Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

BPS Bullshit?

David Pilgrim writes…..

The failure of the BPS to establish a Board of truly independent Trustees in 1988 has had a profoundly adverse impact on its culture of governance. This missed opportunity to ensure transparency and accountability triggered an oligarchy of recycled names.  Their dominance was then disrupted by the incoming professional managers, with their variable understanding of, and commitment to, academic values aligned with a purported learned Society. Between them the oligarchy and the managers created a cabal, and one of its key requirements to retain power and credibility was a norm of concealment. Divided internally, they did agree on a policy of keeping outsiders in the dark, leaving blogs like this, or investigative journalists, to expose the inner workings of the BPS.

Philosophical concerns with concealment

As we are elaborate language-using social animals, reliant on mutual trust, personal credibility is an ongoing requirement for us all. For this reason, deception has been a recurring topic in Western philosophy. Pre-Socratic thinkers described the problem of concealment (of facts and intentions) as ‘lethe’. This referred to deception and forgetting or oblivion. A counter to it, in order to ensure human flourishing, was the pursuit of ‘alethic truth’.

Interest in the topic was re-animated in the 20th century. This was a period of unrelenting war, elaborated political and theocratic propaganda and new mass communication technologies. It prompted particular interest in concealment from key political novelists (e.g., Orwell, 1949; Zamyatin, 1924). ‘Doublethink’ and other Orwellian terms, such as ‘thoughtcrime’, are now a part of a lexicon of critique and cynicism in our recent post-truth culture, dominated by identity politics. Orwell no doubt is spinning in his grave.

This was an ‘age of extremes’ and ‘century of blood’ (Hobsbawm, 1992) and reflective thought about its consequences for honesty and decency abounded. From existential philosophers of the right (Heidegger, 1927) and the left (Sartre, 1943) we find an obsessive concern for authenticity. Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith’ reminded us that deceit and self-deceit were joined at the hip in us all. To use the Sartrean-influenced phrase of Laing (1968), when discussing experience and communication, ‘we are all murderers and prostitutes’. 

Away from Continental reflection, Anglo-American philosophers also had similar concerns. Williams (2002) argued that the truth has two defining features: accuracy and sincerity. Bhaskar (1993) was more elaborate. For him alethic truth had three aspects: the ontological (objective facticity), the epistemological (knowledge claims) and the axiological (value judgments). To illustrate these three aspects of alethic truth, consider the ‘Burt affair’.

1 Is it true empirically that Burt falsified some of his data and invented names of authors in papers under his own editorial control?

 2 What theories or arguments were put forward to justify these accusations or defend or excuse his conduct?

3 Did the scandal undermine or support the credibility of British psychology and the political project of eugenics and why should these considerations matter to British society and its citizens?

Concealment in the vernacular

Another Anglo-American analytical philosopher of importance for our purposes was Frankfurt (1986/1988) who mapped ‘bullshit’ and its history in the 20th century. With alternative common descriptions (‘bull’ in military contexts and ‘bollocks’ in the British pub) bullshit grew in popularity as a dismissal from below of the rhetoric of those in power. While we are all capable of bullshit, elites (political, theocratic or managerial) have a vested interest in using it routinely to sustain their preferred version of reality, with a disregard for the truth. 

For clarity, bullshit does not refer narrowly to lying (Hardy, 2021). The liar, inveterate or occasional, like the truly honest person, is part of the same game. They both know what the truth is, but for a range of contingent personal or social reasons they opt to adopt a different approach to veracity. In particular, the liar will risk shame or guilt and censure and punishment if exposed, and these may be emotional considerations for them in the act of lying (and ambivalence about it).

By contrast, bullshit is both a personal and social process, whereby those dissimulating or evading the truth are indifferent to it. Their concerns are elsewhere, such as careerism, financial gain or personal survival and acceptance. The truth or otherwise, about this or that matter, is not a primary consideration for them, only egotistical gain. Their verbal or written statements might be truthful sometimes and not at others; this is merely a matter of instrumentality about which works, when. If they are caught out, they will rationalise or be evasive (i.e., they will bullshit more). ‘Damage limitation’ is a key tactic in the game of bullshit. No swords are fallen on or shame expressed; survival is what matters for the individual and homeostasis for their supporting culture.

Bullshitting individuals and bullshitting cultures

At times bullshit becomes a group process, as people with common interests opt to cover one another’s backs or conspire to evade a shared threat from without.  Organizational theorists now recognise it as being quite common (so the BPS cabal is in usual, if not in good, company), as Spicer (2020) outlines here:

Why is bullshit so common in some organizations? Existing explanations focus on the characteristics of bullshitters, the nature of the audience, and social structural factors which encourage bullshitting….I offer an alternative explanation: bullshitting is a social practice that organizational members engage with to become part of a speech community, to get things done in that community, and to reinforce their identity. When the practice of bullshitting works, it can gradually expand from a small group to take over an entire organization and industry. When bullshitting backfires, previously sacred concepts can become seen as empty and misleading talk.

Spicer lays out alternative explanations, with a favoured one, but of course in their own way they might all causally inflect different bullshitting organisations, case by case. Spicer distinguishes between bullshitting and lying (see above) and also emphasises that it is characterised by vacuous and misleading forms of communication. Deception is not necessarily a primary intention, but it is a frequent outcome. The primary intention is to maintain a version of reality that suits the bullshitter as an individual or as part of a group norm. As noted above, if the truth does that job, then that is fine. In the amoral pragmatic mindset of the bullshitter, either truth or lies might come in handy. 

The relevance of Spicer’s point about bullshit as a permeating organisational process, to the crisis in the BPS, is obvious. If a management culture, which wants to take control of the organization (it could be any organization for careerist managers) without reference to its espoused and traditional values, as a putative learned Society, then its credibility will be lost. When those values are discarded and the rhetorical gap, between claims of openness and actual secrecy, or academic freedom and actual censorship, becomes a chasm, then a serious credibility problem emerges. This is now the case in the BPS.

Bullshit of its very own

If the concept is overarching but also now commonplace, then what particular form has it taken in the BPS? What has been in its very own version of ‘empty and misleading talk’? BPS bullshit is generated on an ongoing basis to maintain the following mystifying version of organisational reality. Those inside the cabal probably really believe this bullshit, but increasingly the rest of us do not. Here are some examples of this point.

1 The complaints system is used selectively. Its existence provides a cover story for justice in the BPS. Members or the public are given the impression that it is an orderly and fair opportunity to establish the truth or otherwise of a grievance from the complainant. This is not true. It is a rabbit hole. Some complaints are ignored and those processed rarely lead to the complainant considering that they have been treated fairly. The complaints process is full of bullshit.

2 Unresolved concerns to the cabal, which the complainant keeps pursuing because they are unresolved, are turned into an accusation of them harassing staff. This evasion of accountability is an example of bullshit.

3 The BPS does, and it does not, process complaints against individual members. It all depends on what suits the interests of the cabal. This convenient selective attention is a form of bullshit.

4 The BPS Board is a charade, as it has not contained independent trustees since 1988. Its decisions and strategies are therefore all of dubious legitimacy. They constantly produce bullshit to justify their false and untenable position.

5 The oligarchy this has created over decades has generated a rhetoric of virtuous long service from a slow-moving elite group of psychologists. This has been a cover for their CV building, occasional financial sinecures and pursuit of their particular cognitive or political interests. This is more bullshit.

6 Policy capture, in light of points 4 and 5, has been rife but unacknowledged. Bullshit is used to cover up this process.

7 The Psychologist is not peer reviewed and, when called upon, it acts as a propaganda wing for the BPS Board. It has the semblance of an academically governed magazine, shop fronting the best of British psychology, but this is a charade.  This functions to ward off criticism of the organisational status quo and offers us more bullshit.

8 Financial misgovernance in the BPS has been present for the past 20 years but it has been covered up from the membership and the general public. In the past two years the bullshit generator in the BPS has been in overdrive.

9 The dysfunctional culture of the BPS was observed by consultants from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who were so anxious about its character that they rejected any further engagement. The membership was not made aware of this scenario, which required exposure by an investigative journalist. The silence of the cabal and a preference of a ‘problem what problem?’ approach to the matter of its toxic culture is form of bullshit (the latter can include what is not said as well as what is said).

10 Anyone attempting to rectify all of this mystification and misgovernance is vilified and scapegoated (see the treatment of the radically reforming and now expelled President Elect).

This is a cue for the next and final section.

Presidential smoothers and shakers

Given the culture of bullshit that has accrued in the BPS since 1988, how have those with Presidential aspirations responded? This seems to have been on a continuum from total complicity to one of explicit challenge. In the middle have been those who have tinkered and left in despair or perplexity, while trying to retain some personal dignity and credibility. Most recently this might be a description that fits David Murphy and Hazel McLaughlin, who bailed out. Others have pushed a little harder while in post and were punished by their peers on the Board. This was the case with Peter Kinderman and James Hacker-Hughes. The sticker on the windscreen of their particular stalled Presidencies still reads, ‘Charity Commission Aware’. We might all benefit from a fuller public account of their experience at some point. Eventually we might all be interested to find out what the Charity Commission rules on misgovernance and legal non-compliance in the BPS. This has been a long time coming, which for now favours the survival of the cabal.

The extreme anchors on the spectrum of complicity have been prominent very recently. Ray Miller was president of the Society in 2006. Apart from this role he has also at various points been Chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology and Chair of the Professional Practice Board. He was Honorary Treasurer of the BPS between 2013-2019 and was a Trustee for thirteen (sic) years. In conversation with the then CEO Tim Cornford in 2006 he described himself very honestly and fairly as being a ‘BPS junkie’ since 1984 (The Psychologist, 2006). He was called upon to Chair the rigged ‘appeal’ by the President-Elect Nigel MacLennan, after his expulsion. 

Note well, this was in the wake of trumped-up charges about MacLennan allegedly bullying a person who he had never named, accused, had any communication with or knowingly met. The truth of this scandal will eventually be heard, but for now we have had to suffer the scurrilous video on YouTube, fronted on behalf of the cabal by Carol McGuinness. This disparaged MacLennan and closed down his professional career. Moreover, it oozed bullshit. It was broadcast very publicly and very deliberately before the appeal against the decision was even heard. It contained the vacuous phrases about it being a ‘challenging year’ (for whom and about what?) and the Society being ‘at a crossroads’ (the direction signs saying what – ‘heaven this way, hell that’ or maybe ‘new honesty in that direction versus more bullshit in the other’)?

Thus, Ray Miller, a stalwart and beneficiary of the BPS culture for over thirty years, was asked to be part of this charade offering the face validity of his ‘independence’. He graciously accepted the role, and the stitch up of MacLennan was completed. In what possible sense (logical or empirical) was he independent of the cabal and the long-standing culture of misgovernance it continued to defend?  Only the wilfully blind could believe that this personal juxtaposition was anything but a stark contrast between one President who was, to use his own words a ‘BPS junkie’, and another who wanted to challenge openly the malfunctioning culture that was so addictive to a self-interested oligarchy. This whole scenario reflected bullshit not justice.  

The coda to this story is that we have a replacement for Nigel MacLennan, Katherine Carpenter. She has a reputation of decency from those who know and like her. However, the early signs are not encouraging. She has issued a Pollyanna statement about the future (pinning our political confidence on the ‘New Strategic Framework’). 

Any politician who wants to ‘draw a line under the past’ (another common bullshit cliché, like ‘wanting to make a difference’) and only look to the future should be held in suspicion. This is particularly the case given that the legacy of cultural failure since 1988 has undermined both public confidence and membership democracy. Given the gravity of the current crisis in the BPS, we have to go back honestly before we can go forwards confidently.  Carpenter’s very existence in the Presidential position emerged because of a clear past cultural failure and its imperviousness to legitimate challenge. Systemic resistance has tended to outwit individual Presidents, who have bothered to tinker and challenge. Why should Carpenter be any different?  

Readers may recall that the cabal decided to restrict who could stand in the Presidential election. From their control-freakery perspective this was a smart move. It pre-empted the risk of another radical reformer being elected.  The tactic worked by declaring that only candidates who had already proven their active or passive complicity could stand (i.e., members of Senate and Trustees). Senate members had self-evidently and consistently failed to challenge or address the misgovernance that MacLennan, as a lone voice, was describing.  Accordingly, anyone ‘elected’ from Senate (notably no Trustee put themselves forward) would already be a safe pair of hands for the cabal. The ‘election’ was not open to nominations from the general membership and the potential risk this might pose to the cabal: so much for democracy.

I will submit a longer version of this piece for consideration by the editor of History and Philosophy of Psychology. If it is accepted, it will probably be spiked by an anonymous apparatchik in the censorship department of the BPS. I have been there before and, as they say, ‘got the T-shirt’. 

Bhaskar, R. (1993) Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom London: Routledge.

Frankfurt, H. (1986) On Bullshit Raritan Quarterly Review. 6, 2, 81–100.

Frankfurt, H. (1988) On Bullshit: The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988. 

Hardy, N. (2021) Catcher in the lie: resisting bovine ordure in social epistemology Journal of Critical Realism 20, 2, 125-145

Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Zeit (trans J. Stanbaugh 1962 as Being and Time) New York: State University of New York Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (1992) The Age of Extremes London: Michael Joseph

Laing, R.D. (1968) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty Four London: Secker and Warburg.

Sartre, J-P. (1943) L’Être et le Néant (trans. H. Barnes 1956 as Being and Nothingness)London: Routledge. 

Spicer, A. (2020) Playing the bullshit game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organizations Organization Theory 1, 1-26.

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.

Williams, B. (2002) Truth and Truthfulness Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zamyatin Y. (1924) We (trans. G. Zilboorg) New York: E.P. Dutton

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

THE BPS AND THE FOURTH ESTATE

David Pilgrim posts…

Today the relationship between the cabal running the BPS and the press reflects the governance crisis now evident to us all. When it is ‘business as usual’ then the press office of any organisation simply scans for opportunities to maintain a positive public profile and promote its wares. However, the business as usual in the BPS in recent times has been, to say the least, problematic given the evidence of misgovernance and corruption.

Misgovernance in the BPS probably can be traced back to 1988, when the version of Board of Trustees adopted was a sham of a democratic structure, which had an inbuilt lack of independent oversight. By the turn of this century, corruption crept into the culture. In the past few years both misgovernance and corruption have interplayed. Slowly those outside of the current cabal, which is seeking in a rear-guard action to deny this historical reality or mitigate its personal damage for Trustees, are wising up. That critical scrutiny has come from a range of parties. 

The first wave of protest came from disparate members who encountered a broken complaints procedure and a rubber wall of resistance from the centre of the organisation. Some individual members left in disgusted exasperation. Some acted collectively to set up an alternative organisation (the Association of Clinical Psychologists). The second wave came from a reforming President-Elect, who was immediately marginalised, kept in the dark and then expelled in a show trial. In a continuing travesty of justice, he is now the victim of a biased mock appeal process. The third wave came from the Charity Commission in its ongoing attempts to bring the Society into legal and regulatory compliance. The fourth form of critical scrutiny came from the police, with their ongoing inquiries into acts of alleged criminality. 

Earlier pieces on the blog have dealt with this challenging scenario, which is  now a matter of verifiable fact. That grim reality is the context for Trustees jumping ship or clinging to the wreckage. It is also the grim reality, to be examined in bemusement and disappointment, for ordinary members waking up to the mess. Finally, the ‘fourth estate’ has now begun to play its part in reporting aspects of all of the above. 

Impression management during times of crisis

Press officers and advertising executives have a shared concern for what Erving Goffman called ‘impression management’ in relation to the self-presentation of individuals. It was extended by others to political and organisational information control (Peck and Hogue, 2018). How do these gatekeepers of impressions promote good news to advance the interests of their organisation and their current leadership and silence bad news? In the latter regard, in the common parlance of a new management class, with an eye to the training manual of the satire The Thick of It, how do they ensure ‘damage limitation’? 

Given the current crisis in the BPS, a number of tactics have been deployed in relation to the above waves of critical scrutiny. This is what has happened in each case. First, they ignored complaints from members or used the complaints sub-system as a rabbit hole. To reinforce this Kafkaesque obfuscation at the individual level, the whole membership was kept in the dark about what was going so badly wrong. The silence in the pages of The Psychologist (‘the magazine of the BPS’) limited the prospect of membership curiosity. Memos were sent to office holders discouraging frank and open discussion. Here is an example of one sent by a Trustee on behalf of their Board to office holders in sub-systems in December 2020:

Dear all, We are aware that questions are being raised by yourselves and by your colleagues. We are able to share the following BPS statement with you, which we have received today: 

“We are aware of unhelpful speculation and inaccurate information circulating on social media about a confidential staff issue at the society. This relates to a review about internal procedures within the society.  As some of the information that has been shared online is incorrect and potentially defamatory, we have written to the authors of these statements and they have agreed to remove them from their blog and twitter account. As we are sure you will understand, and as the review is ongoing, we have a responsibility to maintain confidentiality and we are unable to comment on this issue further.

We would also like to correct misleading information that states the society is being investigated by the Charity Commission. We are not aware that the Charity Commission has opened an investigation. We take our legal responsibilities as a charity seriously and would always inform our oversight bodies of any relevant issues affecting the society. Several months ago we responded to requests for information from the Charity Commission but we have not received any notification of concerns to date. We would like to assure members that the society continues to operate as normal.”

We hope this is helpful. The statement can be shared with committee members if they are raising questions. Questions can also be directed to the BPS communications team.”

This is a dream memo for those interested in critical discourse analysis. Apart from the overall sub-text, which is ‘please stop asking awkward questions or discussing matters we would rather not talk about’, it is rife with silences about authorial responsibility. If the speculation has been unhelpful then unhelpful to whom and why? If the information is inaccurate then what is the accurate information? Outside of the quotation marks, what does the word ‘we’ refer to? Inside the quotation marks what does the word ‘we’ refer to? Is that the same ‘we’ or a different ‘we’ and how would an ordinary member know the difference? Who exactly is ‘the BPS’? 

Turning to the assurance at the end about the role of the BPS communication team, do they have a vested interest in what is said and what is not said? Were individual members of the BPS communication team implicated in the moves to expel the President Elect or not? Did they confect the ill-advised video on YouTube, disparaging the expelled President Elect in advance of his appeal or not? Have they supported acts of censorship in the Society, thus betraying academic freedom or not? Have they been implicated in controlling what is said, and not said, to the press about concerns of misgovernance and corruption, which now has triggered more than one criminal investigation?

Answering the last question, journalists have been kept at bay with a range of tactics, including threatening them with legal action. There is a difficulty though with impression management when the context is one of dire dysfunction (the current actuality at the centre of the BPS). In a liberal democracy, secrecy in organisations and hostile refusals when approached by the press will tend to further encourage the curiosity of journalists. Not only are they used to evasions (they are experts themselves in impression management), they also are part of highly financed organisations with dedicated legal departments. 

This is especially applicable to The Times and the Daily Telegraph (the largest broadsheet circulation in the UK). David Brown at the former and Hayley Dixon at the latter have run stories which expose the current BPS dysfunction. Stephen Delahunty in the niche online magazine Third Sector has also played his part in exposing current problems in the Society. I understand that soon more will come on board with this scrutiny from the mainstream mass media. Journalists, like writers on this blog, are not going away and the cabal now have that new headache. 

It is one thing for members to be threatened with ‘cease and desist notices’ from the BPS (as applied to this blog in its early days), it is quite another to expect the same tactic to be successful with seasoned journalists and their supportive employers.  The futility of the current BPS tactic is borne of two problems for its communications team. First, newspapers, with the confidence of legal backing, will both investigate rigorously and publish confidently. Second, journalists will take more, not less, interest in the story if they meet evasions or threats from the target of their interest. 

The BPS as a medium-sized charity can eschew internal scrutiny from its members by using threats and evasions or expelling whistle blowers (see above). However, the press will not be cowed so easily. This leaves the BPS communication team with limited options. They can refuse to put journalists in touch with personnel (staff or non-employed volunteers from the membership) and they might defend a position as being reasonable and so not requiring undue scrutiny. They might simply refuse to comment – the preferred tactic, inter alia, of the defensive police suspect or the aloof government department. Here we do find a consistent line of reasoning: whether critics are internal from the membership or external from journalists, a ‘problem what problem?’ approach has become a sort of magical thinking from ‘the BPS’. 

However, members are not stupid (their IQs tend to be well into triple figures) and journalists are certainly not biddable dupes. The waffle in the memo above implies that critics are misrepresenting the truth – what, according to the Trustees, is the truth then? Was the CEO suspended or not? Was there a large fraud being investigated by the police or not? Did the Finance Director leave for employment elsewhere or not while he was under investigation? The distinction between the verifiable material facts, which should be disclosed transparently in the public interest, and the details of any process legitimately warranting confidentiality, in order to protect the fair treatment of individuals, is clear and readily made. 

What the cabal has done regularly recently is elide legitimate confidentiality and self-interested secrecy [see here].  The exact reasons for this secrecy will no doubt come out, in details to be eventually disclosed in court proceedings and any future employment tribunal hearings. At this stage, I can only speculate that the need to shroud the misgovernance in mystification and evasions is that Trustees, past and present, are now fearfully and fully aware of their legacy liability. The Trustees have been party to a lack of oversight about a number of serious matters over a period of time and they know this to be a fact. 

This scenario was evidenced in the concerns expressed by the resigning Deputy President David Murphy, earlier this year, when making vague allusions on Twitter to his concerns about governance and finance. However, note that he too has not given a full and frank elaboration to the membership of the governance wreckage he was now swimming away from. He knows far more than he is saying publicly. 

Secrecy, denials, deflections and evasions, embodied in the strategic ‘problem what problem?’ approach adopted in the communications team’s efforts at impression management, are our starting points for an empirical description of this case study of a dysfunctional organisation. These psycho-social processes have become an irrational collective defence for the cabal against future reckonings. In truth, judgment day will come eventually for those who have resigned, not just for thus who remained. In the eventual history of the BPS, these people will not have covered themselves in glory, to put it charitably. Resignations provide no protection, legally, from legacy liability.

An example of this point, which is already evident, is that to date, with the exception of the expelled President Elect, who repeatedly asked for accountability (and was punished for his efforts), the Trustees have provided no explanation to the membership of the financial cost of misgovernance. If they demanded accountability in this regard, then where might the members read the relevant reports?  Remember members have paid for all these shenanigans and yet the BPS continues to claim hypocritically to value transparency. Basically, the Trustees did not ask for, and so cannot provide the membership with, an account of how much money has been lost to the Society. 

The fraud is one aspect of this scenario, but so too is the Machiavellian spectacle of the Trustees wilfully using Society funds to seek expert legal rationalisations to punish and disparage the one man who blew the whistle on what was going wrong. And then there is the lack of a coherent and transparent business case for the organisational change programme, with its cool £6 million price tag. The press will probably take an avid interest in this and other matters in the near future. For journalists, money is one thing to reflect on, but so is policy distortion.

A Recent Case Study

On this blog we have highlighted that policy capture has occurred in the BPS from partisan interest groups, including the closure of the memory and law group to exclude the evidence of under-reported child abuse and its implications for adult mental health. Another example of ideological capture relates to some gender-affirmative activists driving BPS policy statements about the extension of prescribing rights for psychologists (a Trojan horse for some enthusiasts to prescribe hormones), the controversial gender document (British Psychological Society, 2019) and the manipulation of wording in the Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy. 

The latter document shifted from a non-controversial version in 2015, focusing only on homosexuality, to one in which gender identity was bolted on. Logically, sexuality and gender identity are quite separate matters and so should not be conflated in policies. However, that is precisely what activists, including representatives from the BPS, did in their re-writing of the document between 2015 and 2017 [see here and here].

This is a controversial matter, as the difficulties at the GIDS service of the Tavistock Centre have highlighted, with many psychologists who worked there leaving with serious concerns about the ideological capture of service philosophy. The lack of evidence of efficacy for the latter was at the centre of the judicial review, which emerged in December 2020. Despite this clear division within the psychological community about best practice, when responding (or not) to gender non-conformity, in society, the BPS is now linked in its policies to only one side of the argument. This leaves many therapists fearful about exploring options that are not based on routine gender affirmation and referral on for biomedical transition. This story of professional division was then picked up by the press.

A piece from Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph appeared on July 8th 2021, about the clinical freedom of psychological practitioners. The group Thoughtful Therapists recently successfully lobbied the government to proceed with caution and protect clinical freedom about intervention options. Dixon goes on in her piece (cited in full here):

‘They called on ministers “not to criminalise essential, explorative therapy” and warned that there had been a “worrying number of young people de-transitioning and regretting medical treatment”. After the petition reached 10,000 signatures, the Government Equalities Office responded and said that they would ensure the ban on the “abhorrent practice” of conversion therapy does not have “unintended consequences”. “We will protect free speech, uphold the individual freedoms we all hold dear and protect under-18s from irreversible decisions”, the department promised.

“We will ensure parents, teachers and medical professionals are able to safeguard young people from inappropriate interventions and are clear that this ban must not impact on the independence and confidence of clinicians to support those who may be experiencing gender dysphoria.”

They will be holding a consultation to work out the specifics of the new law in the coming months.

But there are fears that even if clinicians are protected under the ban, their work could be impacted by a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy which has been signed by all the major health, counselling and psychotherapy organisations in the UK.  

Little is known about the Coalition Against Conversion Therapy, which is the steering group for the memorandum, and it has not been revealed whether the document, which is due for review this month, will be looked at again.

The current 2017 document, which included “gender identity” in the definition of conversion therapy for the first time, was written with support of the controversial LGBT charity Stonewall.

The guidelines have widely been interpreted as proposing an affirmative approach and have led to psychotherapists saying that they avoid questioning children as young as six who come to them claiming they wanted to transition.

The Thoughtful Therapists have attempted to contact the signatories – including the NHS, the Royal College of GPs and the UK Council for Psychotherapy – asking to discuss the guidelines as they govern their work with a “vulnerable group of young people with many unknowns and an extremely poor evidence base for significant medical interventions”.

But they have not received a response from any of the members after Dr Igi Moon, chairman of the memorandum and the lead on the document for the British Psychological Society, asked her colleagues “not respond” to the email chain.

Dr Moon, who uses the pronouns they/them and is involved in trans activism, describes those with gender critical views as “terfs”, commonly defined as a feminist who excludes the rights of transgender women from their advocacy of women’s rights, and says that binary gender is inherited “from colonialism”.

In one debate Trans Liberation: What are our demands?, organised by Momentum activists, Dr Moon demanded that more hormones are made available and that GPs offer bridging hormones to those awaiting treatment.

Telling campaigners to lobby the Government, they said that there are “thousands of people who are not receiving treatment” and if it was any other condition that was “killing people” it would be getting more attention because “as we can see from Coronavirus, there are ways to fund health care”. Dr Moon added: “I am not prepared to stand back and watch my community die. It’s not going to happen, not again.” 

A spokesman for Thoughtful Therapists said that they are concerned as the document “seemingly mandates an affirmation-only approach to working with gender dysphoria”.

They added: “We are particularly concerned with the lack of transparency by the Coalition governing the document and its chairman Dr Igi Moon, who on numerous occasions has refused to engage with our professional concerns regarding treatment for gender dysphoria and has instructed signatory organisations not to speak to us. For such an important clinical issue, this stonewalling is shocking.”

Dr Moon and the British Psychological Society failed to respond to a request for comment.’(emphasis added, end cited article)

Note then that on a matter of serious public concern, with empirical claims being made about people being killed unless a particular form of healthcare philosophy is imposed monolithically on the British population, via the NHS, those making the claims refuse point blank to comment to the press or professional colleagues. The BPS refuses to offer a view, tacitly therefore supporting the current policy formation shaped by gender activists. 

Whatever position a reader may take on this topic (which will vary in a community of scholars and practitioners, mirroring their host society divided on the matter), behind this evasion from the BPS is the recurrent failure of governance in relation to policy formation. I would apply this critical claim to policies that I actually agree with, and even have been party to developing, including, for example, the BPS documents on psychosis (https://www.bps.org.uk/what-psychology/understanding-psychosis-and-schizophrenia), as well as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (Johnstone and Boyle, 2018). 

The point here is that if the BPS were functioning properly as a learned society, which routinely set up in advance proper terms of references about any policy and ensured all voices in the Society were then heard, then post hoc protests would be pre-empted, and wasteful publicly enacted divisions avoided. A learned society should be open and transparent about considering evidence, forms of inference and value positions from all parts of the membership academic and applied

However, as both the law and memory debacle and the example just given demonstrate, this inclusive and scholarly approach to policy deliberation, formation and eventual recommendation are not ensured. They are not ensured because the BPS is not a well governed organisation. To make matters worse, a culture of impression management celebrated by those who have no academic background or experience in the values of psychology, as a discipline, now dominates the BPS in the wake of a management coup. 

The press may well continue to play their part in alerting us to what is happening in relation to matters of finance and policy. One thing is certain: that sort of reportage will not be forthcoming from the cabal, nor will it be elaborated in the pages of The Psychologist. The BPS communication team will make that outcome a strategic priority. Meanwhile the world, including journalists, looks on to an organisation that claims to be both transparent and learned. The reader can make their own mind up. But to do so they need access to the story of what has really gone on in the BPS, since the turn of this century. 

This blog and curious journalists will keep fleshing out this story. Historians of the Society and the state of British psychology are now beginning their work. A future empirical sign of integrity and probity in the BPS, if it survives as a charity and credible learned organisation, will be that such historical accounts are published not censored. We should be grateful for the role of a free press in helping secure that preferred outcome.

British Psychological Society (2019) Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Johnstone, L. and Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D. & Read, J. (2018) The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the Identification of Patterns in Emotional Distress, Unusual Experiences and Troubled or Troubling Behaviour Leicester: British Psychological Society. 

Peck, J. A. and Hogue, M. (2018). Acting with the best of intentions… or not: a typology and model of impression management in leadershipThe Leadership Quarterly29 (1): 123–134. 

Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS REDACTED

Ashley Conway posts….

In October 2018 the BPS stated: “In response to our members desire for more transparency, Board of Trustee minutes will be available following each meeting“.  Now that sounds very wonderful. However, there are problems in the list of meetings provided by the BPS on their website – minutes of the meeting of August 2020 are missing.  This would almost certainly have been the first one attended by the (now expelled) President-Elect, who was voted in on a platform of promoting reform of the Society.  As a responsible trustee, he made a number of requests for information about what was going on with BPS, in keeping with Charity Commission requirements.  None of this information appears in any form on the BPS website. There have been 5 meetings since this one, although the minutes of the April 2021 meeting have not appeared either (why is that?).

So, there are four meetings that we can see since August 2020.  

Let’s look at the rates of redaction in the minutes on either side of that “disappeared” meeting in August 2020:  In the 4 Trustee meetings before it, there were 4 redactions; the 4 before that, 4; the 4 before that, 3.  In the 4 after our democratically chosen President-Elect asked for more transparency, there were 12 redactions in the minutes.  Three times as many redactions after that “lost” meeting than before.  Then, after all those redactions the President-Elect received the YouTube knife in the back.  We psychologists are trained not to jump to assuming causality – so perhaps this sequence of events is simply a matter of chance.  Hmmm…I think we should be told.

And, critically, who makes the decisions about what to redact? Of course, all organisations have to keep some information confidential from time to time – I understand that, but there is usually an explicit, public statement about what material should be redacted and for how long such a restriction should last. Does such a policy exist?  If so, can we have sight of it?  If not, why not? Can we be assured that it is regularly reviewed and agreed by the Board of Trustees? Are decisions about what material is to be redacted made at the relevant meeting, with the full agreement of all those present?  What is the basis for redactions? When, and by whom, are the draft minutes reviewed? This information, fundamental to good, open and transparent governance, should be available to all members, to whom the Society is ultimately accountable. We, as members, have a right to know – the BPS has a duty and responsibility to keep us informed.

Sadly, far from achieving the 2018 target of greater transparency, what we can actually see in 2021 is an opaque, undemocratic, ruling cabal that appears to be becoming more secretive.

The recently published letter from the NCVO (https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/ncvo-pulled-consultancy-work-charity-amid-fears-detrimental-its-staff/management/article/1719976) drew attention to serious “…internal dispute between senior management and Trustees…” at the BPS.  Stories had been circulating for some time that Trustees did not think that minutes accurately reflected what was said in meetings.  So, who writes the minutes?  And who chooses what to redact?  It should be the Trustees, but word has it that this task is carried out by a Senior Management Team employee, and not a Trustee.  An employee who has no legal liability for what is done in the name of BPS, rather than a Trustee, who does carry such liability.

This is not just a bureaucratic issue of little relevance.  The management team are responsible for operational matters, and the Trustees are responsible for governance.  Yes.  Governance is the responsibility of the Trustees.   Muddling these two paves the way to chaos and to mismanagement.  This matter goes to the heart of governance of a charity turning over £13 million a year.  These issues do not put the Trustees in a good place – either they do know about the misgovernance and are therefore doing nothing about it, or they do not know about it, because they do not understand their roles and obligations.  Either way, they need to take their responsibilities very swiftly, before it is too late.  

Continue reading “BPS REDACTED”
"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers

David Pilgrim posts….

Today, the concept of a ‘legitimation crisis’ can be applied clearly to the BPS. Although explored at length in a book with that title by Habermas (1974), many other social and political scientists have returned to the theme. This is about leadership regimes, which may notionally still retain power, but their strained credibility reflects an imminent or current breakdown in their actual authority. The cabal currently at the centre of the BPS is still in power but its credibility is in rapid decline. It lacks what Eric Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, called ‘rational authority’ and, instead, exercises power on its own terms in order to ward off the stream of criticism warranted. For Fromm this would be an expression of ‘irrational authority’.

On this blog we have been reporting the character and history of this crisis in recent months and each entry, such as this one, is a new take on an unprecedented state of affairs for the Society. The occasional flurry of criticism of rogue celebrity researchers, such as Cyril Burt (Joynson, 1988) or Hans Eysenck (Marks, 2018), barely dented the reputation of the BPS. Similarly, the spat between the Maudsley methodological behaviourists and their scorned psychodynamic colleagues from north of the Thames, in a struggle to control the Medical Section and its journal, led to a temporary closure of its business in 1958 (Pilgrim and Treacher, 1991). These small eruptions of doubt, that all was well in the BPS, pale into insignificance today. We have never seen anything like this, either in living memory or in the literature on the history of British psychology. Those past examples, looked at in the current context, are like comparing a bar room brawl with a military coup. 

In meetings of the Board of Trustees today all of the Presidential triumvirate have gone, so it contains nobody elected from the general membership. Unelected Senior Management Team members now outnumber Trustees from the sub-systems. This trend is now amplified by the Board preventing members electing a replacement for the radically reforming President Elect, after expulsion from the Society, a cue for the next main point.

The public disparagement of Nigel MacLennan

The video released, vilifying the President Elect in advance of his appeal being submitted and heard, is a complete outrage. It offends our normal understanding of natural justice and leaves the Board of Trustees, who planned its production and dissemination on YouTube, open to the charge of unethical and possibly illegal activity. Are the Trustees so determined to crush this man’s reputation that they will simply ‘do anything that it takes’? 

It is officially the position of the BPS (according to its own website for all to read) not to investigate individual members. However, does that claim fail to apply only when it is politically expedient for the interests of the incumbent leadership? Are the members seriously expected to believe that this has been anything but a ‘stitch up’ from start to finish? Was the investigation panel hand-picked by the Board of Trustees or not? How many on that panel were truly independent and without their own vested interest in the current regime of power? Were membership funds used liberally by the Board to hire legal advice in order to justify the scapegoating of a reformer, turned whistle blower? The questions go on and on. Some of them ultimately may be resolved in court but what is clear already is that Nigel MacLennan has not been treated in a fair manner, if we use everyday criteria of common sense and decency.

If the stitch up hypothesis is in doubt, look at how Carol McGuinness, in a follow-up document to that unedifying and ill-advised video, made it quite clear that even if Nigel MacLennan were to be re-instated on appeal, as a member of the Society, he would still not be permitted back to his role as the President Elect. This nothing-left-to-chance approach, reflecting the persecutory intent of the Board, sticks out like a sore thumb in this planned and vindictive attack on a man whose career has now suffered immediate detriment. 

I can find no justification for this pre-emptive strike from McGuinness, on behalf the Board, within the Statutes and Rules. Does she offer no rule-based rationale in the script she is reading because one simply does not exist? This brings us back to Fromm’s notion of ‘irrational authority’. Those in power often do and say things, simply because they can. But do we have to believe this travesty of justice? And given that under Statute 20 of the Society, the Board should have been chaired on an interim basis by MacLennan not McGuinness, is there an Alice in Wonderland feel to this whole scenario? 

We know that such a surreal quality can indeed emerge from group think, especially when it leads to scapegoating in order to create an illusion of homeostasis and harmony (Baron, 2005; Leyens et al. 2000). The warring factions of the SMT and the Trustees could take temporary comfort in a common enemy to be eliminated, but the facts of the crisis are still there, with or without the removal of MacLennan. Facts do not disappear because they are ignored conveniently by displacement activity or an ostrich stance.

Keeping the membership in the dark

If a making-the-rules-up-as-you-go-along approach to governance now characterises the workings of the cabal, then another supportive tactic has been information control. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the silence in the pages of The Psychologist. An exception has been the printing of the statement about the expulsion of MacLennan from McGuinness (giving the BPS a free noticeboard posting without editorial comment or analysis), as well as the link to her video. No right of reply was offered to MacLennan. If this were a normal magazine it would reflect the normal rules of journalism and both sides of a story would have been offered, or at least taken into account.

However, this is not a normal magazine. For example, the political turbulence in the Society, should have warranted some commentary but none has been evident. Its inside cover reminds us every month that it is ‘…the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. If this means that it obeys the contingent expectations of those running the BPS, then this is actually a fair and valid description. However, maybe members of the Society have broader expectations (such as it being a forum for free debate about the current legitimation crisis). Such expectations are indeed raised, conveniently, by the subsequent cover description ‘…It provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society…’. Has there been any actual sign of the latter, in practice, in the past turbulent year? Why are ordinary members still playing catch up about the financial scandal in the Society, the fat file of complaints being held by the Charity Commission and the expensive legal shenanigans to expel Nigel MacLennan?

During the crisis, the monthly column of the Chief Executive Officer suddenly disappeared without editorial comment, and we slowly became aware that he was ‘not in his office’ and his function was then taken on by his Deputy, Diane Ashby. And before the President, Hazel McLoughlin, also disappeared from the pages because she had resigned, citing family reasons, the content of her column revealed nothing to the membership of the chaos and tensions, which led to the resignation of the Vice President David Murphy. He explained on Twitter that this was because of his concerns about both governance and finance.  

However, the role of this ‘magazine’ has not gone unquestioned. For example, here is a reply to Pat Harvey from the editor (12.12.20) responding to her criticism of The Psychologist failing to provide information of legitimate concern to the BPS membership:

We are not a ‘house journal’, we are a magazine. Our responsibility is not to speak for the Society or to align with any documents it might publish; it is to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among members and beyond.

This restatement of the confusing and contradictory blurb, cited earlier from the inside cover of The Psychologist, does not cease to be confusing and contradictory simply because it is robotically restated. Does the membership deserve a better journalistic service, during the current legitimation crisis of the BPS, than this sort of vacuous rhetorical gambit? The supine post-it-board role offered by The Psychologist on behalf of the current BPS leadership, reminds us of one of many of Orwell’s dire warnings about democracy: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.’

The exchange between Pat Harvey and the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, did not end with the above restated confusion. She also wrote to the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Committee, Richard Stephens, starting with a complaint about the narrow and prejudicial role of The Psychologist, when being biddable and posting the offensive video. She made other criticisms of the magazine as well. This was the response she received from Stephens:

Thanks for your letter and for raising these concerns. I plan to table these for discussion at the next meeting of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee on 24th June. I felt that your first raised point warranted some urgency of response so I discussed it today with our editor, Jon Sutton. Jon’s view was that while the video featuring Professor Carol McGuinness as Interim Chair of the Board of Trustee has been widely disseminated among BPS members, it is unlisted on YouTube. Given that The Psychologist has a much wider audience, Jon reflected that it’s inclusion in the piece “‘The Society is at a crossroads’” was not appropriate. On that basis the video has been removed. I will feedback in due course following our meeting on the 24th

This is a small sign of good sense and fairness from Richard Stephens, although at the time of writing the video is still available on YouTube.  Will this be the start of a period of genuine honest reflection from the Advisory Committee? Would the video have been removed had it not been for these critical questions from Pat Harvey? In my view, it seems as though those below the cabal level in the Society are very slowly waking up to the serious challenges that the legitimation crisis is posing for freedom of expression and balanced and open journalism in the future pages of The Psychologist. Elsewhere on the blog I have addressed the matter of censorship in the Society.

The ethical and legal culpability of the Trustees

The Charity Commission continues to work with the Society to bring it into ‘regulatory compliance’. This raises questions about the role of the Trustees in the recent past. How many of them (other than Nigel MacLennan), out of public interest, took their concerns about poor governance and financial irregularities to the Charity Commission or the press? 

Many resignations have been evident in recent months, including the President and Vice President. Are they now prepared to offer a full and frank account to the membership of what happened in the Board, which went so badly wrong? This could be a starting point for the ‘root and branch’ reform now required, to reverse the demise of the organisation. 

Will they admit that the conflicts of interest inherent to the current definition of a Board (which date back to a lack of specificity in the Royal Charter arrangements in 1988) have been routinely out of sync with current expectations of properly independent trustees in charities today? The current Board of Trustees is a sham because its members all have conflicts of interest and there are no outsiders from the Society to offer impartial oversight. Given the legitimation crisis, should the current Trustees at least own up to this basic fact, resign and insist on a properly constituted Board in line with Charity Commission expectations?  

And if it turns out that the negligence, or worse, of some Trustees has cost the BPS dearly, will they be held liable for these costs, as Charity Commission regulations allow? Will BPS members now seek to hold Trustees liable for the seeming losses incurred to the Society, by their apparent lack of oversight? Will that liability also extend to those who resigned but were in place during that period of apparent lack of oversight (in legal terms this is called ‘legacy liability’)?

This particular legitimation crisis, like all others, never stops posing questions for democracy. We all (not just a few pushy malcontents) need to keep asking them. The passivity in our current zeitgeist about trying to influence events around us does not have to lead to fatalism. We can still challenge the cabal and the current shambles in the BPS, as this blog and Nigel MacLennan have already demonstrated. The more of us taking up this challenge, the less likely that victimisation will be seen and the more likely that the Society will be saved from its own self-inflicted wounds. 

Baron, R. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 37: 35.

Habermas, J. (1974) Legitimation Crisis Boston: Beacon Press. 

Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge

Leyens, J. Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A. P., & Gaunt, R. (2000) The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4, 2, 186–97.

Marks,D.F  (2019) The Hans Eysenck affair: time to correct the scientific record Journal of Health Psychology 24, 4, 409–42.

Pilgrim, D. and Treacher, A. (1991) Clinical Psychology Observed London: Routledge.

Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The End of Membership Democracy in the BPS?

The campaign in the self-serving bunker at the centre of the BPS continues unabated. Its main character, which we have documented in our posts in the past few months, includes a number of strands. Some reflect the tactics of evasion and secrecy. They include complaints being ignored, as well as concerns (that are not complaints) being turned into complaints and sent into a rabbit hole.  The complicit non-reporting of the crisis in ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’ has been a trusted management mechanism to keep members in the dark. Dictates have been sent out by ‘Trustees’ to Senate members to demand their silence in a comical pantomime of control freakery.

Other tactics have involved clear projection: a bullying and high-handed culture of management has accused its critics of being the bullies. The power asymmetry here between the parties is ignored but that acknowledgment would require a capacity for honest reflectiveness. Journalists just doing their job in a democracy have been threatened with legal action. By any standards of common sense and fair judgement, this precarious regime of power has had a probity bypass. 

The most egregious example of this has been the ‘investigation’ and subsequent expulsion of the President Elect. His sin was to be open from the beginning about reforming the governance arrangements in an organisation which, for years, had flouted the normal expectations of charity law and good practice guidelines offered by the Charity Commission.

What price membership democracy?

The literal price of being in the BPS is known to its membership. For now, some of those fees are maintaining the high salary of a CEO who is still ‘out of the office’, so remains unable to fulfil his duties. Those in the bunker have told us nothing, so members are left to speculate. 

In the few days that have elapsed since the expulsion of the President Elect was announced (in a scripted account – crafted by whom?), matters have deteriorated further. The unprecedented video from the ‘Interim Chair’ of the Board of Trustees was a callous public disparagement of the President Elect. Speaking from an office and role that, under Statute 20 of the Society, she still has no right to hold, her personalised career-threatening attack upon him remains on Youtube for the world to see.

This scandal now has worsened.  A rapid election is to be held to replace the summarily deposed President-Elect before his appeal has even been heard. From well before he took office there were overt intentions to obstruct him wherever possible. We believe that there is evidence to support this that will be made public. Like the ‘investigation’ of the allegations against him this is a travesty. History will judge those responsible for deposing him, so this faux process of justice will peter out to its discreditable conclusion.

In case members are getting too excited about choosing someone new and untainted by what has gone before, they need to be prepared for a disappointment. This is the score. Only candidates from the current Board of Trustees or Senate members will be permitted to stand. This is the very group under whose ‘oversight’ the Charity Commission has become involved on an ongoing basis. There is an active police investigation into an alleged major fraud (watch this space next month). The self-same group from which the Vice-President resigned,  citing issues about “…governance oversight, escalating expenditure and lack of openness and transparency…”, which he communicated to the Charity Commission.  Former President, Professor Peter Kinderman, informs us that several years ago “…When I was President, I was routinely excluded from key decisions, was threatened with legal action over ‘fraud’ (I was completely exonerated, of course) and forced to resign (as Vice-President) for advocating for what is now effectively BPS policy…” .

What sort of real choice are members now given?   

The candidate will be drawn from a pool of complicit individuals. They assume that everything in the garden is rosy and the much-vaunted £6 million Change Programme will supercharge the BPS, when the membership to date have been shown no substantive evidence to support this wishful thinking. 

Meanwhile, for now, any vestige of membership democracy has been placed on indefinite hold. We can only hope that needed legal proceedings, active media interest and decisive action from the Charity Commission will, between them, resolve this sinister and shameful demise of the public face of psychology in the UK once and for all. 

BPSWatch – Editorial Collective

Board of Trustees, Financial issues, Governance

Twenty Tough Questions for ‘the BPS’

Questions are coming thick and fast from colleagues new to the story of the crisis in the BPS. Of course, they are new to it because, amongst other things, the Board of Trustees (BoT) and Senior Management Team (SMT) have been secretive about the facts. In the past year nothing has appeared in The Psychologist (relevant note: ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’) to give the slightest hint of any organisational problems. The CEO’s monthly homilies petered out with no editorial explanation. The President, who has recently resigned, made absolutely no mention of the troubled state of the organisation in her final ‘reports’.

This blog and an increasing number of reputable journalists are now bringing into public gaze the extent of organisational dysfunction in the Society. We have been trying our best to do what the BPS has palpably failed to do in relation to transparency. However, we are not private detectives or forensic accountants and nor do we have the investigatory powers of the Charity Commission. The latter is hovering nearby, but to date it has not fully disclosed its intentions in relation to its ongoing ‘engagement’ with the BoT. Given the very large file of complaints against the Society, we are left wondering what will be the tipping point for them to announce a Statutory Inquiry.

The 20 questions that require answers

Here we raise some questions crossing our minds and those put to us by perplexed colleagues. Ipso facto, we cannot answer them definitively but we can pose them in good faith on behalf of the membership.

  1. Why is the CEO still in post and being paid (from membership fees) but ‘not in his office’?

2. The Finance Director left the Society abruptly just before Christmas last – what were the circumstances surrounding that departure?

3. Was the expelled President Elect genuinely allowed to conduct his duties and was he given access to information appropriate for that task?

4. Was there a deliberate strategy on the part of the BoT and SMT to marginalise and disempower him, given his election pledges to rectify governance problems in the Society?

5. Was there a large fraud conducted in the Society that is still being investigated by the police? 

6. What recruitment checks were conducted on the person who was alleged to have committed the fraud?

7. Who appointed this person?

8. Was the arson attack on the Leicester office during this period of turmoil (unreported to the membership) linked in any way to the alleged fraud investigation?

9. Did the BPS report the arson to the Charity Commission, as it is supposed to do under their guidance?

10. Why did the SMT refuse to give the BoT access to critical information, about the £6 million ‘change programme’?

11. What oversight was the BoT providing of the SMT and how was the effectiveness or otherwise of that oversight assessed? 

12. Did the BoT consider that its culture of information restriction, which we have experienced directly ourselves, reasonable for a membership organisation professing a value of openness and transparency?

13. Why did the BoT make public the alleged grounds for the expulsion of the President Elect in advance of his appeal?

14. How can the President Elect have a fair appeal, when it appears to have been already prejudiced?

15. In light of answers to the above questions, has the President Elect been subjected to a ‘kangaroo court’ or ‘show trial’?

16. Was there a planned and wilful campaign to remove the President Elect by the BoT and SMT, as both a radical reformer and a whistle blower, as soon as he was elected?

17. Have journalists making legitimate enquiries, about all of the above matters, been threatened with legal action by the BPS?   

18. Had the Vice-President, who resigned citing concerns about finance and governance, already ensured that those concerns were reported fully to the Charity Commission?

19. The ACAS definition of bullying is this: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, involving an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”  Accordingly, does the action of broadcasting a video denouncing the President Elect constitute bullying by the BPS? 

20. Finally, does the BoT now knowingly have a policy to ward off legitimate questions from members about governance matters, by alleging that the questioning, in of itself, constitutes bullying and harassment of BPS staff? 

The final question is rhetorical; as victims of this tactic we can vouch that the answer is in the affirmative. Some of the questions on the list relate to criminal matters and others to aspects of due diligence and common decency. Ordinary members not only pose them now on reasonable grounds, but they deserve reasonable answers. The BoT have warded off the inconvenient truth surrounding the questions, using a mixture of silence, glib evasions, bureaucratic obfuscation and legal threats. 

Is this how we expect a properly functioning learned organisation to operate, with its rhetorical adherence to the principle of openness and transparency? We ask readers to please send us any other questions that come to mind, which we might have missed from the above list. If we cannot answer them we can at least share them.

We will be posting some more detailed analyses of these questions over the course of the next couple of weeks.

The BPSWatch Editorial Collective

Board of Trustees, Governance

Sins of omission – more rhetoric of justification from the BPS Board of Trustees

From the Editors of BPSWatch…

The crisis of governance in the BPS has been rumbling on for the past year. Slowly journalistic interest appeared, with articles in Third Sector and the Daily Telegraph leaking to the public what the BPS Board or The Psychologist had failed to disclose to the membership. This invites us to reflect on what is not said as well as what is said, when considering organisational rhetoric to justify the status quo (philosophers interested in absence dub this an ‘omissive critique’.).  

For those of us who think a better future must start with an honest reflection on the present, then we cannot rely on the preferred account of reality declared by the BPS Board of Trustees (BoT). They are not the whole problem (that is systemic and cultural as we have noted in several of our postings) but they are the current living proof of that deeper and longer problematic picture.  In that context, we now turn to a brief omissive critique of an important Board statement.

The Board response to the recent article in the Daily Telegraph

On April 26th 2021, Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph provided us with a rough but accurate sketch of the governance crisis and its consequences (see here). Here we provide in full the ‘official’ response offered from ’the BPS’ then next day (see here).

Responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Interim Chair of the Board of Trustees, Professor Carol McGuinness said:

For more than a century, the British Psychological Society has promoted the practice of psychology and advanced professional thinking on often complex and contentious issues. With more than 60,000 diverse members, debates on professional issues are often vigorous and there is sometimes heated disagreement between our members.

The past 18 months have been turbulent for the BPS as we go through a process of significant and much needed organisational transformation. During this period several working groups have considered very sensitive topics which have gone through an expert and democratic process.

Our guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are not, in our view, at all contentious. They require our members not to discriminate against individuals and to treat them with respect. This includes the use of appropriate, inclusive language, which all patients and clients should be able to expect.

The guidelines relate to adults and young people and not to the treatment of children, and professionals understand the difference. Our guidance does not contain any reference to the prescribing of puberty blockers for children under the age of 16.

There is general debate across the health sector on the extension of limited prescribing rights for different professions, something that has brought benefits to patients through, for example, the work of nurse prescribers. There are strong views among our members about whether some psychologists should be granted prescribing rights, with vigorous positions presented by those both for and against this potential change.

However, our research to date on prescribing rights, following a two-year consultation process – that it could be useful in certain settings – is simply a contribution to the debate.

The debate on prescribing has no connection whatsoever to our guidance on gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. We have always been clear that the issue of prescribing rights will require further debate and indeed the BPS does not currently have a fixed position on this issue. We have repeatedly stated that we will continue to listen to and engage with our members on this important issue.

Ultimately, the BPS does not have the power to decide on this issue, as it is a process governed by Parliament following extensive public consultation. We are disappointed that the Daily Telegraph has chosen to repeat the views of a small minority of BPS members who are unwilling to accept the outcome of our consultations and policy positions.

As a board of trustees we have been open about the need for improvements across the society which is why we committed a significant amount of money to our ongoing three-year transformation programme. The BPS is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement in any organisation.

It is clear to us that stronger governance processes will be required in the future, and this work is well underway. We have kept the Charity Commission fully informed of developments throughout and continue to engage with them.”

An ommisive critique of the statement

The reader can draw their own immediate conclusions about the adequacy of this response. Here we only want to list what was not said in this statement.

1.  Professor McGuinness was voted into the interim Chair role of the BoT in the wake of the resignations of both the President and Vice President (see here and here – you may need to register (free) to access these articles). This reflected a wilful refusal of the Board to comply with Statute 20 of the Society: the chairing role should have been handed over immediately to the Chair Elect. Her authority in the Chair is at best dubious and at worst totally illegitimate. The naïve reader would be unaware of this legitimation challenge for the Board still today. 

2. The allusion to diverse views and heated debate does not mention that debate has been actively blocked, with articles censored (see here), review groups closed down and lobbying about policies ignored.

3.   The statement does not mention the routine use of threats of legal action against Society members and others such as accusing dissatisfied complainants of harassment in pursuit of their case.

4.   Many objections have been raised about the very lack of the democracy and full expertise drawn upon in policy formation in the Society. These have been ignored in relation to the prescribing debacle, the contentious gender document and the peremptory closure of the memory and law group.

5.   Describing the gender document as ‘not at all contentious’ fails to mention those objecting, on legitimate grounds, to it both before and after the legal change on December 1st 2020. However, the prefix ‘in our view’ is relevant because this reveals the self-interest in depicting reality in a particular manner. 

6.  The claim that there is no connection between the prescribing and the gender polices fails to mention the overlap of decision-makers in the two groups and the fact that a consideration of hormone prescription was part of the first of them.

7.   The BoT are ‘disappointed’ in the article from Hayley Dixon, but the statement does not mention that the BPS was unhelpful  and, we believe, invoked legal threats about its publication. We understand that other approaches from Third Sector encountered the same aggressive non-cooperation. Journalists encountering such resistance tend to suspect that a story is worth telling.

8.   The commitment proffered about the change programme in the BPS as an organisational solution assumes that it will work in the absence of honest reflection about the current crisis of both legitimacy and governance: the very point we keep repeating and illustrating on this blog.

9.   The claim that the BoT continues ‘to engage’ with the Charity Commission is the most important rhetorical query for us. To what degree has that engagement been necessary and why? Will they now make all the changes necessary to bring the Society into regulatory compliance? Does the BoT even admit that any changes need to be made? If so will the Trustees need to resign and a fresh start made under completely new governance arrangements?

These questions are all important, the response from Professor McGuinness offers us no clues at all. Surely the membership deserves a full and frank statement about all of these matters, if the alleged principle of openness and transparency is to be put into practice. 

The Editors, BPSWatch.

Board of Trustees, Governance

Is the BPS Board of ‘Trustees’ doomed to fail?

David Pilgrim posts….

Many of the postings (see, for example, here and here) on this blog have addressed the governance failings of the Board of ‘Trustees’. The latter is placed in quotation marks because, as we have argued previously, they do not offer independent scrutiny or oversight. The Senior Management Team (SMT) is salaried, and the other members are drawn from sub-systems of the Society with their particular interests. The very point of Trustees in relation to charities is that they should be impartial and independent. This is a circle that cannot be squared at present in the BPS. 

How has the Society got itself into this fix? It is partly a lack of insight from the current incumbents on the Board. All representations from us about this problem, as with other serious matters, have fallen on deaf ears. But this cultural norm of defensiveness and denial is not the whole explanation. If we go on to the BPS website, and we pull up the relevant documents related to the Royal Charter and Statutes and the Rules of the Society, then the answer is there in plain sight.

The Royal Charter only requires that there should be a Board of Trustees. This is a broad-brush requirement and it prescribes no operationalised detail. When we then go to the Rules, there is precious little on the Board – more is said about the Council of Representatives (now the Senate). However, what is said in the Statutes document does tells us who (by role) will constitute the Board (the Presidential triumvirate, chairs of the BPS sub-systems or other appointed delegates along with the Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary). Although in practice today the SMT members join the Board meetings, they are not mentioned in either the Statutes or the Rules: see below on this current silence in BPS documentation. Given the power and responsibility of the SMT, an observer may consider this curious, to say the least.

So there we have it. All the members of the Board are either salaried or appointed from the sub-systems of the Society. The Presidential triumvirate is elected by the membership. At the time of writing both the President and Deputy President have recently resigned and for reasons we cannot discover, the President Elect is not being permitted to chair the Board in their absence. This failure to appoint the President Elect as the acting Chair of the Board is explicitly contrary to the Statute 20 of the Society. For now the Board has no elected leadership, which simply aggravates the preexisting sham of its independence.  

Note that financial, career or reputational interests are embedded in all of these roles on the Board.  There are no independent people from outside the Society, especially ones that might have relevant skills in relation to finance or organisational efficiency and probity. This whole scenario is out of sync with both the spirit and detail of charity law. To a new pair of eyes, used to charity functioning, this beggars belief.

Silence about the Senior Management Team

The above describes, in large part, the arrangements that have emerged in the Society since the Royal Charter was granted in 1987. This created the inevitable conditions for conflicts of interest and a conservative culture of self-protection. Reflective critical oversight would destabilise that culture. It has been largely absent, because independence on the Board has also been absent. With the same names being recycled in the sub-systems (including as well the honorary roles of Treasurer and General Secretary), often for years on end, the description of an oligarchy is warranted. However, that problem was then joined by another.

Once the BPS was to be managed, not merely administered, the pre-existing tendency of weak governance was then amplified. I have discussed this point about the implications for organisations of the New Public Management Model in my previous posting and will not repeat the critical points again. What is relevant here is the contrast between the documents concerning the Rules, the Royal Charter and the Statutes of the BPS, and those which are available to us about the SMT. The BPS website lists who the people on the SMT are, as well as their titles. However, I cannot find any document that describes specifically how that salaried team relates functionally to other parts of the Society, or describes its powers in comparison to the sub-systems and the general membership. 

This dual problem of the old oligarchy interacting with the new SMT has implications for democracy. The frustrations we have encountered, when trying to fathom what is going on in the closed world of the Board of ‘Trustees’, are now added to by the lack of transparency available to members about the workings of the SMT and its self-defining power and control over processes in the Society. In a well-run charity, information about these matters should be available to all concerned, in a clear and transparent manner. 

Members and the public should know how the performance of managers would be evaluated and by whom. Board meetings would be about the SMT reporting to and being accountable to Trustees in a spirit of respectful critical scrutiny from the latter. They would not be ‘briefing’ meetings for the former. When the SMT was first set up in the BPS, for a while it did not even send in written reports to the Board; apparently that has now changed. As far as the Board is concerned, we still cannot work out (wagging-wise), which is the tail and which is the dog. 

Were the BPS to have publicly available and credible delegation and oversight frameworks, these would be codified and documented in a similar fashion to those I cite above about the Rules and the Statutes. I may have failed to spot these functional descriptions of the SMT and their accountability on the BPS website. Apologies to all readers if they are there and I have missed them. If this is the case, then maybe someone on the Board of ‘Trustees’ could get in touch with us with the relevant correction. If they are not there, then it is a matter of urgency for them to be produced and disclosed to members of the Society.

Conclusion

The culture of poor governance, which all of the postings on this blog have sought to illuminate, is traceable in part to a structural problem about the Society’s tradition of forming a Board of ‘Trustees’ narrowly from within its own ranks. The formally codified character of the Board of ‘Trustees’, in the documents I cited at the outset, puts this body on tramlines, with conflicts of interest and poor oversight being the inevitable outcome, as we now see. 

This means that when and if the BPS is reformed as a charity, in order to ensure the regulatory compliance currently missing, then this present statute describing the Board, which makes it a hostage to fortune, needs be scrapped. It should be replaced by one that prescribes a properly independent body and then current critics can remove the quotation marks from ‘Trustees’. There are plenty of well-run charities that are role models, and the Charity Commission itself will surely advise on this matter.

The role and powers of the SMT should be spelled out in cogent and trustworthy frameworks of delegation and oversight. The absence of these at present is a serious problem and it simply permits members of the SMT to exercise unchecked power in relation to a range of matters. These include centralized financial control, the interpretation of policy documents, media policy emphases, interference with academic activity and the control of information internally and in relation to those outside of the Board (including members of the Society, the press and the general public). These proposals would not fix all of the problems of organisational dysfunction in the BPS but they would be a very good start.

Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS – Failures in meeting its charitable obligations?

David Pilgrim’s piece on this site draws attention to the dysfunctionality of the BPS and raises questions about the constitution of the Board of Trustees.

Here I want to take a closer look at that issue.

The BPS has massive problems with its infrastructure.

The British Psychological Society is a charity, and as such has to abide by certain rules laid down by the Charity Commission.  The Charity Commission website defines the Activities of the BPS  “As specified by the Charter, Statutes and Rules of the Society”.  

The Royal Charter states: “The objects of the Society should be to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology … setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge.”. And “To maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.” (my emphasis – I believe that the BPS fails dismally in this regard, and I intend to address this issue in a subsequent blog).

The BPS Code of Ethics required by the Royal Charter (3.4 Integrity) states that psychologists should act with integrity which “ … includes being honest, truthful, accurate and consistent in one’s actions, words … Psychologists value honesty, probity, accuracy, clarity and fairness … in all facets of their scientific endeavours.”.  And that there should be “Honesty, openness and candour; Accurate unbiased representation; Fairness; Avoidance of exploitation and conflicts of interest …”.  Rule 1 of the Member Conduct Rules (also required by the Charter) is that “Members must not act in a way that damages, or is likely to damage the reputation of the BPS (or is contrary to the object of the Society as set out in the Royal Charter).”.  

I think that the Society also fails badly in these requirements. How can that happen? 

To answer that question, we need to look at the rules for how charities are governed.

According to the Charity Commission website  (https://www.gov.uk/set-up-a-charity) “Trustees are responsible for the operation of your charity. They must show they understand their legal requirements…. your trustees’ background and experiences can help: bring different points of view to a discussion, give insight into your beneficiaries’ needs and experience, make contacts in the community, think of new ways of doing things.”.  And “As trustees, you have a duty of care to prevent risks to your charity’s reputation as well as the people it helps. As trustees, you must: always act in the best interests of the charity – you must not let your personal interests, views or prejudices affect your conduct as a trustee, act reasonably and responsibly in all matters relating to your charity – act with as much care as if you were dealing with your own affairs, taking advice if you need it, only use your charity’s income and property for the purposes set out in its governing document, make decisions in line with good practice and the rules set by your charity’s governing document, including excluding any trustee who has a conflict of interest from discussions or decision-making on the matter.”. 

This is what is said about “Risks and trustee liability”:  

“You can be liable to your charity if you act unlawfully or negligently as a trustee. Although your charity might run up debts or other liabilities as a result of decisions you make, you and the other trustees won’t be liable if you have:  acted lawfully, responsibly and reasonably, followed the rules in your charity’s governing document, taken reasonable steps to manage risks.  But if you can’t prove this, you could be ‘in breach of trust’ to your own charity. Trustees act jointly when running a charity, so the trustees as a group would be liable to repay any loss to the charity.”.

The Commission can take trustees to court to recover funds lost to their charity as a result of a breach of trust.  (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/trustee-board-people-and-skills?step-by-step-nav=3dd66b86-ce29-4f31-bfa2-a5a18b877f11).

It specifies that there is a “legal duty to act in your charity’s best interests, manage your charity’s resources responsibly and act with reasonable care and skill.”.  And that it is “vital that Trustees deal with conflicts of interest, implement appropriate financial controls, manage risks and take appropriate advice when you need to.”  (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-cc3/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-what-you-need-to-do).

Now let’s take a look at who are the Trustees for the BPS:  

Statute 18 of The Royal Charter (Royal Charter and Statutes, BPS, 2017) states “The Board of Trustees shall comprise the Officers of the Society and other members … Presidential team, the President and The President elect… The Officers of the Society…. The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary. The Board of Trustees shall include the following other members  … The Chairs of the Boards of the Society; At least two and not more than five other members co-opted to the Board in a manner determined by the Representative Council in accordance with the Rules.  The President shall chair all meetings of the Board of Trustees at which he or she is present and in his or her absence the President-Elect or the Vice President.”.

 So, I believe that a huge problem for the BPS is that its Trustees are individuals who are deeply embedded in its operational status quo. The people who are meant to have oversight of the actions of the Society are the same people taking those actions (or in many cases, inactions).   

Their duties are specified: “The Board of Trustees shall conduct the business of the Society consistently with provisions of the Charter and these Statutes and shall supervise the expenditure of all moneys on account of the business of the Society and do all such other things as are necessary for the transaction of the business of the Society and the furtherance of its objects… The Board of Trustees may, from time to time, at their discretion appoint from among their members or otherwise such Committees as shall appear expedient and may, from time to time, modify or dissolve any Committee. Any Committee so appointed shall in exercise of the powers delegated to it conduct its affairs in accordance with such regulations as may be imposed on it by the Board of Trustees.”.

There is also “a representative council which shall advise the Board of Trustees (“the Representative Council”). It will comprise:

(1) The Officers of the Society; the President, Honorary General Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, President-Elect and Vice President;

(2) The Chairs of the Boards of the Society;

(3) A representative from each of the Member Networks approved by the Board of Trustees;

(4) Co-opted Members who shall serve for one year as prescribed in the Rules.”.

So – to summarise – the Trustees, who are meant to impartially have oversight of the functioning of the Society, are the same people who effectively run the Society, and there is also a Representative Council which advises the Trustees, which is mainly the same people again.  So if you include being a member of the Society, many of the Trustees are in quadruple roles (e.g. Member, Chair of a Board, member of the Representative Council and Trustee).

At the time of writing there are 12 Trustees listed on the Charity Commission website, and an additional one on the BPS site.  Of the 13 on the BPS site, 12 have, or have had, senior positions in the BPS system (e.g. Chairs of Boards, Divisions, Sections etc).

How can Trustees in quadruple roles fit in with the demands of the Charity Commission to avoid conflicts of interest?  I believe that avoidance of such a conflict is imperative, and not simply that it is there, but that it is seen to be there.  At the moment it looks exactly the opposite, that the Trustee group is likely to be seen to be full of conflicts of interest.

It appears that the Statutes of the Society regarding Trustees and other roles are such that they are in direct opposition to the requirements of the Charity Commission.  How on earth do you square that circle?

There is a serious and urgent need for the BPS to review this structure, and for it to be clearly seen to be and complying with Charity Commission regulations.

Ashley Conway  1/12/20