David Pilgrim posts….
On this blog we have often noted an irony or paradox. The legitimation crisis now facing the BPS is taking place in a psychological society. At first glance we might expect psychologists, more than other professional groups, to have some insight into their conduct. However, just as doctors all get sick and die, the old adage of ‘physician heal thyself’ was always an accusation and never a realistic expectation.
Our book length analysis of the crisis (Pilgrim, 2023) points out that it is constituted by a few dimensions. Prior to 2000 the same names were recurring at the top of the BPS (oligarchical trend). After 2000 new general managers arrived with no necessary understanding of psychology or of academic norms. Recently a culture of self-protective deceit has emerged to protect this amalgamated cabal. This has culminated in the past ten years in an arrogant leadership culture, seemingly indifferent to its own amoral norms. A broken complaints process and wilful blindness have been used to avoid organisational transparency. Multi-signed letters of complaint from senior practitioners to the CEO and Presidents have been contemptuously ignored.
In some ways the pay-offs of power (and in the case of managers, their salaries as well) might explain in simple terms why the BPS is in the mess it is. This formulation requires little more than a Skinnerian account or its extension into social exchange theory (Homans, 1958). However, there is a layer of functioning which this would miss out. Whilst we might say of the cabal now running the Society ‘Well they would do and say that wouldn’t they?’ many other questions remain.
How have they got away with it for so long? Why have heads not rolled? Why is the CEO still in post when he should have gone the very day the fraud was revealed about expenses paid to his PA which he signed off? Who in HR has been held to account for hiring a fraudster with past form? Why did The Psychologist fail completely to report the crisis in the Society to the membership and general public? Why were they not informed of the damning findings of Korn Ferry and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (Korn Ferry, 2021; Farrow and Potkins, 2020)? In terms of governance, who actually appoints members of the Board of Trustees, or recently, and for the very first time, three new trustees, and an independent lay chair, from outside the BPS? What criteria are used and why is the process not transparent? Why them and why now? In terms of BPS policy making who made the decisions to defend and perpetuate heavily criticised BPS policies that put children at risk and betray the victims of child sexual abuse (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022)?
Why does the BPS claim not to investigate complaints against individual members but it made a convenient exception, when expelling a brave and honourable reforming President-Elect, Nigel MacLennan, on trumped up charges? How come that the chair, at that time, of the Board of Trustees (BoT) rationalised this kangaroo court purge of a critic very publicly on YouTube, and before he had even had his appeal? Who appointed those hearing the appeal, using what criteria of independence? There have been no repercussions for either her or her supportive cowardly colleagues on the Board (McGuinness, 2021), whilst their victim has suffered severe effects as so many whistle-blowers continue to do.
All of these questions go on and on, unanswered or unanswerable, for one simple reason: for the past fifty years at least, there has been no transparency of decision-making at the top of the BPS. The BoT has been appointed from within and those appointments have been made on a grace and favour basis by the oligarchs already running the Society. Some of those self-serving oligarchs, such as Ray Miller, have operated in plain sight and admitted that they were indeed ‘BPS junkies’ (his own phrase) (Miller and Cornford, 2006).
In an episodic ritual of fawning self-congratulation they claim that they have been servants of others, rather than serving their own career interests. For example, we find this from one oligarch about another. Ann Colley, was unique as both a CEO for a while and also BPS President. This appeared in The Psychologist (always on hand for a PR exercise for the oligarchs) about Colley in 2017, when she was retiring from the role of CEO. It was offered by another oligarch, ex-President Carole Allan, herself by then the Honorary General Secretary of the Society:
Ann served twice as Honorary General Secretary. The first time was for three years from 1989, when membership of the Society stood at 13,000. The second time was from 2003 to 2008. In between she was elected to serve as President, which office she held in 1993/94. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/always-cheerful-and-positive
In light of the clear evidence of dysfunction and corruption in the BPS the word ‘served’ is replete with many possible meanings. Have these ‘BPS junkies’ served the public interest or that of membership democracy? In what way were they ever accountable, to either the public or the membership? Why over decades of being in power at the top have they all failed totally to bring the governance of the Society in line with expectations of a well-run charity? Did this problem even cross their minds, until the Charity Commission challenged them about legal compliance and good governance? These important questions also seem to have rarely crossed the minds of those they claim to have ‘served’. Thus, while the self-interest of the ‘BPS junkies’ is easy to discern, what is psychologically intriguing is the largely silent and complicit role of the membership.
A timid and docile membership
We have explored the above problem of lack of accountability at different times on this blog and have garnered much praise privately for our efforts. We have repeatedly been sent new ‘bullets to fire’ from angry and disaffected members. This layer of support reveals another psychological aspect of the drama or black comedy of the BPS and its organisational dysfunction. But again more questions are prompted. Why are more members not angry about the disrepute into which their Society has fallen? And why are those who are so angry and vociferous privately not publicly firing their own bullets?
If we take the self-serving role of the cabal for granted (or for our purposes bracket it for now) and turn to the active collusion and passive complicity of the membership, there is certainly a moral dimension to all of this. Cowardice, but more importantly indifference, are part of the picture, as is the barely veiled tendency of some to simply give up in despair and leave the Society, often quietly no longer renewing their membership subscriptions.
In some cases, those departures have been explicitly organised on a collective basis. Examples of this molar fragmentation occurred in 1963 with the formation of the Association of Educational Psychologists (which is also a trade union), with the formation of the Association for Business Psychologists in 2000 and in 2017 with the formation of the Association of Clinical Psychologists. The explanation was the same: the BPS was out of touch with its members and its processes were arcane and served the interests of a few at the expense of the many.
As for those remaining, their non-critical passivity, which is for now giving the cabal a political free pass, might in part be explained by factors other than selfish motives. For example, if The Psychologist does not report key events or permit discussion of difficult policy matters, which include policy capture by some members at the expense of others, then ignorance is abroad in those paying their fees. The cabal and the editor of ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’ have very knowingly kept the membership in the dark.
An example of this was when The Psychologist dutifully posted the Pollyanna piece from the CEO and the President installed selectively to replace MacLennan. This did not mention the fraud, the arson, the shameful YouTube piece fronted by McGuinness or the damning reports from Korn Ferry and NCVO (Carpenter and Bajwa, 2022). ‘Forget the past’, they were saying but why did members not question this glib bullshit? Or if they did, why did they not do so publicly? However, many have told us that they fail to get their views/letters published in The Psychologist. The BPS publication was castigated by David Murphy, when he resigned as Vice-President, complaining that his reasons for going were not reported in full. In response to this block, he took to Twitter to explain and publish there his resignation letter in full (https://twitter.com/ClinPsychDavid/status/1491509477794799620?s=20). Murphy has subsequently resorted to Twitter to make other damning criticisms:
The expenses scandal at the BPS is shocking and sad on so many levels. Now the trial has concluded, the press have published the details, but still no apology from BPS to members. This is the case I mentioned in my letter of resignation as Vice President. (https://twitter.com/ClinPsychDavid/status/1491508896095219712?s=20)
The BPS AGM is Weds 27th July. The annual report appeared on the website at the end of last week with no mention on the homepage, no email to members, nothing on Twitter. Even if you managed to find it, the deadline to submit a question for the AGM was the previous week! (2/3) (https://twitter.com/ClinPsychDavid/status/1551193990741037056?s=20)
Murphy ends this Twitter exchange with the comment “I am seriously thinking this might be my last year of membership.”.
Apart from ignorance in the membership, to some extent perpetuated by the lack of transparency and occasional outright censorship, there is also the role sometimes, of fear. Individuals have contacted us to report how their persistent attempts to engage with the society have been shut down along with implications that they were “bullying staff”. Some of those running courses reliant on BPS validation have offered us support privately, but they have demurred from speaking out about their points of sympathy for our critique. Many were appalled by the way in which MacLennan was expelled but their views were not publicly available. This was also the case in relation to our specific critiques of policy capture in relation to the gender document and the policy on law and memory. Both have put the public at risk and any honest scrutiny of these documents confirms that point (Harvey, 2023).
Many members know that, when taken in the round, this is a scandalous scenario but they either leave or they stay, but typically their voices are not heard. We do not know how many people are resigning from the BPS and sending a note of their dissatisfaction, and as things stand, the BPS will never tell us. Our wider zeitgeist reflects this. From the election of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, to the arrest of anti-monarchy supporters and self-censorship in the academy, we are living in a time in which healthy protest and deliberative democracy are being actively suppressed time after time. It is as if most ordinary people are living through a period of learned helplessness and those in power are the grateful beneficiaries. Self-interested elites, including those claiming to protect democratic integrity, are also now part of the problem, cuing the next section
The Charity Commission
BPS Watch and many other members (including several elected Presidents) have, in the past few years, sent screeds of material to the Commission, with evidence that the BPS is being poorly governed and that it lacks transparency. Those in the Commission know that the Society has had no proper public oversight since 1965. They know that censorship is common in the Society; they were told this before the Korn Ferry report also relayed evidence of it. They know that the fraud was not the first symptom of poor financial control. They know that Presidents trying to effect needed governance reforms have been punished.
For a while the Commission was ‘engaged’ with the managers of the Society but that has now petered out. What did it achieve? The answer is that a few new independent trustees have now been appointed, still leaving the rest of on the Board as faux trustees. The term ‘faux’ is appropriate here because they are called trustees but they are appointed in a non-transparent way and they have conflicts of interests by being Society insiders not independent of its operations and goals . As I noted above, how were even the newcomers appointed (who are now from the outside), using which criteria? And, for that matter, how have all and any of the faux trustees been appointed onto the Board since 1965? Who knows the answer to these questions? It is certainly not the average member of the Society or the general public.
There is widespread evidence that regulators including the Charity Commission, but also those which relate to the media and the public utilities are themselves, like the organisations such as the BPS that they are meant to regulate, “captured”. It is a depressing scenario. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_capture
The future of the BPS remains precarious. Its legitimation crisis is unresolved. Some needed reforms to governance have been installed following Charity Commission pressure, resisted by the cabal for a good while, but they do not go far enough. The old guard remain largely in charge on both the SMT and BoT. We will now be interested to see whether the small new broom of a few independent trustees are powerful enough to resist becoming apologists for a body that is neither a learning or learned organisation. The next few months will tell us.
Carpenter, K. and Bajwa, S. (2022) From the President and Chief Executive. The Psychologist January 4-5.
Conway, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2022): The Policy Alignment of the British False Memory Society and the British Psychological Society Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 23, 2,165-176.
Farrow, A. and Potkins, J. (2020) British Psychological Society: Strategy Consultancy Set Up Phase Report November 2020 London: NCVO
Harvey, P. (2023) Policy Capture (1) at the BPS: the Gender Guidelines. In Pilgrim, D. (ed) British Psychology in Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction Oxford: Phoenix Books.
Homans, G. C. (1958). Social behavior as exchange. American Journal of Sociology, 63, 597–606.
Korn Ferry (2021) British Psychological Society: Member Network Review Leicester: British Psychological Society
McGuinness, C. (2021) The Society is at a Crossroads The Psychologist June 34, 4-5.
Miller, R. and Cornford, T. (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? The Psychologist April, 19, 20-21.
Pilgrim, D. (2023) (ed) British Psychology in Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction Oxford: Phoenix Books.