David Pilgrim posts…
BPS bullshit has features that illustrate the phenomenon more generally, but are also peculiar to it as a case study in collective deceit and inauthenticity (Christensen, et al, 2019; Frankfurt, 2005). The general features include an indifference to the truth and a concerted effort to massage reality in favour of those in power. The specific features include the recurring silence in the pages of The Psychologist about any news that might expose the grubby crisis in the Society, as well as video propaganda from the Board of Trustees about the President Elect, who they stitched up and spat out. Latterly this BPS bullshit has been joined by Pollyanna blandishments about a new dawn from the illegitimately elected new President Elect, which makes no allusion at all to the wreckage of the past.
Keeping the customers satisfied…..
Recently members (note notionally they are still members), received this in their inbox from ‘the BPS’:
“Important information about our new Customer Relationship Management system
We’re getting in touch to let you know that our new Customer Relationship Management system will be launching on Monday 25 October.
This will allow you to manage your membership from one self-service portal on our website, and help us to provide you with a better customer service experience.
To make the change happen, we need to transfer data from our current database across to the new system.
To ensure that this process goes smoothly, from 4pm on Tuesday 12 October there will be some things that you’ll be unable to do within your account.
As you may have seen, we’ve been reaching out to members asking you to update your contact details ahead of the switchover. From 4pm on 12 October, you’ll be able to log in to your account and access the BPS website as normal, but you won’t be able to update details such as your email address, contact details and password.
We will also be unable to take any online subscription payments during this period, while we make sure that our finance infrastructure is integrated with the new system.
For our online communities, events platforms, BPS Learn and our online shop, you will be able to log in with your existing details and access their features as normal, but you won’t be able to update your details within them.
We’re sorry for the inconvenience of a restricted service over the coming days and the short notice about the freeze period. If you have any concerns about how this might affect your membership, or any urgent issues created by the limited functionality, please get in touch with our customer support team at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 0116 2549568.
We’ll be in touch again soon with details on how to register for the new portal – thank you for your continued support and understanding while we make this change.”
Fascinating and unnerving stuff
This is fascinating and unnerving stuff. Who are the ‘we’? Why are ‘we’ sort of apologising for an inconvenience? Does this imply members habitually understand and appreciate what ‘convenience’ means? Is membership democracy now defined merely by technical efficiency in a digital system? ‘We’ are ‘reaching out’ (Four Tops style) to members but is this for a hand of friendship or cooperation or opinion or compliance? Will democracy and the individual member’s quality of life be enhanced by their new opportunity to ‘manage’ their membership “…from one self-service portal on our website, and help us to provide you with a better customer service experience…”?
Well that all sounds very considerate and ‘customer focused’. We are all now used to this stuff from our dealings with any company or utility in our lives. ‘Is it OK if I call you David?’ from the phone operative you have never met and never will, in a brief encounter of the commercial kind. I am sure that the junior employees, unnamed in the team, just like underpaid phone operatives, are good people committed to their work. But what is the ideological function of creating this illusion of person-centredness, today, in the organisational car crash of the BPS run by a ruthless cabal?
The latter have, in their wisdom, asserted their mandate to call members ‘customers’. This is politically disruptive because it turns the historical assumption of collective decision making, and the possibility of eventual membership democracy (still woefully unfulfilled), into a system of atomised consumers. That shift of organisational ideology seals off the membership from having a collective voice. It is one of many aspects now of the members being kept in the dark, reinforcing a tradition already established in a more amateurish way by the old oligarchy. The New Public Management model now puts the seal on that process and gives it a plausible gloss.
The tone of the citation above is a mixture of assured declaration (there is no alternative – this is the way things run nowadays in the BPS, take it or leave it) and ingratiation. It is also both informal in style and totally impersonal. No author is attached and no named source of the policy is identified.
Whether members make complaints or try to actually engage with employees of the BPS about a serious matter, the typical experience is one of mystification. Communications are unsigned or the person (sometimes simply using their first name) replies on behalf of a ‘team’. The rationale for a reply and the policies or procedures governing them may have no transparent source.
There is a semblance of friendliness above from the ‘team’ but no clear grounds for establishing actual personal trust, in an objective context, in which the trustworthiness of what is happening at the centre of the BPS is now under such strain. Do ordinary employees (just like ordinary members) really appreciate the trouble the Society is now in? Why are members and employees not talking about the crisis openly? Is that from genuine ignorance, whistling in the dark or fiddling while Rome burns?
Atomised consumers, personal ‘journeys’ and nervous birds scattering
Some members may wonder why the strategic rhetoric of a ‘journey’ has been so close to the heart of the leadership of the BPS in recent years. One answer is that such a comforting narrative diverts our attention from the pressing need for deliberative membership democracy. Pollyanna vagueness ensures that critical reflection is not required. We all just need to get on board the management-inspired ‘member journey’ train. All happily chugging along in our personally booked seats, there will be no chatter about power, mismanagement and corruption. If this interpretation is in doubt simply read this: The BPS Member Journey. <br/>Co-creating a better future for Psychology — The Social Kinetic. On it we are told that this is “…an ambitious design thinking journey (sic) across the 4 Nations of the UK. Together with The British Psychological Society and its members we co-produced the future vision, plan and roadmap. From Cyber to clinical psychologists – students to influencers…”.
The role of the paid consultancy, Social Kinetic, warrants a separate post but my focus here is on the ideology of atomised individualism of the ‘member journey’. Note the singularity of the ‘member’ – not even a greengrocer’s apostrophe is present to raise a smile. Those individuals are offered a sunny uplands view from the BPS train driven by the cabal. A PhD in critical discourse analysis is waiting in the wings about this online piece.
One ‘graduate’ tells us anonymously that the “…BPS now really feels so responsive, creative, inclusive and proactive that it’s starting to feel as if being a member is a necessity. And that’s the way it should be. It finally feels like this is really going to happen…” The heartfelt gushing enthusiasm of this statement is clear. However, reading and re-reading it, I have absolutely no idea about what it actually means, especially given the context of the serious BPS crisis. How is the statement at all feasible in reality, given the broken complaints system and policy capture we have demonstrated on this blog?
The (then) BPS Policy Director Katherine Scott (pictured but not named on the Social Kinetic online posting) explains, ‘Its such an important thing for us to bring together our members to co-create solutions and think about the future of the BPS’. Co-creation itself has an ambiguous legitimacy today. The good news is that it entails ‘customer’ involvement. The bad news is that the managers remain in charge and they can selectively attend to the interpretation of the outcome of that involvement (Alford, 2009).
In the context of the current crisis, we would be wise to take all of this management meringue about ‘customers’, ‘journeys’ and ‘co-creation’ with a large pinch of salt. Katherine Scott (The Psychologist, July 2020), in an interview with the editor Jon Sutton, gazed sagely into the future about the direction of the Society. Within months the CEO (just before he was suspended) was announcing that Scott was moving on to work for Lego, to build a different future there (co-created or not).
Another key figure in the ‘Policy Unit’, Lisa Morrison Coulthard presently moved on to become Research Director for the National Federation for Educational Research. She was a central player in the production of the controversial law and memory report that defied a democratic revision in the Society. That was certainly not co-created with the legions of survivors of sexual abuse in our mental health system (Pilgrim, 2018). Instead the report and its dogged retention reflected the narrow interests of one academic group to exclude a wider voice from survivors and those working with them.
Scott and Morrison Coulthard were not the only senior managers in the BPS to bail out in the past two years. This mirrored the disappearance over just a two month period of three elected Presidents. Also the Finance Director, Harnish Hadani (now in the same role in the National Lottery Community Fund), departed quickly in the heat of the crisis (December 2020).
Hadani failed to prevent the large alleged fraud, which is still awaiting its court hearing but was conceded de facto in the accounts reported at the recent BPS AGM and not even noted as ‘alleged’. In part this may have been a function of his lack of experience of working in the charity sector and his weak appreciation of its notorious vulnerability for financial corruption. Ironically he was appointed in part to deal with the aftershock of a pre-existing fraud in the Society. How many members, I wonder, were aware of that past misdemeanour? (As a technical aside of relevance to public information and trust, the National Lottery, unlike the BPS, does not come within the regulatory scrutiny of the Charity Commission, but instead of the Gambling Commission.)
Just how many other senior employees now might scatter, like nervous birds, will become evident in the coming months. Their culpability in the crisis might well be protected by the corporate liability of their ex-employer. However, that cover will not be offered to the Board of Trustees (BoT), who as non-employees, present or past, will retain a legacy liability for any misgovernance or corruption that took place under their watch. The clue is in the word ‘Trustee’.
A change of heart not millions misspent
The BPS does not need a multi-million pound ‘Change Programme’, with its ersatz trappings of commercial efficiency, but a genuine change of heart. Such an exercise in truth and reconciliation would be materially inexpensive but personally painful for the recent cabal and the oligarchs of the past. By contrast, ordinary employees and ordinary members have nothing to lose but their current illusion of shared friendliness. At the end of the process, they may find ways of really trusting one another.
Informality is often a tactical part of the con trick of bullshit; ingratiation is a common disarming component of impression management (Goffman, 1959). When mixed with anonymity and other forms of vagueness, the trick is complete. The current offer of a ‘better customer service experience’ is part of a bigger neoliberal cliché, which is pulling the wool over our eyes to disguise profits in big business and the hidden self-serving abuse of managerial power in both the public and charity sectors. In the case of the BPS, we have been turning this topic over in various posts, but this one allows me to revisit briefly the character of the cabal.
The mystifying shenanigans at the centre of the BPS in the past few decades have intensified since the current Senior Management Team (SMT) joined the system in 2018. Because they have refused at all costs to wash their dirty linen in public, any historian of the Society may need to wait a while for the facts to come out. We are doing our best to tell the story that the SMT, the BoT and the editor of The Psychologist do not want the ‘customers’ to hear or see. However, we, like others, have been kept in the dark, despite our amateur sleuthing with a torch. Journalists and litigants hereafter will open up the can for the worms to slither out, but that full slimy technicolour spectacle is to yet come.
What we can say about the cabal, with its habitual secrecy and ‘damage limitation’ modus operandi, is that it is not a monolith. The key BoT meeting in November 2020, with its heavily redacted minutes illustrates this cultural complexity. The CEO was suspended but this was not a unanimous decision. Some Trustees complained about the process of the meeting. So, the older oligarchs were factionalised, with some supporting the power of the SMT and the £6 million ‘Change Programme’, with its hollow rationale and mysterious or absent performance indicators. We are left wondering what differentiated the ‘pro’ from the ‘anti’ Trustee sub-groups. We wait to hear in our perplexed darkness.
Postmodern carpetbaggers and their allies
I mentioned the here today gone tomorrow senior managers. They are today’s version of carpetbaggers. Most are not psychologists, so they have no respect or affection for, or understanding of, the discipline. Most have passed quite quickly through management roles elsewhere. For example, although the current Deputy CEO, Diane Ashby, is noted on the BPS website for working at Marks & Spencer and the Body Shop, there is a coyness about her role in other ‘change programmes’, when working for Southern Water and West Sussex County Council.
A further sub-plot in the recent shenanigans relates to HR processes and their failure to head off incompetence or corruption. Were they applied properly and transparently, when the SMT (and, note, their administrative support staff) were all appointed? Were Trustees properly involved with these appointments? Again the future historian may well have something to tell us when the courts, employment tribunals and curious journalists have elicited the answers to these questions.
And although some in the cabal have actually been psychology graduates, this has not guaranteed their loyalty to the long-term integrity of the discipline, as they have got sucked in to political short-termism. It has certainly not ensured their commitment to academic freedom or transparency, or a prioritisation of accountability for their fellow BPS members. They have just become incorporated, wittingly or unwittingly, into the BPS bullshit generator.
From NHS CEOs and over-paid University Vice-Chancellors to footballers kissing their shirt badge when scoring a goal, knowing their agent has just fixed a more lucrative deal with another club, money and power today encourage short term faux-loyalty and hypocrisy. Non-disclosure agreements with pay-offs are part of the picture; again the history of the BPS told in the future may have something on this topic. Carpetbaggers now come in so many postmodern guises, with their own particular tricky rhetorical skills. Their ‘customers’ are not well served by their antics.
Alford, J. (2009) Engaging Public Sector Clients: From Service Delivery to Coproduction. London: Palgrave.
Christensen LT, Kärreman D, Rasche A. (2019) Bullshit and organization studies. Organization Studies. 40(10):1587-1600.
Frankfurt, H. (2005) On Bullshit Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life New York: Overlook Press.
Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.