Sarb Bajwa bears legitimate scrutiny.
They are part of a cabal that for now is letting the History of Psychology Centre wither on the vine, while retaining it on the website for its semiotic value of creating the impression of a learned society. They have other pressing priorities, willfully ignoring the advice of Santayana and evading the foreboding view of Orwell. They want us to look forwards not back, because that is politically expedient to preserve the status quo for those enjoying power in a purported learned Society with diminishing credibility. Moreover, the BPS seems to be incapable for now of being a learningorganization.
A learning organization requires honesty not bullshit, and candour about past failures (Sheaff and Pilgrim, 2006). It has to be ‘an organization with a memory’, not one of conveniently contrived amnesia and the crude escapism about imagined futures. Without this honest reckoning about the past, the BPS will be in terminal decline as a credible body, claiming to represent British psychology in its disciplinary and professional forms.
In 2000 many in the Division of Occupational Psychology left the Society to form the Association of Business Psychologists (renamed ‘Psychology’ in 2003). In 2017 disaffected members in the Division of Clinical Psychology left to form the Association of Clinical Psychologists. Both groups were tired of dealing with an arcane bureaucracy, with its self-interested leadership, which had lost its way and was insensitive to the needs of its members. That fractious fracturing may be the harbinger of a dark future for the Society, no matter what the illegitimate President and the returning CEO are saying in their Pollyanna piece in the New Year of 2022.
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps To An Ecology of Mind San Francisco: Chandler.
Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.
Sheaff, R. and Pilgrim, D. (2006) Can learning organisations survive in the newer NHS? Implementation Science 1, 27.
The Psychologist (2022) Joint statement to the BPS membership from the President-Elect Katherine Carpenter and the CEO, Sarb Bajwa. January 4-5.
The Psychologist (2017) Always cheerful and positive. Carole Allan’s appreciation for the British Psychological Society’s retiring Chief Executive. November, 30, 2.
The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.
Wilden, A. (1972) System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange London: Tavistock.