David Pilgrim posts…..
Quite soon students in management schools will be offered on a plate a perfect example of a dysfunctional organisation (Pilgrim, 2023a). After two years of our campaign to expose poor governance and corruption in the BPS, telling the world what its leaders have preferred to keep under wraps, what have we experienced and concluded?
A short answer is that it feels like moving constantly between Alice in Wonderland and 1984. The vertigo this creates is partly because of the complexity of what we are dealing with. That is a legitimation crisis (Jost and Major, 2001; Habermas, 1975), with its roots in both history and a reproduced leadership legacy culture which survives, albeit precariously, by routinely evading transparency and denying pervasive conflicts of interest.
A sketch of the legitimation crisis
Those members who engage with what is wrong with the Society now distrust its managers and for very good reason. Most others either do not bother being critical, leave in despair, or they are kept in the dark. Accordingly, we have a largely docile membership, which is reflected in the poor turn out for Presidential elections.
The CV advantages of passive membership is a collusive factor, which has given a free pass to the old oligarchy and the newer management class controlling the BPS. The rise of this class, between capital and labour, is not new. However, its power has been amplified by neoliberalism and the norm of the New Public Management (NPM) approach to organisational leadership for now (Smith, 2014; Gruening, 2001; cf. Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich, 1979).
The oligarchical norm, post-1965, merging uncomfortably with NPM, post-2000, intensified rather than solved the legitimation crisis. Over the past few years there has been Charity Commission ‘engagement’, which has triggered some small reforms in the Board of Trustees, though even they are regressive (see below).
The BPS managers do announce their decisions, post hoc, on the website, which is labyrinthine. The members have few direct mailings about important headline matters and the The Psychologist is light touch. The President and CEO get to portray their view of the world but ordinary or extraordinary events in Leicester are simply not reported. As the editor has told us for emphasis in the most recent edition, it is proudly, ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’. Always loyal to the SMT and BoT, it does a version of that job very well indeed.
The local press fills in this complicit silence from ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’. The Psychologist offers a nearly bare noticeboard and only good news is permitted. Compare that stance with these reports in the Leicester Mercury: (https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/arson-investigation-launched-after-blaze-2490769; https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/trusted-worker-blew-70k-charitys-6618893
Killer joke or suicide note?
In all honesty, the BPS is basically a joke: it is neither a learned nor learning organisation. In fact the organisational state of the Society is so laughable that it recalls the Monty Python sketch from 1969 about the funniest joke in the world. It was so hilarious that one might die laughing on hearing it, as Eric Idle’s mother and the constables did, first on the scene. Eric Scribbler died laughing writing it, which might be prescient for the authors of their own demise in Leicester.
If the enormity of the tragi-comedy which the BPS has become was grasped in its entirety, we risk the same mortal inevitability. Here though we have no single authorial source like Eric Scribbler, merely several key players and in turn this recalls Pirandello’s absurdist Six Characters In Search of An Author. These could include its surviving CEO and his partner in Pollyanna optimism, turning our attention away instrumentally from a corrupt past (Carpenter and Bajwa, 2021).
They could include its oligarchs who, with no insight, have confused hanging around for longer than is healthy, for either membership democracy or the public good, with ‘serving’ the Society. See for example Professor Ann Colley, who was unique as both a CEO for a while and also BPS President. On her retirement another oligarch Professor Carole Allan (President and appointed Honorary General Secretary for while) said this of Colley in The Psychologist 2017, without a hint of irony or insight:
Ann served twice as Honorary General Secretary. The first time was for three years from 1989, when membership of the Society stood at 13,000. The second time was from 2003 to 2008. In between she was elected to serve as President, which office she held in 1993/94. Ann was circumspect about what Presidents can achieve in their short term of office when she was interviewed for The Psychologist, pointing out that initiatives usually only bear fruit after two or three years.
Colley’s modest ambitions for Presidents made sense as a survival strategy in an incorrigibly dysfunctional organisation. Other self-confessed ‘BPS junkies’ (see Miller and Cornford, 2006) offer us no real evidence what to ‘serve’ actually means: serving whom, about what and to what end?
The re-purposed Pirandello play could include the Society’s bombastic leaders from the past, who confused the ego-inflation that came with becoming a professional regulator with organisational probity, while failing to spot that they had created a faux ‘Board of Trustees’. This was not even vaguely independent but was instead awash with conflicts of interest (Newman, 1988).
Maybe it could also include the renegade leaders, who went off on their own to form the Associations of Educational Psychologists, Business Psychologists and Clinical Psychologists in 1963, 2000 and 2017 respectively. They were tired of an arcane self-serving oligarchy that held membership democracy in contempt. And then there are the authors of BPS policies who have betrayed victims of child sexual abuse (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). Or how about the twice President Cyril Burt, with his mixed posthumous reviews? How about his student, Hans Eysenck, in the eugenic UCL tradition, who is still subject to an unresolved investigation (Burt, 1912; Craig, Pelosi and Tourish, 2021; Galton, 1881; Marks, 2019; Pearson, 1904; Pelosi, 2019; Pilgrim, 2008 and 2023b)?
To be fair Eysenck was not a BPS oligarch, though he was a character of both notoriety and adoration. For anyone missing this one, the first to blow the whistle to the BPS was the psychiatrist Anthony Pelosi in 1995, but his request for an inquiry was ignored. This inaction was also evident from Kings College London (Eysenck’s legacy employer) but eventually they got their act together to set up an independently chaired review of the dubious research. Spin forwards to 2019, when KCL eventually acted. The BPS was still silent. The CEO was asked to deal with the Eysenck ‘problem’ by the editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, who had successfully pricked the conscience or at least the utilitarian wisdom of KCL. Bajwa did not even bother replying to Marks, which was a common stance of wilful blindness at the time (we have a record of other, multi-signed letters he simply ignored from members).
Some of us now know the context of this weird obliviousness of the CEO, as he had other fish to fry at the time. Without detective effort, the membership were simply left bemused by the absence of common courtesy from the CEO. Three years later, yes three years later, Dr Rachel Scudamore, his subordinate, issued an apology to the complainant for the non-reply but no explanation was offered. Marks has now resigned from the BPS after being a member for over fifty years and has just launched an excoriating attack of the organisation in print (Marks, 2023).
A final Pirandello-style inclusion might be the ex-President, David Murphy, who with two others leaving over a two month period in 2021 felt moved to put his resignation letter on Twitter. Here it is for those who missed it:
This lengthy account from Murphy speaks for itself. However, given that he was arguably an insider in the oligarchy (note his allusion to his 35 year involvement and continuous roles for over 20 years), it is significant that he resigned so publicly and was so critical of his colleagues on the BoT. Damning the organisation with faint praise, while simultaneously washing its dirty linen in public in one defining public performance, reveals the legitimation crisis that leaders in the BPS were denying existed. ‘Problem what problem?’ was the norm, though we were told tantalisingly, with no detail attached, that it had been a ‘challenging year’ (McGuinness, 2021).
At the time of Murphy’s resignation the BoT were adopting a ‘damage limitation exercise’, with its ‘Comms Team’ in overdrive. Managers resort to this particular version of bullshit when the going gets tough, as it does fairly regularly in the BPS. In early 2021, they had to deal with the fraud and so the The Psychologist was dutifully silent. There was at the time an ongoing police inquiry, a suspended CEO and a Chief Finance Officer who had hastily departed, while under investigation. He now works for the National Lottery Community Fund.
The public and ordinary members at the time were oblivious to all of these machinations, until the local, and then eventually the national, press reported and commented. As noted above, the Chair of the BoT pleaded for sympathy, understandably, about a ‘challenging year’ in The Psychologist (McGuinness, 2021). The details of why it had been challenging were, of course, glossed over though MacLennan’s public trashing on Youtube – before his appeal was even heard – was pompously retained, so we all got the message. Whistle blowers tend not to fare well after doing their public duty, so the BoT of the time may look now to their consciences about this intervention, which they approved knowingly (Morgan, 2014).
Unlike the Pirandello play, maybe the dramatis personae for the sad tale of the BPS need to be more than half a dozen, as there are quite a few contenders. The oligarchical culture that keeps reproducing itself seems to be beyond the awareness or defiance of particular actors. It really is not easy to identify those who have been singularly or disproportionately responsible for the legitimation crisis today. However, one thing that is absolutely certain is that Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ applies in buckets in the culture of the BPS.
Indeed the level of hypocrisy is so bizarre that, unwittingly, the rhetoric of official BPS policies becomes a checklist of interest to prospective whistle blowers and to students of dysfunctional organisations. The bullshit culture now running through the BPS, like Blackpool rock, beggars belief. Three illustrative examples will be given in relation to its policies on conflicts of interest, values and the investigation of complaints. All of these worthy documents, when tested out for their actual practice, demonstrate that the leaders in the BPS say one thing and do another with consummate ease.
Conflicts of interest and the good sense of the NCVO
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) withdrew from offering advice on future strategy for fear that its own consultants might be at risk of harm from the toxic culture in the BPS (Farrow and Potkins, 2020). Again few members will be aware of this damning verdict. However, the NCVO does give us all free advice on its website on how a Board of Trustees (bearing in mind that this is still a misnomer in the BPS) should deal with conflicts of interest.
“Identifying, dealing with and recording conflicts of interest/loyalty
- The board understands how real and perceived conflicts of interests and conflicts of loyalty can affect a charity’s performance and reputation.
- Trustees disclose any actual or potential conflicts to the board and deal with these in line with the charity’s governing document and a regularly reviewed conflicts of interest policy.
- Registers of interests, hospitality and gifts are kept and made available to stakeholders in line with the charity’s agreed policy on disclosure.
- Trustees keep their independence and tell the board if they feel influenced by any interest or may be perceived as being influenced or to having a conflict.”
The Society’s own conflict of interest policy is aligned with these broad aspirations but here is the rub. The conflicts of interest that are embedded in the appointment norm since 1965 mean that the BoT is rife with them and yet no one on the Board seems to be aware of that fact or is wilfully blind to it. Moreover, despite news of the recent appointment of an independent chair, old habits die hard.
Recently the advertisements for Chairs Board, with short periods of notice for applicants allotted, still include the assurance they will be appointed automatically onto the BoT. The appointment norm and its implicit celebration of a conflicts of interest is so ingrained in the culture of the BPS that the beneficiaries will tend to experience pride not angst or guilt about their role. This lack of insight means membership democracy and public accountability are given barely a glance.
After pressure for reform from the Charity Commission, the BoT, being the wounded dinosaur structure it is, began to realise slowly that the game was up on the old model, with its total lack of independent oversight. Bajwa (November 2022) made this emollient announcement to accommodate the problem, tucked away on the BPS website:
Traditionally, our Board of Trustees has almost exclusively been made up of members, who bring the in-depth knowledge of the organisation and psychology that is needed to make big decisions about the society’s future.
Unlike many similar organisations, however, we have not recruited externally for trustees, and we haven’t specifically looked for people with expertise in areas which are crucial to the organisation’s success but not necessarily directly related to psychology.
Bullshit is about all that is said and not said to disguise the reality of what those in power are up to (Frankfurt, 2005). Note how Bajwa acknowledges (so does not query) the dysfunctional, and at times catastrophic, lack of independent oversight from the past. Instead this is turned into a sort of traditional wisdom, not a confessed foolhardiness.
The old regime of power allegedly entailed ‘in-depth knowledge’, not the vested interests of oligarchs and their fellow travellers. They made ‘big decisions’ (wow!). This Trump-like phrasing signals gravitas (heavy is the head that bears the crown) but it is conveniently short on detail. In truth these ‘big decisions’, included keeping the legitimation crisis under wraps and using a kangaroo court to expel an internal critic. They included the norm of persecuting any incoming President who attempted to change what was rotten in the state of Leicester (MacLennan was not a one-off case). The comparison with other third sector organisations by Bajwa implies some sort of respectable or unremarkable option appraisal, rather than a total failure to comply with charity law expectations of good governance. The BPS have been out of step and out of order in the third sector landscape for decades.
So, Bajwa tells us, three new independent Trustees are to come in but the majority will still be appointees from within the BPS. And it gets worse. The one and only part of the BoT that traditionally has been elected not appointed, the Presidential triumvirate, is now to be removed; again most of the membership will become aware of this after the event. The President will now only provide an ‘ambassadorial’, not a leadership, role on the BoT. This means a regressive not progressive reform to embed, not break up, the cabal.
On this note, remember that after the expulsion of Nigel MacLennan, the BoT simply invented a new rule that excluded candidature from the general membership. This ensured a safe pair of hands (Carpenter) because only BoT members or Senate members were now eligible. This pre-empted a new version emerging of a turbulent President like MacLennan, who might, heaven forbid, ‘say “no” to power’ (Fromm, 2010).
Another example of the bullshit character of the Society’s conflicts of interest policy in practice relates to the CEO himself. If anyone, member or public, wants to complain about him to the BoT they encounter the invented rule that all communications to the BoT are received and dealt with by……the CEO. Bear in mind that a CEO should be accountable to a BoT, not be an arbitrating gatekeeper deciding the relevance of business presented to it. At this point maybe Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 should be added to our list of literary resonances.
Part of the killer joke of the BPS is its capacity to posture about organisational values. Here is the virtue-signalling posing, on the record, which was applicable at the time of the fraud, its cover up and the deafening silence about organisational learning since then:
“Our values are central to the way we work to achieve our core purposes. We aim to work in a culture of:
• rigour and fairness;
• honesty and integrity;
• respect for a diversity of viewpoints;
• the highest standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour, attitudes and judgements, as laid out in our Code of Ethics and Conduct.”
There is nothing wrong with this Kantian checklist at all. The problem is that the BPS culture in practice is at total odds with its spirit and detail. The best hoodwinks are the ones that brazenly claim the very opposite of reality, which is a hallmark of our ‘post-truth’ era (Porpora, 2020).
Would rigour and fairness describe the selective investigation of Nigel MacLennan, while members of the public contacting the BPS were told that it does not investigate complaints against individual members?
Would honesty and integrity apply to the fact that not a single person at the top of the organisation has been held responsible for appointing a serial fraudster, who is now in jail after being appointed to be the PA of the CEO?
Would transparency cover the complicit silence of The Psychologist about both routine BPS business and the scandals that abound in the recent and distant past?
Would respect for a diversity of views cover the policy capture by some groups, at the expense of others, in relation to the controversial gender document and that covering memory and law?
Would the ‘highest standards’ claim extend to the BoT and SMT? In what sense have they behaved honourably in this regard? When answering that, just look at the beans spilt by Murphy in his resignation letter. This checklist is fine in theory but in practice it is simply bovine ordure extraordinaire (Hardy, 2021).
The vagaries of trying and failing to make a complaint
Recently this matter has gone backwards (rather like the BoT membership one) not forwards. Here is what Dr Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) has just told us about the new, allegedly improved, complaints procedure, which states in Section B.3 that:
“ 3. The policy is not appropriate for addressing the following issues:
a. disagreement with the content of a Society publication;
b. disagreement with a Society policy position;
c. disagreement with a Society decision to take, or not take, a particular course of action.”
So, if a BPS publication contains material against the public interest or at odds with academic probity, then members cannot complain formally. If a policy endangers vulnerable people or is at odds with ethical practice, then members cannot complain formally. If those leading the organisation make questionable or unwise decisions (such as employing someone with a publicly known history of fraud), then members cannot complain formally. The new document is another cabal stitch up in order to block transparency and accountability. It is one of innumerable current examples of organisational bullshit, which permeates the BPS (Spicer, 2020; Christensen, Kärreman and Rasche, 2019).
Members will not be able to make a complaint about BPS policy, as they did in the past, even if it was then typically ignored. The CEO was a master non-reply role model but that wilful blindness will no longer be even required, because some complaints will simply will not be investigated in principle.
Indeed one wonders what anyone can now complain about formally, given the self-serving exclusion clauses. The members were never well served by the old policy on complaints (this was a central concern of the Charity Commission) but now the cabal are being boastfully unaccountable. Elements of the killer joke just keep emerging to threaten our wellbeing and the diminishing prospect of a learning organisation and democracy in the BPS.
We wait to see how the BPS will partition off its new and proud recapture of its regulatory powers. This is now about to be extended to a tranche of mental health workers, who may not even be psychology graduates. This will require the BPS doing something it did prior to ceding its disciplinary powers to the HCPC after 2003: it must reconstruct a credible investigatory and disciplinary infrastructure. That must be rule-bound, truly transparent and credible to the Professional Services Authority, who I believe have unwisely blessed the new regulatory powers of an incompetent and dysfunctional organisation.
If this happens, as surely it has to, will that infrastructure now be applicable to all of the BPS membership? Will those complaining, say against academic psychologists, no longer be batted away with the advice to contact the employing university? Will all those self-employed practitioners confecting ways of working around HCPC registration now come under a new investigatory process?
As they say, “don’t hold your breath”. My hunch is that the managers will think selectively and instrumentally, which they do with great ease. There will probably be one rule for the new tranche to tick the box for the PSA and the rest will be left alone but under the straight-jacket of the new complaints procedure, with its exclusion clauses. And how about complaints against BPS managers themselves? (I have already rehearsed the Joseph Heller and Lewis Carroll rule about the CEO receiving complaints about himself.)
The bullshit checklist of the values noted above finishes on an ambiguous note. Its focus is actually about members but do the staff have another code of practice and can we see it please? Is it the same as the final values point or a different one? How about the conflicted role of the editor of The Psychologist and his understandable selective attention to scandals in the BPS and his routine noticeboard of Pollyanna news about the future from the BPS leadership? He is employed by the BPS, which explains much. Anyone trying to complain about his editorial policies, favouring BPS propaganda, is faced with an uphill task (Harvey, 2023).
Watch this space, as the absurdist play unfolds. Keep reading the Leicester Mercury.
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