Board of Trustees, Governance

THE ONGOING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AT THE CENTRE OF THE BRITISH PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY – AN OPEN LETTER 

David Pilgrim has sent this letter to the President, the SMT, the editor of The Psychologist and to various journalists who have an interest in what is going on in the BPS. He has also sent it to the Charity Commission.

To whom it may concern

The incipient reform (in January 2022) of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the British Psychological Society (BPS), to now include three properly independent members, is welcomed. It is a reactive signal that all is not well with the structure at the centre of a putative learned body and registered charity. 

Sadly it does not go far enough, if the BPS is to regain and retain public trust and that of its members. Many have been trying, and failing, to make this point about the needed radical root and branch reform of the governance of the Society in recent times. They have been ignored or dismissed as malcontents.  A large fraud now subject to sentencing in the Crown Court, and the disappearance of three Presidents (one expelled and two resigned over a two month period in 2021) are symptomatic of the most recent crisis in a long troubled organisation.

The culture of misgovernance, which has enabled both financial wrongdoing and policy capture, has been afforded by a blatant structural problem, dating back to the Royal Charter of 1965. At that time a BoT was required, but its precise membership not defined a priori. In 1987 a second bite of the cherry was offered but not taken, when the Royal Charter was revised. This has meant that for over fifty years the Society has been run by a BoT with no public involvement and where conflicts of interest have been inherent: we have had faux-Trustees not the real thing. To date the BoT has been constituted wholly from within the BPS, with external scrutiny being missing completely.

Any good charity knows that they should appoint Trustees, who are fully independent of the workings of the organisation (and the people involved as employees or volunteers). A Trustee should be defined by their ability to walk away from the role, with no personal disadvantage (of money, status, personal goals or cognitive/political interests). Given that under current arrangements all of the Trustees have conflicts of interest, then this criterion of independence has failed continually. The incumbents, as appointees from Boards and other sub-systems, should be accountable to Trustees not be Trustees themselves. The Presidential triumvirate is an important democratic counter-balance, but note that even this is from the membership not the general public.

Until the BoT is reformed fully in line with this point of best practice about Trustee independence, recommended by the Charity Commission, then the cultural legacy of poor governance and its adverse consequences are likely to persist. This and related points will be discussed at length in a book soon to appear, which I am editing: The Crisis of British Psychology: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction (Phoenix Press). 

Sincerely

Dr David Pilgrim 

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Ethics, Governance

Is an authentic history of the BPS possible?

This post has been modified to include an addendum (shown after the references) to include feedback received since the original posting = Blog Administrator (8 January 2022).

David Pilgrim posts….

During 2021 the large fraud in the BPS was dismissed as a minor footnote in the Society’s accounts. Three elected Presidents disappeared over a two month period. Two resigned and another was expelled after a kangaroo court and a rigged appeal. In the interim period between the latter two events, he was publicly disparaged in a YouTube video. 

For most of the year the CEO was suspended in the wake of the fraud. A temporary President was drafted in, with the help of a contrived illegitimate election, to bolster the diminishing credibility of the Board of Trustees. The Psychologist played its faithful role, as ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’, in what it reported and, more importantly, what it did not.

In the midst of these political events, poorly explored in public, there was another that went under the radar.  An over-worked and under-paid part time archivist, in the History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) resigned, leaving it with no academic director or archiving staff and an uncertain future. Although the HoPC is not the singular route to build up a history of British psychology, it is fairly important. Accordingly, its sustainability, as a vaunted part of the BPS, is crucial for scholarly activity both inside and outside the Society. 

The SMT have done little or nothing to protect it in recent years. Their mind has probably been elsewhere, managing the crisis they both inherited and amplified. One tactical option they seem to have chosen is to suppress history and to be evasive about their own detailed accountability. If that interpretation is correct then their motivation to support a proper history, especially recent history, will be weak or absent.

Whatever else we might say about the BPS, it is not a learning organisation. That aspiration would entail organisational norms, which celebrated transparency and honest reflection about current problems and their antecedents. Many of the postings on this blog have explored failures of probity and the evasion of learning from them on the part of the SMT and Board of Trustees. Here I want to just focus on the possibility of a history of the BPS.

Celebratory and critical histories

Until the middle of the 20th century, British psychology was expanding slowly and loosening itself from the constraints of both medicine and philosophy. Early historical accounts, such as that of my old teacher, Lesley Hearnshaw, paid little critical attention to the Society and focused mainly on epistemological tensions (Hearnshaw, 1964). His task was empirical: map out what could be discerned to date about theory and findings, within the strengths and weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition. A critical take on that history awaited (cf. Pilgrim and Patel, 2015).

At that juncture, some early signs of malaise had to be acknowledged during historical uncovering. Hearnshaw was a friend of Cyril Burt and began to write a celebratory history of his work after his death in 1971. As the proofs were being prepared, accusations were emerging of Burt falsifying data and people. Hearnshaw had, as an old fashioned honest scholar, to re-write his ending. Hagiography had to be replaced with Burt being damned with faint praise. He had been President of the BPS (1941-1943). He was the trusty servant of the eugenic tradition developed by Pearson and Spearman at University College London. He was the main man in the mid-20th century.. He was a public intellectual promoting an elitist eugenic view of human nature and he was not challenged by his peers of the time (Chamarette, 2019). At that time he was Mr British Psychology.

Burt succeeded Spearman as Professor of Psychology at University College in 1932. He always maintained the Spearman-Pearson position on ‘innate general cognitive ability’, which could be ‘objectively determined and measured’ (Burt, 1909). After the Second World War, he shaped the structure of British schooling and his advice to policy makers was well received in his Eugenics Society lecture (Burt, 1946).

Hearnshaw sadly had to record Burt’s fall from grace for the first time, leaving others to squabble over the best post-mortem (Hearnshaw, 1979; cf. Mackintosh, 1995).  These efforts reflected efforts to respect the Popperian hope that science is self-correcting, via falsification and open contestation about findings and interpretation. In recent years, psychology in Britain and elsewhere has faced two challenges in this regard. The first is the replication crisis and the second relates to cheating; at times in psychology and other disciplines these have overlapped. 

The Burt scandal reflected badly not only on British eugenics and British psychology but also on the BPS itself, given his past Presidential role. The force of eugenic psychology meant that ideology preceded findings; Hearnshaw used the phrase accurately from logical philosophy of Burt ‘begging the question’ (Pilgrim, 2008). Findings were co-opted selectively and then massaged (or invented) to maintain a pre-existing ideological position. This drama has repeated recently in the critique of Burt’s student, Hans Eysenck. 

At the time of writing I understand that this matter is being reviewed by a group in the Society.  Eysenck’s implausible findings about cancer and personality were reviewed by King’s College (KCL). Eysenck successfully courted funding from the tobacco companies. In exchange he offered them the comforting theory that cancer-proneness and addictive tendencies were inherited. The narrative of these coming together to account for lung cancer incidence could then displace the idea that big business was encouraging addiction for profit and was the source of a major public health problem. Favourable research might augment cigarette marketing.

In 2019 the KCL review* of Eysenck’s work concluded that it was ‘unsafe’ and incompatible with expectations of good clinical research. Criticisms of this work had been known since the 1990s and eventually lobbying from those like Anthony Pelosi prompted the KCL review and the incipient look back from the BPS (Pelosi, 2019).  

An organisation without a memory?

Will the BPS be forced to deal (eventually) with the Eysenck question, as they had in days gone by to deal with Burt and his dubious findings? The jury is out for now, but the following might be relevant to note. The editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, wrote to Sarb Bajwa in November 2018 asking for the BPS to take its responsibilities seriously about Eysenck, and received no reply. 

Three years of radio silence later and after a prompt, Marks still had no reply from the CEO but he did get a response from Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) apologising for Bajwa’s inaction. She opted to use the first person plural to avoid a third person accusation of her manager. 

Why Bajwa did not reply apologetically himself is not known. However, it was a time when those at the centre of the BPS would quite often fail to reply to concerns. (We have reported this norm of contempt from the centre in previous postings, often about very serious matters.) One manifestation of secrecy at the centre of the BPS has been a casual indifference to membership inquiries and concerns. 

As is often the case with scenarios like this, when trying to communicate with the powers that be in the BPS, we enter an Alice in Wonderland World, while being asked to take those leading the Society seriously. Credulousness is demanded in the face of the incredible material facts. The BPS until proved otherwise, is a self-deceiving and secretive bureaucracy. For now, with its governance unreformed and a cabal culture normalised, it is an organisation without a memory (cf. Donaldson, 2002).

This much we can say

In light of the above we can see a pattern of a rhetoric of history being taken seriously, alongside evasiveness in practice about any meaningful historical reflection. The HoPC has great rhetorical value for the BPS: just go onto the website and see it there as a key advertising feature for an alleged learned body. For now, like with much that is claimed from the cabal, this is bullshit. 

The casual use of censorship by the cabal and the biddable role of The Psychologist reflect a disdain for academic freedom. Even if the HoPC were to be rescued from its near oblivion, what chance it developing and defending a critical, rather than a sycophantic and celebratory, history of the BPS? Will the SMT bother to finance such an academically independent Centre? Alternatively, will they continue to let it wither on the vine, while retaining its vacuous image cynically on the website? The BPS has huge reserves, some of which are being squandered on a poorly justified ‘Change Programme’ to the tune of (at least) £6 million. ‘Spare some change for the HoPC, governor?’ ‘Sorry mate, busy spending it elsewhere.’

As for the Eysenck review, we are all curious to watch its development. Though never given a Fellowship of the BPS, his leading role in British psychology has to be acknowledged by friend and foe alike. After his death in 1997 an annual memorial lecture was set up in his honour in the Society. It sits proudly in celebration of the British eugenic tradition, alongside the Spearman Medal. 

Some have already queried the point of mulling over Eysenck’s flawed work (maybe like digging up Cromwell’s body and chopping off his head during The Restoration in 1661) (Hall and Scarnà, 2019). However, if the BPS cannot pronounce on the integrity of Eysenck’s work then who else can? Maybe the review of these alleged sins of the past is a convenient diversion from those of the present. Either way, his own words might be an ethical guide:

I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he (sic) sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts. (Eysenck, 1990: 229)

The KCL reviewers were unimpressed by the facts he favoured. At the time of writing, fourteen retractions from journals have been recorded of Eysenck’s work. His critics trace problems going back to just after the Second World War. Their vulnerability lies in Eysenck’s eugenic thought, repeating the problem of his mentor. A contradiction of his approach was that he was both a methodological behaviourist and a biogenetic ideologue. His cancer work reflected that: heredity accounted for causes but the treatment of patients warranted CBT (behaviour therapy was its ‘first wave’.) 

How the BPS review of Eysenck’s work exactly came into being, and who was chosen to be part of it, remains a mystery. As with much that goes on in the BPS we will never know. Groups emerge by grace and favour and a tap on the shoulder to candidates who will not rock the boat.  Given the preference of the CEO and the illegitimate President to look forwards, Pollyanna fashion, and never backwards, the prospect of an honest history of the BPS in the recent past looks slim indeed (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/january-2022/president-and-chief-executive).

Conclusion

The Burt and Eysenck examples show that historical clarifications, guided by Popperian criteria of scientific correction and probity, are not easy, but they are at least possible in an open democratic society. Sadly it looks as though currently the BPS does not have the intellectual culture to deliver the same expectation. Toxic managerialism and a lack of independent trustees (a structural fault traceable to 1965 and not rectified when the opportunity arose in 1988) have suppressed, rather than celebrated, the obligation to learn from experience in the public interest. 

Anti-intellectualism, censorship, secrecy, PR, spin, impression management and rigged expulsions and elections, for now dominate the decision-making priorities of the leadership. As a consequence, bullshit constantly displaces implausible claims of transparency. Maybe we will have to look outside for an authentic historical reckoning. It may have to come from the courts and investigative journalists. 

References

Burt, C.L. (1946) Intelligence and fertility. Eugenics Society Occasional Papers Number 2.

Burt, C.L. (1909) Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology III 94-107.

Chamarette, M. (2019) Psychologists as public intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s. Stories of Psychology Meeting organised by the History of Psychology Centre, November 7th.

Donaldson, L. (2002) An organisation with a memory. Clinical Medicine 2, 5, 524-7.

Eysenck, H.J. (1990) Rebel With A Cause London: Transaction

Hall, J. and Scarnà, A. (2019) An aggravating controversialist or ahead of his time? The Psychologist November, 32, 5.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979) Cyril Burt: Psychologist Icatha NY: Cornell University Press.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1964) A Short History of British Psychology London: Methuen.

Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439

Pilgrim, D. (2008) The eugenic legacy in psychology and psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54, 3, 272-284.

Pilgrim, D. and Patel, N. (2015) The emergence of clinical psychology in the British post-war context. In J. Hall, D. Pilgrim and G. Turpin (eds) Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives HoPC Monograph No 2. Leicester: BPS.

Mackintosh, N.J. (ed) (1995) Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* The Institute of Psychiatry, where Eysenck worked, was subsumed into KCL in 1997, hence that College of the University of London now being the academic ‘owner’ of his legacy. 

Addendum

This post has prompted email feedback from colleagues. I am grateful to them for the following minor corrections and their invited clarifications.

1. The archivist who resigned in 2021 was now, I understand, full-time not part-time. She left behind an assistant to work on her own in Leicester. To date the review group, set up three years ago to reinvigorate the HoPC still has had no formal commitment from the CEO or SMT to support an academic director, who would be guaranteed full autonomy in their role. To my knowledge no meeting has taken place in the interim between the Chair of the review group and the CEO. I understand from anonymous sources that a consultant may be imported temporarily to advise on archiving. However, I have been unable to confirm this possibility and its source, if any, in SMT decision making. (A theme on this blog is the arcane nature of decision making at the centre of the BPS.) We would of course welcome a full and clear update from the CEO or the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ about their intentions about the ailing HoPC. I would put a very low probability of this happening, as the SMT have opted for a wilful and consistent policy of non-engagement with us. I have also sent a letter about my concerns about the HoPC to the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ (copying to the CEO). Based on past trends, there is little likelihood that I will receive a reply. Currently I am Honorary General Secretary of the History and Philosophy Section but I sent my letter in a personal capacity. The Section will of course be taking all of the above matters seriously in relation to the vulnerability of the HoPC now and its future prospects.

2. The Spearman Medal has now been abandoned by the BPS in the face of criticisms about its eugenic roots. It was awarded finally in 2020 but, note, was only set up in 1962. The latter date reflects a mainstream commitment to the eugenic tradition in British psychology well after the Second World War. The British Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute in 1989. This euphemistic naming and the current rationale for the Institute can be found on its website. In 2020 University College London, removed the names of Galton and Pearson from its rooms and buildings.

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

More bullshit about a shiny new future

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. 

Untrustworthy leaders

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.

Board of Trustees, Governance

A Tale of Two Societies

Peter Harvey posts….

Not only am I am member of the BPS (at least for the time being), I am also an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).  This latter organisation has been through something of a crisis in recent years, not dissimilar to that experienced by the BPS. What is striking, however, is the way in what each body has managed these, most particularly in terms of openness, transparency and honesty: regular readers of our blog will not be surprised that these words are not applicable to the BPS but they characterise the RPS’s approach. To illustrate this, I have (with permission) extracted parts of the recent address [I have a full copy which I will forward if you contact the blog] given by the President of the RPS, Simon Hill, Hon FRPS.

Early on, he says that he has something of great importance to discuss…

This is something that has plagued the RPS for many years yet is vital to the successful continuance and sustainability of the RPS … and that is its governance. 

Events that took place two years ago, in the run-up to our 2019 Trustee election, forced a re-evaluation of our model of governance. These events have, for the past two years, been the ‘elephant in the room’ at Board of Trustee meetings. I intend to use this, my first President’s Address, to finally set free the elephant so that the new Board can, unencumbered, deliver on its purposes. 

And so, to the elephant. At our AGM in September 2019 the RPS reached a low point in its delivery of effective governance with the conclusion of an election that, to many, appeared compromised and fundamentally flawed. A President Elect and a Treasurer were appointed, each from a field of only one candidate (not the best demonstration of democracy in action); three Trustees were appointed from what appeared, to many, to be a cohort of four candidates campaigning on a single ticket and utilising what was considered to be inappropriate use of RPS media channels.

Now, whilst there are differences in the detail, the broad summary rings familiar bells to those of us in the BPS. But what a difference in the open and upfront manner in which the problem is stated – no flannel, weasel words, bullshit or management-speak. How very different to the recent pronouncement from those at the top of the BPS.

He continues..

Such was member dissatisfaction with the 2019 election that an independent inquiry was commissioned to consider the election process and to ensure a more democratic process for future Trustee elections. The inquiry was undertaken by Michael King, a retired solicitor and former partner with our lawyers Stone King LLP. Michael has more than 40 years’ experience of charity law and was a founder member of the Charity Law Association. 

Michael published his report on 5 January 2020. This became the Society’s Ecclesiastes 8:6 moment and the Board of Trustees had to seize that moment. The King Report presented the Board with the time and the place to change the model of governance at the RPS and prevent a repeat of the shortcomings of the 2019 election by the crafting of a new set of by-laws which would establish a more relevant and transparent model of governance.

There are two important matters to note in these two short paragraphs. First, that the enquiry was set up quickly, reported back equally quickly and was made available to membership in full. Second, everything is out in the open – who was commissioned, their background and qualifications – as well the wide availability of the report. Although the BPS did commission a report from the NCVO, it was not completed and the NCVO withdrew prematurely, citing issues of psychological safety for it staff [see here]. And we had to find out about both the consultation itself as well as its demise from the media, not from the BPS directly. We are already seeing marked differences in how these two organisations responded. To give this some context, the RPS (although some 50 years older than the BPS) is much smaller (membership of around 10 700 as opposed to over 65 0000 and less asset-rich (£6.5m as opposed to over £21m) but it still managed to target resources, time and energy into the resolution of its problems. In addition, and like the BPS, it is dependent on volunteers to ensure that the organisation actually functions. So a smaller, less wealthy organisation than ours gets it right – why couldn’t we?

One of the major shortcomings of the BPS that we have identified is the total lack of independence of the Board of Trustees. Below is a somewhat lengthy extract from Simon’s Hill’s address – its length necessitated by the essential detail contained within it.

Our new model of governance ensures that a Nominations Committee will now and in future oversee the formation of our Board of Trustees. 

I will return briefly to morals and ethics before I finish this address but, before then, I would like to put some numbers to the process that we have followed. Not only are these numbers interesting in themselves but they serve to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Trustee recruitment process our Nominations Committee have designed. 

When the advertisement was posted for potential Trustee candidates we received more than 50 expressions of interest. However, some of those expressions came from members who, while having in mind the very best interests of the RPS, had perhaps not fully grasped the personal challenges, the political complexities, and the onerous responsibilities of a Trustee role. At an online candidate briefing held on 24 July 2021, I gave an overview of the challenges facing the Board of Trustees and the RPS as a whole. I also outlined how I would like the Board to function during the period of my presidency. 

Over the past two years the Board has experienced seven resignations – two Presidents, two Elected Trustees, two Co-opted Trustees and, most recently, our Treasurer John Miskelly, to whom we owe a great debt of thanks for the work he has done on taking control of the financial health of the RPS. To find ways in which we can improve our Trustee experience, we completed a ‘reflective review’ of our processes, achievements and shortcomings. This was very ably led by our CEO, Evan Dawson, with whom I have a rewarding and enjoyable working relationship. The turbulence experienced by the Board and, albeit to a lesser extent, by the RPS between September 2019 and September 2021 is, I suggest, a direct consequence of the flawed election of 2019 and for that reason I shared the insights from this reflective review with our Trustee candidates. Following that candidate briefing, 16 of the original 50 expressions of interest translated into formal applications submitted to the Nominations Committee. This committee operates completely independently of the Board of Trustees. It carried out a skills and experience review of the 16 candidates, evaluating their applications against a matrix of requirements deemed essential to the effective performance of a Board of Trustees and, thus, to the provision of good governance. 

Nine of the 16 candidates were recommended by the Nominations Committee and seven others were invited to stand as independent candidates. It is important to note that the recommendation of the Nominations Committee is not an indication of the personal ability or suitability of one candidate over another, it is simply an indication to the electorate – the members – that, in the opinion of the Nominations Committee, “those recommended candidates possess the skill, experience, independence, knowledge and diversity necessary to provide appropriate governance to the RPS”. All nine recommended candidates (including five existing Trustees, four of whom were on short term co-option) and one ‘independent’ candidate confirmed their intention to stand for election. This gave members a field of ten candidates from which to elect six Trustees. Each of the ten candidates stood on an ‘individual’ ticket and their only promotion was a personal statement published online and in the Candidate Prospectus. 

In 2019, slightly more than 900 Members (representing 8% of the membership) voted in the election. This year, almost 1,700 members (representing 16% of our slightly lower total membership) voted in the election. I believe this doubling of member engagement is a direct consequence of a more ethical and transparent Trustee recruitment and election process, together with the more effective communication that the RPS is now having with its members. 

I have not come across such a thorough process anywhere else, and, as far as I am concerned, it represents a model that all charities should follow. I need hardly add that the BPS’s processes bear absolutely no resemblance to this.

The last extract is more contemplative but equally relevant:

Earlier in this address, I said I would return to the subject of morals and ethics so, to conclude, I invite you to contemplate how a model of ethical governance may be distilled down to four essential moral principles: 

  • beneficence (do good)
  • nonmaleficence (do not harm)
  • autonomy (control by the individual)  
  • justice (fairness) 

Good governance is fundamental to the long-term success of all organisations. Charities, like the RPS, are no exception to this rule. Good governance promotes a culture where all efforts are channelled to fulfilling the charity’s ‘mission’ and the Good Governance Steering Group (a collaboration ofUK charity organisations) publishes the Charity Governance Code which has six ‘pillars’ that support an organisational mission. These pillars are: 

  • leadership
  • board effectiveness
  • integrity
  • openness and accountability
  • decision-making, risk and control
  • equality, diversity and inclusion.

That seems to be a good place to end, with a plea to those charged at the top levels of the BPS with the responsibilities of good governance to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what I have described. Following the model outlined here would surely address the many and profound challenges that the BPS currently faces.

Governance

The abuse of history and the BPS bullshit generator

David Pilgrim posts

Those in charge of the BPS bullshit generator have recently had to put in an extra shift. This was necessitated by a report in the press, citing evidence from the BPS’ own membership survey. An article in Third Sector (October 21st 2021), from Stephen Delahunty, was entitled: “Report finds ‘endemic’ lack of trust between staff and members of the British Psychological Society”.

The piece goes on: 

‘’….The summary findings from the Members Network Review, which was conducted by consultancy Korn Ferry and has been seen by Third Sector, also identified a tension between the ‘corporate mindset’ of BPS staff and the values members believe the society should hold…..The review, shared with members two months after the President-Elect’s dismissal, concluded there was an ‘endemic’ lack of trust and respect between staff and members and said members had a ‘lack of access to timely and accurate financial information’. Decision-making was deemed to be ‘unclear’ and stakeholders on all sides felt there was a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Among the other key findings were that ‘membership does not necessarily represent good value for money” and there was a ‘lack of transparency and clarity around how the membership fees get spent’. The review recommends changes to the charity’s operating model that include addressing the need for direct communication with members, refresher and induction training on the requirements of volunteers and the roles of BPS staff, and clarifying the arrangements for decision-making and key processes.”

That final sentence covers a multitude of sins about organisational dysfunction and misgovernance, which this blog has persisted in reporting. They were also the reason that Nigel MacLennan was stitched up and thrown out. For our efforts, we have either been flatly ignored (publicly) by the cabal or told in emails to us that we are being ‘inflammatory’ or bullying to BPS staff. We are prepared for the prospect of being disciplined for breaking the code of conduct, the cabal selectively uses for its own ends. Expelled or not our protests will persist. 

It is the leadership of the BPS that has brought the Society into disrepute and maybe terminal decline. It is not us and it was certainly not Nigel MacLennan. Maybe there is a dedicated ‘shooting the messenger team’ that operates in the bullshit department. Another door might be marked ‘Spin and censorship’. The imagination runs riot about this Orwellian dystopia in Leicester.

Like all good journalists, Delanhunty asked ‘the BPS’ for their view, and this is what they came back withhe goes on:

“The charity said it had received ‘many positive comments’ from members in the full report but did not respond to a request to share it. A BPS spokesperson said: ‘It is important to highlight that many of the issues discussed in this report are systemic and historic in nature. This means they are the consequence of many individual decisions, taken over many years, by many different people, often with the best of intentions. It is also important to highlight that many of these issues have their roots in the past, and that the BPS is resolved to address and has already addressed many of them through our change programme. This is not to diminish the importance of the comments reflected here, but instead to reiterate what we see as the society’s genuine commitment to improving the experience of all our members. We are working closely with members and our representative senate to address many of the issues and create a force of change for the greater good.’”

Here are a few comments in response to the above. First, why was the full report not shared with the membership? Second, why did it take a journalist to place the report in the context of the current organisational crisis? The leadership, alongside the complicit silent pages in The Psychologist, have ensured that information management is guided by the need to keep the BPS membership and the general public in the dark. Many of you will know the old joke about that particular ‘mushroom’ management policy. 

Third, and my main point here, how is history being invoked now, for rhetorical purposes, by the cabal? What exactly is that history, and can someone point to where it has been written, other than on this blog, with our persistent willingness to talk of all things past and present of relevance to the current crisis? The answer to this question is that it is a history suppressed. 

Neither the old oligarchs, nor the ‘BPS junkies’ (The Psychologist, 2006) with their shamelessly recycled names, nor the list of now silent Presidents and Honorary General Secretaries (sinecures accepted gratefully of course) of the past have ever bothered to write that history authentically. This is for one very good reason: they have all been complicit, in ways large or small, in the emergence of the recent crisis. With one or two notable exceptions, it is noticeable that a long roll call of past Presidents has failed to intervene to halt the Society’s downward spiral recently. Their silence has been both deafening and telling.

Misgovernance and corruption have come from somewhere and that somewhere is the past, especially since 1988. That story should be fully told but those responsible for the organisational meltdown now evident are understandably very coy. As for them all being ‘well intentioned’, how on earth, empirically, does the ‘BPS spokesperson’ (no name as usual) know that to be true? Maybe the full story in its gory technicolour might let others make that judgment. If this history was merely ‘systemic’ then were no moral agents involved in the story, with their particular vested interests and nameable careerist intentions? The word ‘systemic’ has become a code for ‘nobody is to blame’ so no detailed truths or moral reckoning are required. As usual the BPS bullshit generator offers us more questions than answers.

The abuse of history

Our stance towards history is politically important. Those managing the present and shaping the future will tend to ignore those aspects of history that do not suit their interests, while invoking history, in a celebratory manner, when it is convenient contingently. A problem the current cabal have is that they are either ignorant of history or they know of it but recognise the inconvenience it creates for their current regime of power. 

For example, Katherine Carpenter has simply gone for ignoring it and exhorting the membership to look forward to a brighter future. As the illegitimate President Elect, whose installation was contrived by the cabal’s invented election strictures, this stance is perfectly understandable. Some in the cabal (the non-psychologists) will know little if anything of the history of the BPS. Why should they, as none of us can know everything? However, that ignorance is also a very good reason for us not to have confidence in them knowing what they are doing with the fate of the BPS. Fools may well have rushed in where angels would have feared to tread. Having said this, it is inconceivable that some of them (the CEO and the Finance Director especially) were not aware that they came to the BPS in the wake of frauds in the recent past. A previous CEO and a previous Finance Director had left in suspicious circumstances and yet again the membership had been denied an honest explanation about these departures. 

Drawing a line under the past: ‘that will do nicely’

The truism that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, is one relevant literary allusion for us to think about here (Hartley, 1953), but so is another – ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ (Faulkner, 1951). I favour the latter over the former in this instance for a simple reason. Managers love to ‘draw a line under the past’, just in case old skeletons might trouble career prospects in the present. That was then and this is now, so no critical reflection or inquiry is required. From financial corruption to sexual exploitation, managers are keen to resort to covering up the past, and avoiding being tainted by it by simply incanting and repeating ‘that was then and this is now’. For example, see this preferred self-protective contortion in the statements from the BBC management in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal breaking (Greer and McLaughlin, 2015).

Most of the people of relevance to the story of misgovernance since the late 1980s are still alive and their reputations have been polished often by their ‘long term service’ in the BPS. More than that, if we look at the very recent past (a good starting point is 2018 when the SMT were appointed) then it is astoundingly audacious for ‘the BPS spokesperson’ to try and blag their way out of telling the truth, the whole truth, about the current crisis, using history as an excuse. This is bovine ordure extraordinaire.

This is the score. In 2018 the current carpetbaggers on the SMT were appointed. All of them are still in post apart from the Finance Director, who bailed out of the crisis in December 2020. He is now working for the National Lottery. The CEO was put on gardening leave for nearly a year and has just returned to his day job with the full backing of the Board of Trustees. Why it took so long to make a decision I suspect will be kept from the membership.  With or without that current vote of confidence about his return, the historical details about his responsibilities and that of the now departed Finance Director await scrutiny in a transparent public context. As for the ‘Trustees’ past and present, their legacy liability remains.

Turning to those non-independent and appointed ‘Trustees’, they too, by and large, are exactly the same people, who were around during the crisis coming to light. Two Presidents (they were elected from the membership) resigned, within two months in 2020. Why did the rest of the Board not follow suit? If David Murphy’s concerns were so grave about governance and finance, it is relevant to ask why others on the Board remained and were happy to collude with a strategy of silence to keep the membership in a state of ignorance. What stance did they take about the stitch up of the expelled President Elect, Nigel MacLennan? Moreover, where were the Board when the SMT were appointed? Were due HR processes observed and were ‘Trustees’ party to those appointments?

So all this blather about ‘history’ and the problem being ‘systemic’ is just that-blather. Studying history and studying it properly is a form of truth seeking. Using history as a tactical avoidance of current political responsibility is morally reprehensible. The BPS bullshit generator on this particular occasion is really insulting the intelligence of the membership. But do the cabal care? Probably not.

References

Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun New York: Random House.

Greer, C. and McLaughlin, E. (2015) In D. Whyte (ed) How Corrupt is Britain? London: Pluto.

Hartley, L.P. (1953) The Go-Between London: Hamish Hamilton.

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.

Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

Carpetbaggers and their customers

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 
info@bps.org.uk 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). 

The phrase co-creation shows the shallowness of its meaning when we consider the refusal of the BPS to produce a new version to the law and memory report. That was certainly not co-created with the legions of survivors of sexual abuse in our mental health system (Pilgrim, 2018). Instead, the much-needed revisions and updating were halted (despite significant agreement within the working group) on the spurious grounds that consensus could not be reached. Thus the narrow interests of one academic group excluded the wider voice from survivors and those working with them.


A  number of senior managers in the BPS have bailed 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.

Blog Administrator’s note; This is a revised version of the original post.

Board of Trustees, Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

15 questions about the Change Programme

BPSWatch received the following letter from a counselling psychologist and BPS member. The letter is signed but published anonymously.

Dear BPSWatch,

I am no expert in Change programmes, but I have some common sense observations and questions.  Does anyone outside the BPS SMT know the answers to any of the questions?

1.      So … “The objective of the Change Programme is to deliver the scope agreed by the Board of Trustees at their meeting in June 2019, on time and within budget.”  This is a completely useless response when what the Board of Trustees decided in that meeting is kept secret.  It is highly disrespectful to members.

2.      Have the consultants being used for the change programme changed?  If so when did that happen?  For what reason? And who made the decision to use the first and then switch to the second?

3.      There is a rumour that someone on the BPS SMT has a social relationship with the CEO of Social Kinetic. Is that true?  If so, was this considered as a potential conflict of interest in the appointment?

4.      Did the BPS seek advice from their own expert Occupational Psychologists on the Change Programme?

5.      What was the procurement process?

6.      What is the vision for the change programme?

7.      What are the specific objectives?

8.      What are the outcome measures for each objective?

9.      How were the objectives going to be achieved?

10.   What is the oversight management plan?

11.   How would progress be communicated to the SMT, Trustees and Members?

12.   How were those involved assessed for their competence to deliver the programme?

13.   What was the plan to monitor change communication effectiveness?

14.   Is progress so far considered good value?

15.   Why is there not a document available for members explaining all this?

The best change that I can think of right now would be to have transparency, and open, clear communication from the BPS.

Yours sincerely.

"The Psychologist", Financial issues, Governance

Faux-accountability from the cabal

David Pilgrim posts….

Recently we have been exploring BPS bullshit [see here]. Peter Harvey’s recent post is a good example. He describes a simple request to The Psychologist to have pertinent questions answered in a public space, where the members of the BPS might have his shared curiosity. The letter was not published but passed on to the editor’s employer. A relevant reminder here is that The Psychologist is ‘...the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. It is not refereed and all decisions about letters and articles rest in the sole hands of the editor.

Critical commentary from David Pilgrim

What can we glean from this exchange? Well, the letter was clearly too hot to handle for the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, even though its content was relevant for the BPS members who are its readership. Indeed, it raises the question about what – if anything – he might publish in a letter that pertains to the Society (rather than a response to material he has already sanctioned in previous editions). Bullshit is as much about what is not said as what is said (for the philosophically minded this invites an ‘omissive critique’). The past two years have provided those in power with the convenient shared boat experience of the pandemic. However, our collective plight has been used at times as a cover story for evasions that would probably have been there in any case. 

By blocking the publication of the letter in The Psychologist and deliberately opting to hive off the exchange to a personal response to Peter Harvey, this ensured that the whole readership was then kept in the dark about crucial matters. Jon Sutton and Diane Ashby between them yet again limited what was being explored publicly and in the public interest about an organization in crisis. From Ashby the vague descriptions we have become used to are also present in this individualized response. For example, we are offered these two desultory sentence about a grave matter that merits a full discussion for, and with, the BPS membership:

“Once the fraud was discovered an independent investigation was immediately commissioned by the Board of Trustees and actions have been taken based on its findings. You will be aware that the Chief Executive is currently on extended leave from the society.”

Here are some relevant questions that ordinary members might be interested in:

Why did many months elapse between the police investigating the fraud and the CEO being suspended? Why, initially did the Board opt to make the CEO the liaison link with the police? Why was the CEO suspended and not simply sacked? What grounds were discussed in the Board for the suspension option? Did some Board members resist any action being taken against the CEO? What actions have been taken as a result of the investigation? Ashby’s failure to provide routine bulletins to BPS members is part of a strategy from the cabal: remember the vacuous phrases about the Society being at a ‘…crossroads…’ after a ‘…challenging year…’ from Carol McGuinness in her infamous and now removed Youtube video? This vagueness signals that those in power are ‘in the know’ but are not prepared to tell ordinary mortals what they know. 

I suspect that this concerted silence about the material facts of what is happening at the centre of the BPS would have been broken had the Board been dominated by truly independent Trustees, rather than an acculturated cabal with inherent conflicts of interest. Pompous rhetoric about confidentiality was soon their cover story for secrecy. As we do not have an organization with independent Trustees, this is my guess about a path not taken since 1988.

It is important to note that Ashby was primarily appointed to lead the ‘Change Programme’ and at times she has adopted that title in correspondence, rather than ‘Deputy Chief Executive’.   But within the latter role, which she has been in now for nigh on a year, why has she not kept the members informed at all times of the crisis at the centre of the organization? Surely, that would be a primary expectation of the Charity Commission of good management practice. Those absent bulletins from Ashby might have mentioned a few facts that will be of relevance to the history of the Society in years to come. 

Apart from the silence about a major fraud and a fire at the Leicester office, other points for the imagined bulletin board would have been her comments on matters of broken governance. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, to lose one President was unfortunate, but to lose two was careless, and to lose three (note over just a two month period) was a governance catastrophe.  Ashby prefers instead to keep up appearances of probity and a ‘problem what problem?’ stance to what is being said in public. 

Other absent items from her bulletins relate to the NCVO commenting on the psychologically unsafe culture in the BPS (reported in Third Sector). No news either from her about the considerable amount of money paid to fancy lawyers, to set in train the removal a radically reforming President Elect, who was both intent on cleaning up the longstanding misgovernance and a whistle blower in waiting. Some members might have a view on whether this vindictive use of lawyers was a good use of their fees. They may have to wait some time for the facts to emerge to make that judgment but those payments were made and, to my mind, their ethics remain in considerable doubt.

Moving from the silences to what Ashby does say above, a first impression is that it seems like a lengthy exercise in transparency, especially compared to the norm from the SMT in the past year of evasions. Demands for accountability from us have been either ignored or, if they have been too persistent, elicited charges of us bullying or harassing BPS employees. Prior to that we were issued with a cease and desist notice for simply mentioning that the CEO was suspended in November 2020. 

At that point the cabal could not discern the difference between material facts (he was and remains on extended leave following his suspension) from matters of confidentiality. Maybe since then their legal advice about that distinction has now prompted Ms. Ashby’s willingness to discuss that material fact in her mail. Maybe members might also be interested in how the resolution to the hiatus in his employment will now be resolved. Such a process itself is a material fact that is known to the cabal but is not being revealed to ordinary BPS members. 

The pressure from the Charity Commission might now be a factor in this seeming change of style from the ‘Deputy Chief Executive’. Although the Commission should have done more to date, they are still ‘engaged’ in relation to changes about the lack of independence of the Board of Trustees and the broken complaints system.

In light of the above silences, why this sort of letter now and what is it actually telling us beyond waffle about everything in the garden being rosy? The answer is that it is the picture Ashby wants us to believe about the purported organisational panacea of the Change Programme. The development of the latter was an early trigger point for the removal of the President Elect. He was demanding, on behalf of the membership, a coherent rationale with credible details attached transparently about the benefits being claimed. The SMT failed to provide the Board of Trustees with that needed information; he stood firm in his demands and he paid a high price. 

This exercise in faux-accountability reveals the political relationship between The Psychologist and those who ultimately control its content. By taking control of the discourse about the current and unresolved crisis, Ashby is doing her best to pretend that the crisis does not exist. But if it does exist then her control of the discourse will eventually become threadbare. The Society will disintegrate and its legitimacy will crumble, whatever we, or Ashby, say or do not say. 

A delusion now common in politics, large and small, is that discourse is everything; that if we can develop the right ‘narrative’ then reality will be what we want it to be. This postmodern Alice-In- Wonderland madness has not just created the implausible contortions of identity politics (another instrumentally embraced convenience for the BPS cabal), it has also led to extra-discursive causal powers being ignored at our peril. Donald Trump said that global warming was not a problem and we should just sweep up leaves differently to stop forest fires. Diane Ashby says everything is under control and no problems of probity exist in the BPS. They are both wrong and this letter to Peter Harvey is a recent illustration of this point.

"The Psychologist", Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

Where does your money go?

Peter Harvey posts….

For those of you who are not “BPS junkies”, the desire to read the Trustees Annual Report, particularly the 30 pages of accounts, may be low on your list of things to do before you die. So, more out of a sense of duty than for pleasure, I trawled through them in an (admittedly, accountancy-lite) attempt to see how members’ money was being spent. I was particularly struck by some significant sums spent on the Change Programme, high salaries and a £2m loan, so I felt that a more public debate might be of help to the membership, and a letter was sent on 17 August to the editor of The Psychologist, asking him to consider publication. 

Dear Editor,

The constraints in place around this year’s AGM mean that opportunities to ask questions were much reduced. However, in the interests of openness and transparency, I would ask that the membership has answers to the following (and, please, can we have a named, senior office-holder to respond, not an anonymous “The BPS” statement ).

1 The Change Programme has cost each member about £22 this year. Where are the objective, measurable outcomes for what amounts to about 16% of their subscription?

2 The BPS took out a £2 million loan to cover Coronavirus interruption. This is a considerable sum (subject to base rate + 1.69% interest after 12 months) for an organisation that clearly is in a very different financial situation to those businesses which depended on day-to-day income (such as the hospitality sector). The BPS also has over £21 million worth of assets. Why does the BPS add to its debt burden in what looks like an unnecessary fashion?

3 There has been a doubling of staff being paid over £60 000 (from five in 2019 to 10 in 2020). This is likely to have cost around £500 000. Is this good value for money and how is their performance measured in terms of real member benefits?

4 The total cost of these 10 relatively high earners is probably (as an estimate) around £1 000 000. This accounts for about 15% of the BPS’s total salary bill and costs each member (paying full subs)  around £10 p.a. These are the same people who, along with the Trustees, were in post whilst an alleged significant financial fraud took place. What actions has the BPS taken to hold to account any or all of any of these people, paid or otherwise, who are ultimately responsible to the membership for ensuring that there are proper financial controls not only in place but closely and effectively monitored?

You will note that I asked him to “…consider…” publishing, to which I got the reply (by return), “Will do.” (clearly a man of few words). Being a simple soul I wrote back “Not quite clear as to whether the ‘will do’ applies as in ‘will consider’ or as in ‘will publish’?”, to which I got the reply “Will consider.” (clearly no lover of verbosity). So when the October issue appeared – minus my letter  – I contacted the editor:

Dear Jon,

 I see that my letter did not appear in the month’s Psychologist. Does this mean that you are still considering it or that you have chosen not to publish. If the latter, please could you let me know why.

 Many thanks,

 Peter

who replied

Dear Peter,

I’m afraid we didn’t select it for publication. I did encourage senior management to get back to you with a reply; I can chase that if it hasn’t been forthcoming.

Best wishes

Jon

My reply to this was

Dear Jon,

No, I have heard absolutely nothing from senior management. And my question about the reasons for non-appearance remains unanswered.

Best wishes,

Peter

All these were dated 23 September and the next day I got the following email

Dear Peter

I am writing in response to your letter to the Editor of the Psychologist regarding some questions following the AGM on 26 July. As you are aware, AGMs held in 2020 and 2021 were virtual events due to the government guidelines requiring us not to meet in person due to Coronavirus. For both meetings, we asked for questions before the meeting and responded to those as part of the presentations during the event. We also asked for follow up questions to be emailed to our Governance team and we have responded to those via email. I am therefore answering your questions using that approach.

1.      The Change Programme has cost each member about £22 this year. Where are the objective, measurable outcomes for what amounts to about 16% of their subscription?

The objective of the Change Programme is to deliver the scope agreed by the Board of Trustees at their meeting in June 2019, on time and within budget. This is an investment programme so outcomes include:

·      better support for our members to take active roles in the society

·      increased connectivity between member groups

·      updated ways of working which are co-created with our members and reflect changes in the profession

·      modern, up to date IT systems which meet members expectations of a digital world

2.      The BPS took out a £2 million loan to cover Coronavirus interruption. This is a considerable sum (subject to base rate + 1.69% interest after 12 months) for an organisation that clearly is in a very different financial situation to those businesses which depended on day-to-day income (such as the hospitality sector). The BPS also has over £21 million worth of assets. Why does the BPS add to its debt burden in what looks like an unnecessary fashion?

The Board of Trustees agreed to the £2m loan in October 2020 when the implications of Coronavirus were still relatively unknown for the society. It was a way of hedging against any unknown impacts. As you will have seen in the annual report and accounts, the loan can be repaid from the reserves of the society when necessary.

3.      There has been a doubling of staff being paid over £60 000 (from five in 2019 to 10 in 2020). This is likely to have cost around £500 000. Is this good value for money and how is their performance measured in terms of real member benefits?

A new senior management team structure was designed and implemented in 2019 to ensure the strategic plans of the society could be implemented. Some of these roles were more senior than before but all roles were independently evaluated before implementation. Performance is measured against personal objectives which reflect the strategic aims of the society, including member benefits.

4.      The total cost of these 10 relatively high earners is probably (as an estimate) around £1 000 000. This accounts for about 15% of the BPS’s total salary bill and costs each member (paying full subs) around £10 p.a. These are the same people who, along with the Trustees, were in post whilst an alleged significant financial fraud took place. What actions has the BPS taken to hold to account any or all of any of these people, paid or otherwise, who are ultimately responsible to the membership for ensuring that there are proper financial controls not only in place but closely and effectively monitored?

You are in error in asserting that the same people were in post on the SMT and on the Board of Trustees for the entire time the fraud was being committed.

Once the fraud was discovered an independent investigation was immediately commissioned by the Board of Trustees and actions have been taken based on its findings. You will be aware that the Chief Executive is currently on extended leave from the society.

At the AGM in July I said:

I understand that, as members, you will have real concerns about how we protect the money that ultimately comes from your membership fees.

I want to assure you that we’ve learned a great deal from the incident, and have reviewed and significantly strengthened our internal process around expenses and the use of credit cards.

Over the last year, the society has had to navigate a number of highly sensitive and confidential processes, including those directed by the police, legal specialists and our own Member Conduct process.

Some of these process are still ongoing and must remain confidential at this time, but when we are able to, we will provide a fuller explanation. I want to thank you for bearing with us on this.

Yours sincerely

Diane Ashby

Deputy Chief Executive

My initial reaction is that this leaves a number of questionable statements which I will be following-up with Diane Ashby shortly. But I present the story here so far as my initial impetus was to open a public debate (hence a letter to our house journal which proudly proclaims its function as a “…forum for communication, discussion and controversy…”), so please feel free to comment, post and discuss.  A critical commentary from David Pilgrim follows in the next post.

Oh, and the editor still hasn’t told me why he didn’t publish.

"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, IAPT, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

The British Psychological Society: Failing the Public

Pat Harvey posts….

Because of their acknowledged expertise, Psychologists enjoy professional autonomy; responsibility is an essential element of autonomy. Psychologists must accept appropriate responsibility for what is within their power, control or management. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount.

Statement of values: Psychologists value their responsibilities to persons and peoples, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.

BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2018.

A dysfunctional Society

The British Psychological Society’s serious governance dysfunction, the central concern of BPSWatch (1) has important consequences, not only for the way it behaves towards its own membership, but ultimately in how it functions in relation to its responsibilities to the wider community. A Royal Chartered Charity, (2) its formal Objects may not explicitly state that it has that latter duty and responsibility to wider society, but the second Object requires it to have a Code of Ethics and Conduct (3). That Code includes the statement shown above and only a legal weasel or a BPS bureaucrat might, if pushed into a corner, attempt to deny that the Charter does not require a duty to the public at large. 

The growing awareness of the organisational dysfunction and the wilful withholding of information about this brought us together to form BPSWatch and the associated Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk. Whilst we and others have as yet failed to create sufficient pressure to see the ongoing involvement of the Charity Commission with the BPS over its governance problems escalate into a full Statutory Inquiry, we have helped to get information out into the mainstream and other media: The Times, The Telegraph and Third Sector. They will no doubt renew and sharpen their interest as anticipated legal cases become public. Meanwhile the individual concerns initially brought to us about specific policy topics which have been mishandled remain unresolved. It is our contention, and that of the complainants who have contacted us, that each of these is a matter of public concern and public protection.

 Unbalanced Views and Member Complaints

Psychology is, and should always be, alive and comfortable with controversy and debate. Members have a right to expect an open facilitative climate, where the best of psychological research, practice and policy formation would be supported and discussion promoted.  We, and others, think the BPS is failing to do this and efforts to complain about such failures have led to our focus on the actual suppression of viewpoints and the active censorship of controversies including  

Gender

Memory-Based Evidence

Prescribing Rights

IAPT

These impact directly on practitioners and the people and services they work with, but they also impact upon discussion in public life. They are matters of concern to the mental well-being of individuals who are vulnerable and finding themselves in threatening situations in their communities, in a clinic or in court. They are psychological matters still open to alignments of differing viewpoints.  We believe the BPS has a duty to address these, elucidate their conflictual aspects, review and weigh the evidence base and its adequacy, and specify remaining questions. 

Since this has not happened, members have tried to complain. They have often been ignored or met resistance.  A network of disparate, dissatisfied complainants discovered each other by word of mouth and email chains, and we were encouraged by this to set up BPSWatch.  The writer came into this originally due to what I believed to be grossly inadequate and incomplete BPS guidelines on gender for practitioners (4) which I had discovered in connection with a high profile childcare case which went to court.  I considered the guidelines totally unfit for purpose and was minded to complain. I then came across a statement made by a key player in their construction. This person’s formal presentation as an expert psychologist was recorded at an academic forum which was posted in an online video. They made a categoric statement that, based on what they held to be definitive research findings, the question of psychological outcomes of gender reassignment surgery was closed, stating “…the debate is shut. There is not a debate about that anymore…”. This is not a statement that any Chartered Psychologist should be making either in form or in content. It constitutes what will be taken by audience and viewer as authoritative summation of the current evidence base on outcomes of surgery. It misrepresents how psychologists should talk about scientific enquiry, and is actually untrue. It is, therefore, unethical. Furthermore, as a ‘take-away message’ in that forum and online, with the implied weight of the British Psychological Society behind that person’s position and reputation, it is seriously irresponsible. That message had the potential to impact directly, if heard, upon people making life-changing choices.

The BPS complaints team batted the complaint about the statement away. The first response (stage 1), was a blithe and ironic “…we are a broad church…”. I persisted, with references, and this aspect of my complaint, whilst taken more seriously and addressed in more detail, was rejected. They stated “…Although there will always be some dissenting voices, the idea that this represents a real schism in the scientific community [note, this misrepresents my precise concern] … is incorrect…”. In fact, subsequent reputable research publications (5) have strongly supported my contention that the jury was still out on this, and the debate is, and should, remain open. Uncertainty about those outcomes remains, and needs to be the subject of much more adequate data collection, follow-up and methodologically sound research. The psychologist I complained about was peddling certainties, taking a protagonist/activist position in the guise of the science, and the BPS was wrong to continue to support that. Vulnerable people, their families and their rights are ill-served by false certainties coming from supposedly highly authoritative sources, backed by the BPS

Conflict Avoidance

I have cited the above to illustrate not only the tortuous experience of trying to make a complaint to the BPS but also to illustrate how poor is the quality of the Society response. In the case of another of the topics listed above, Memory-Based Evidence, the BPS took a different tack – they dumped the challenge half-way through. The BPS’s previous out-dated guidance on this area was deemed to have been skewed at the time (2008, 2010) by the impact of the false memory/recovered memory lobby (6). The BPS had seemed, over the years and in the pages of The Psychologist, to have had stars in its eyes around a famous and foremost proponent, Elizabeth Loftus (7). She had been made an Honorary Fellow of the Society and lauded for her subsequent awards. Not all members were happy about this (8). For the interest of the reader, an admirable and informative account of the journalistically styled ‘Memory Wars’ can be found outside the pages of academic journals and The Psychologist in the link below (9). Such informed coverage puts the BPS house journal to shame. During the of writing this article, a US jury have shown limited sympathy with the defence case for which Loftus gave her usual form of evidence (10) and Robert Durst has been found guilty of a murder committed 20 years ago.

 A BPS-appointed Task and Finish group was set up to revise their outdated guidance. There was a good deal of demand for this from practitioners who appear in court in connection with many kinds of trauma, particularly in the context of historical child abuse allegations.  Well into its work, the working group was unexpectedly closed down (11). The Psychologist published a statement from the Chair of the Research Board suggesting this was an amicable and consensual decision – we have been directly informed by participants it was not.  As one comment amongst the many to The Psychologist stated “…I am a member of the Memory Based Evidence Group and I would like the right of reply to respond about some of what has happened in this Group, which was tasked on writing a document on Memory and the Law. I am unhappy about the Research Board’s decision to disband the group, and I do not think that there has been a satisfactory answer to why such a decision was made; this decision was made without consultation with the group members, nor with the wider Society….“(11). The announcement in The Psychologist was made with this statement “Unfortunately, the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, [my emphasis] as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”. (11)

Contained within this statement, one which might immediately raise the questions: “Who set those terms of reference?” and “Isn’t the contentiousness the very reason for these guidelines?” is a clue to where some of the underlying and poorly managed tensions may originate. Academic/practitioner conflicts have dogged other psychological associations; for example the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science in the USA (12). As someone from a practitioner background, my view would be that there are serious drawbacks to research which sets out to answer questions arising from the clinical environment using crudely artificial analogues. Memory based evidence is one topic illustrating the drawbacks in using research set up in staged non-personal settings to discredit the opinions (in the legal sense) of practitioners working in non-analogous trauma related circumstances.  If you have any doubts about the dire need for an authoritative dispassionate view on this particular controversy to protect individuals on both sides in an adversarial court environment, consider what the absence of that psychological balance does – it leaves courts wide open to the machinations of the British False Memory Society. How it actually goes about doing its work is described in detail in this video (13).  A balanced view from the BPS could surely weigh the concerns about false positives and false negatives within the context of BFMS strategies, the applicability of academic research to traumatic memory, and social context of the serious underreporting of child sexual abuse (14). This would greatly assist in the court setting which itself attempts, as does a practitioner, a case-by-case assessment of veracity. The BPS Research Board have in effect kicked the revision of the guidelines into the long grass, the old guidelines having been archived.  These, however, are still available to be cited and used on the uninformed if you know where to look online. 

The BPS Working for the BPS?

Further discussion of these topics, and also of the implications of the BPS failings on Prescribing Rights and IAPT, can be found in specific articles on the blog (15, 16, 17). They illustrate a systematic failure to conduct proper consultation over key concerns in service provision models and health service professional practice. Why and how is this happening? 

The BPS, it seems, has an opaque system and uses equally opaque criteria for choosing its preferred advisors and for what policies are to be discussed with government departments and the NHSE. Feedback to members is minimal or non-existent. We have been reliably informed that a BPS CEO felt quite free to negotiate with NHSE without the presence of any psychologist. This leaves the room for a Society with an ever more rapacious in-house business agenda to be sucked into any government ideology where a shared vested interest may appear. The wider views of members working in the field may well be sidelined or completely ignored. The alleged current government agenda on privatising health care/moving to insurance models is open to facilitation by the self-interest of particular voices who manage to gain favour. In that context, note the latest BPS attempts to convince the NHSE and PSA that the Society can regulate an influx of less qualified younger members who will bring in fees and subscriptions to swell the coffers. There is little reason to think this will go well. In contrast to welcoming ever wider groups for membership, senior members seem to be regarded as a nuisance – maybe more trouble than they are literally worth, unless they are securely corralled within the system’s tent and staying ‘on script’ with the assistance of the Society’s Comms team – being one of the ‘cronies’.

Cronyism and Its Ills

We arrived at the term ‘serial office holder’ to describe how some psychologists have made a parallel career from being a BPS ‘apparatchik’. These psychologists move from one office to another over years (sometimes decades), sometimes elected, sometimes appointed. They make a virtue of their extended contributions. They are able to use the BPS logo on their websites and list the many impressive offices they have held on their CVs. Thus their BPS career is likely to enhance their professional reputation. They like to give each other honorary lifetime memberships and even when that is done in an AGM on Zoom in 2021, you may be expected to stamp your feet under your desk in approval.

 It would seem highly likely that a regime where cronyism is a norm will lead to complacency, lack of critical reflection, closing ranks, and resistance to newcomers taking important roles. An extreme example of this was the opposition to, and the action taken against, the President Elect 2020-21, Dr Nigel MacLennan. He was elected on a reforming mandate and then expelled. The expulsion was heralded in a vilifying YouTube video for all to see even before he had chance to appeal. We know many members thought that horrible and immoral, and one can only shudder at the extent to which living in the BPS bubble has distorted the judgement and the personal morality of those implicated in, and complicit with, show trial tactics. The person chosen to conduct his ‘appeal’, far from being independent of the previous proceedings and personnel involved, described himself in an interview with The Psychologist, on assuming his own presidential office, as “…a BPS Junkie since 1984…”. He has been around the corridors, real and virtual, of the BPS for more than 30 years, the BPS and he being ‘in each others’ DNA’ so to speak. 

Not all serial office holders are treated well in the BPS, however, particularly if they start to question how things are being done. They too may be attacked and threatened like MacLennan. We have heard how some become very distressed, visibly so in meetings, but then increasingly conform; others resist but remain peculiarly defensive of some idealised notion of the organisation and its capacity for change despite all evidence of its malign dysfunction. These patterns are reminiscent of what has been called Stockholm Syndrome. It is pertinent to consider how an unhealthy organisational environment where the main focus is self-perpetuation might allow for another form of organisational capture, by activism. Any would-be activist moles would be well-advised to get their feet under the table by not rocking the organisational boat and to volunteer for taking on work others don’t want. Then they just need to wait for their policy agenda to float into view and haul it in.

Psychologists, Psychology and Activism

The writer has been a lifelong political activist and vigorously supports, in her personal life, action on climate change, poverty, inclusivity and world peace. I took to the streets in the 1970s when my town elected National Front/National Party councillors. I was part of the making of a World In Action TV programme on that racist environment. Those passionate views had to be put on mute in my clinical work. I currently hold strong views about many of the contentious topics in psychology, but our focus at BPSWatch is to ensure that no partisan view – including my own – within an area of ongoing scientist/practitioner debate captures the BPS. Some activists had assumed because we criticised BPS bias that we supported their ‘side’ of a particular argument, hence we have revisited and set out our agenda (19) – good governance, not certain ‘causes’.

We argue in BPSWatch that gender, memory-based evidence, prescribing rights and IAPT are amongst the topics that have been captured by a particular viewpoint and its activists. What follows capture is that debate is shut down, information restricted. Certain topics are being precluded from teaching and some psychologists are being maligned. Deeply unfair accusations of transphobia, sexism, racism, classism (the list grows daily) are never challenged by the BPS. This is aided and abetted by The Psychologist which actively fails to give balanced coverage to all legitimate views. Members have told us how their contributions have summarily been spiked in the in-house publications. It is not for the BPS to enter party politics and campaign, for example, on specifics such as Universal Credit. Rather, it should be making available the best research on poverty in relation to child development, adult mental health, crime and suchlike, and vigorously bringing this to the attention of politicians and decision makers. The same applies, as with the topics covered above and numerous others, to public awareness of the best evidenced range of views within which individual people are making the kinds of choices that many face and which will often change the course of their lives. This does not include rushing to be a signatory to a range of worthy campaigns (and how is the decision to sign – or not – made?). These psychological matters are serious.

The Results of Misgovernance are Failing the Public

The well-staffed, wealthy but seriously misgoverned charity that is the current British Psychological Society continues to fail its members and the public on the most crucial of standards, and for this we will continue to hold it to account.  We have hoped to see moves for radical change which would enable open communications with the large membership, bottom-up consultations and an inflow of new actively welcomed volunteers.  We hope to see new healthy structures at the top of the organisation, independent lay people as trustees. We believe it is only then that the BPS will serve the membership and the public as it should. Sadly, it just is not happening and there are no signs, despite the recent talk of ‘crossroads’, change programmes and tinkering with governance, that the change will come from genuine reflection within. Perhaps, therefore, it must come from without.

**************

Notes and Links

  1. Why the blog and why now? Charity Commission to Blog Author: “We are currently engaging with the society over a number of issues and have found deficiencies in some areas of operation” https://bpswatch.com/2020/11/20/why-the-blog-and-why-now/ 
  2. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/How%20we%20work/BPS%20Royal%20Charter%20and%20Statues.pdf
  3. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct%20%28Updated%20July%202018%29.pdf
  4. https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity 
  5. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.1778correction 

“The results demonstrated no advantage of surgery in relation to subsequent mood or anxiety disorder-related health care visits or prescriptions or hospitalizations following suicide attempts in that comparison. Given that the study used neither a prospective cohort design nor a randomized controlled trial design, the conclusion that “the longitudinal association between gender-affirming surgery and lower use of mental health treatment lends support to the decision to provide gender-affirming surgeries to transgender individuals who seek them” is too strong”.

  1. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/august-2017/positives-negatives-and-empirical-reasoning 
  2. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-5/news
  3. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/february-2017/no-congratulations-here
  4. https://www.thecut.com/article/false-memory-syndrome-controversy.html 
  5. https://www.courttv.com/title/8-4-21-the-jinx-murder-trial-intense-cross-examination-of-memory-expert/
  6. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/april-2021/not-good-look 
  7. https://behavioralscientist.org/long-winding-road-125-years-american-psychological-association/ 
  8. See Dr. Kevin Felstead, Communications Director, British False Memory Society reveal their strategy at I hour 4 minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WsY-AqM4Y8 
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/02/millions-children-religious-groups-vulnerable-abuse-england-and-wales
  10. https://bpswatch.com/category/false-memory-syndrome/
  11. https://bpswatch.com/category/prescribing-rights/
  12. https://bpswatch.com/category/iapt/
  13. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/07/bps-bullshit/ 
  14. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/14/what-this-blog-is-about-a-re-statement/