Lesson 53 on Messing Up
I’ve lived through a lot of institutional change. I’ve worked in some good places and some bad. But before public services went over to a business management model, they were bad in a different way.
There was maverick practice. There was a lot of risk taking and mess. There was casual neglect. There were huge gaps in the paperwork. There was an easy-going acceptance of eccentricity and idiosyncracy. There was a great deal of benevolent paternalism.
What there wasn’t, was exhaustive recording, surveillance and control. (There wasn’t the technology to support it – no computer systems then). While this permitted a rich, varied range of questionable practice, it also enabled creativity and humanity. It valued and relied on professional integrity and judgement.
Then one day in one particular year, the terminology of public service chillingly altered. The key word became compliance.
To be excellent, you had to comply with a set of externally imposed criteria. You were no longer there to serve the needs of a particular community or set of unique individuals. Your prime purpose was to deliver whatever the current central government deemed most desirable, to be assessed by a range of government appointed inspectors, working to a government brief.
And there could be no appeal. The system was transparent. Everyone could see the criteria. All you had to do was meet them.
The problem was not so much what the criteria were – a lot of them were sensible, even if pompously expressed. The problem was what was made top priority and what was missed out.
Professionally and personally I messed up at times, but the things that still come back to haunt me are not the boxes unticked, but rather the individuals I couldn’t deal with, those (mercifully few) I hurt. Because at times I was out of my depth. I didn’t have the information, or the advice, or support, or the knowledge to cope. Times when I had nobody to turn to. Those are the times when even the best of us mess up and others suffer.
It’s no comfort then to know you ticked all the right boxes, because, once those boxes were there, believe you me, I made sure I ticked them! I knew that to survive you had to cover your own back, otherwise you would be hung out to dry, especially if you were on the maverick creative spectrum.
Mind you, on the plus side, schools did get cleaner and most of the cupboards got cleared out.