It Was Always Thus

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As I follow Sara’s terrible account of her slow ongoing torture by the Health Trust whose systems and employees caused her son’s preventable death, I am continually reminded of Dickens’ Bleak House, the first book I studied when I went to university.

It might seem a depressing choice, but it is a good preparation for dealing with the law and other public bodies.

Sara, in her last post, asked how people experience working for public services today.  I fear many of them would recognise Dickens’s Court of Chancery all too well. Cases drag on interminably,  “complainants” become increasingly desperate, their anger either fading into depression, or taking over their lives to the detriment of every other facet of their existence. Relationships break down under the strain.The only beneficiaries are the legal firms growing fat on fees.

Yet today’s LA and Health Trust employees surely cannot be likened to the miserable clerks inhabiting Dickens’s dark world, aware of the situation and sufferings of their clients, but powerless to make any change?

While today’s offices may be brighter and have more ergonomically designed seating, power relationships still remain the same and all the information technology in the world doesn’t change that. Basically, just like Bob Cratchit, employees do what they are told. They know from the example of whistleblowers that, if they don’t, all the employment legislation in the world won’t protect them from being rendered unemployable.

In any office there are nasty people who will take advantage of every regulation and directive to be deliberately obstructive, just as there are others who will do their best, within the constraints of their situation, to be helpful. The majority simply grow indifferent.

That is why #deathbyindifference is so accurate.  Indifference is the default setting for any institution where the majority of employees feel little commitment or calling to their work, where they are powerless to change things and/or have cut-back practises imposed upon them. Patronised (at best) by their employer through tawdry rewards and dumbed down “training”, they soon grow cynical and bitter.

No amount of external inspection or internal paperwork can safeguard clients if the workers simply don’t care. Situations go wrong because nobody bothers to check or to follow up some concern in a timely fashion, or to make sure some point of information was accurate. In the end, somebody lies dead.

In Bleak House Dickens decried the indifference of his own day

Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends. Dead, men and women born with heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus about us every day.

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Yet we don’t live in Dickens’s times. Change has been made for the better. It was brought about by the determination and campaigning of individuals who cared. Those who campaigned to force the law to take children out of the mills and the mines, to free the enslaved, to educate the poor.

In JusticeforLB, and JusticeforNico, we have a campaign for our own age. It is daunting and depressing at times, but we tread in the footsteps of all those who battled against the entrenched practices and injustices of the past.

It isn’t easy.

Fighting for the little people never was.

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“God Bless Us, Every One!”

Life’s lesson 4 on What doesn’t change and what might

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As a child I had to learn large chunks of the King James Bible off by heart. It was quite common in the Scotland of that day. As a result I still carry the echo of these around in my head.

One day I was on a train going to some conference or other on change in the public sector.  As I half-heartedly scanned the conference papers, all of a sudden one of those echoes slipped into my mind.

“The poor you have with you always.”

I had always felt this was a rather ungracious comment for the saviour of mankind, but all of a sudden it fell into place.  Not just the poor, but the learning disabled, the sick, the neglected, the old and the despised.  All the vulnerable populations in any society. Every generation and community has to choose how they treat their weakest members.

That’s something that doesn’t change.

Another echo I carry around in my head is of the literature I had to read at school.  A lot of it is just too long nowadays, but before digital technology and wall to wall entertainment, there was more time to fill.  Now I’ve gone back to the great Victorian writers in audiobooks.  They’re particularly clearsighted and scathing on the dark side of politics, business and charity.

That’s another thing that doesn’t change.

So why are we so surprised and hurt that we still have to fight the  injustices in our own society?

I suspect it’s that we swallowed our own post World War 2 publicity. We thought things were changing.  People were better off, healthcare was much improved and more accessible, secondary education was universal.  We all had more stuff.

We overlooked the dark side.  The increasing power of the state, the surveillance and intervention of officialdom in aspects of life that had previously been a matter of personal choice.

No wonder so many of us feel guilty and unhappy about aspects of our work. We’re the Bob Cratchits of today, sitting shivering at the modern equivalent of the clerk’s desk , at the mercy of a corporate Scrooge. And our Scrooge isn’t going to be visited by the three ghosts of Christmas. Our Scrooge is hanging on to his money and looking to make more.  Tiny Tim is going to his grave.

But I sense we’ve reached a tipping point. Too many articulate, educated, stroppy people are now affected. Government, local and national, might get away with fobbing off the poor with crappy services. Hampered by lack of education and resources, they’re too disadvantaged to put up much of an organised fight.

It’s organisation and persistence and ingenuity that is dangerous to the corporate Scrooge. It’s the sustained guerilla campaign that undermines, as it increasingly gathers support from a disgruntled, disparaged citizenry. 

That might just tip the point in the right direction.

That might just make a change.

Lesson 105 Everybody Needs A Good Checklist

Lesson 105 on Drills for everything

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When I think about best practice in the places where I worked, it almost always had to do with basic organisation and culture. There was an attitude that certain things were expected of all staff and that particular key things must be done to a specific pattern.

As a result these things just became second nature.  However inconvenient or awkward it might be, you followed the drill.

In Mandy’s school we had a non-accidental injury checklist which was treated as holy writ, but we also had an attempted suicide drill.  In a school full of adolescent girls from difficult home situations, attempted suicides were not uncommon.

It was usually somebody’s best friend who alerted a teacher or Mrs Nurse, and the moment the alarm was raised, the drill was followed to the letter.  Not a minute was lost.  Medical assistance was obtained with the least hold-up possible. 

The worst time was Friday afternoon, when Mrs Nurse went home early, and the designated First Aiders were busy teaching. Normally one or other of these would accompany the pupil to A&E, while a senior teacher contacted the parent or guardian and also tried to glean any helpful details from the informant.

There was no panic or rushing about.  Everybody knew what to do. No energy was wasted on dramatics.

But on a Friday afternoon it would end up being me who went to A&E.  On one such occasion it was Kirsty who said she had taken “some pills”.  Quite honestly I didn’t believe her.  She couldn’t give any details of what she had taken or where she had got them or what sort of container they had been in or what she had done with it. But the drill had to be followed.

Halfway to the hospital, she told me she was lying.

“It doesn’t make any difference, once you’ve said it, we’ve got to go!” I wasn’t feeling overly sympathetic. 

“But I don’t want to go to the hospital.  They might pump my stomach!”. Kirsty had heard tales of this from others.

“Saying that just makes it worse! You might be lying now, because you’re scared of what might happen at A&E!  It’s too late – I’m afraid we’re both stuck with it now!”

Kirsty looked miserable.  I was fed up too. Together we were a gloomy pair.  We sat in A&E waiting for her mother to arrive. She wouldn’t be best pleased either.

Kirsty sat close to me and sniffled.  “I’m sorry Miss!”  I began to stop feeling bad tempered and gave her a friendly nudge instead.

“Well, next time just come and tell one of us what’s upsetting you. Then we can try and do something about it, without having to spend hours in A&E first! OK?”. Kirsty nodded, and we resigned ourselves to whatever action the medical personnel might decide take.

The following Monday morning my group were sorting themselves out and chatting.  Balvinder had had a bad weekend.  She sympathised with Kirsty.

“I was so fed up of things on Sunday” she said matter of factly, “I decided I would kill myself!”

“That sounds a bit drastic!” I exclaimed.

“Well, they drive me up the wall!  You don’t know my family! I can’t get away from them!  Weekends are worst, all the aunties and their horrible children come round.”

“So how come you’re still here?” asked one of her friends with interest.

“I went to the bathroom to find some pills, and I was going through the bathroom cupboard, but it took a while because the names on the labels were hard to read.”

So?” prompted her friend.

“People kept knocking on the door and asking what on earth I was doing in there and when was I going to come out, because they needed to use the toilet.”

She tossed her head in disgust as she gathered up her things for the next lesson.

“See, Miss, you can’t even get enough peace and quiet in my house to commit suicide!”

Lesson 101 Life, The Universe and Everything

Lesson 101 on Paying attention

“Pay attention!” is the traditional teachers’ catch phrase, but it is commonly used by the instructor to the instructee, rather than the other way round. 

However, I found it saved a lot of trouble if it worked both ways.  After all, there is always the outside possibility that what your captive audience is feeding back to you is actually true.

I learnt that listening to what people were telling me, whether by fretting, fidgetting, whinging, shouting or generally making a nuisance of themselves, was a reliable signpost to where I was going wrong, or to some other aspect of the situation that was less than satisfactory to those on the receiving end. It was a helpful indicator of what needed to change.

Very, very occasionally, when I stopped rushing and paid attention to what was going on around me, I even had a sudden insight into what I wanted from life, the universe and everything.

The first time this happened was when I was in the Isle of Wight with Mandy’s school and I went to check on one of the bedrooms while everyone was downstairs.  The window looked down the road to the beach, everything was still and the early summer evening was just slipping into twilight. Suddenly I just knew that this was all I wanted. It was quite simply a view of the sea. Not a stratospheric career or untold riches, but just a comfortable, peaceful seat by a window that looked out on the sea and the sky.

Life sometimes tells us what we need if we are able to stop and listen.  We may still have to work out the practicalities of getting there, but at least it clarifies the way we have to direct our steps.

I sit in my open window now, with a book by my side, and the sea breeze cooling the heat of the late afternoon and I am grateful, oh so grateful, that I stopped to pay attention on that evening long ago.

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Lesson 100 Surplus to Requirements

Lesson 100 on Learning what lasts

Early retirement is something that isn’t likely to be offered to another generation.  But it happened to a whole cohort of teachers in the mid-nineties.  It was something to do with the Teachers’ Pension Fund.  It couldn’t afford to keep going as it was, so we were offered the choice to go then and there, or keep working until whatever time in the future the pensionable age might be.

Normally I was very, very cautious of anything that threatened my nice regular salary, but suddenly I felt certain I had to take the chance and go.

But when you unexpectedly become surplus to workforce requirements, it makes you think.  All the work, effort, study and training you put into your career counts for nothing.  Nobody needs any of it any more.

It reminded me of when we culled the stock in the college library. All those books that people struggled to write, putting down the ideas they really cared about, probably giving up hours of time with their friends and families to do so.  And there we were, bagging them up and throwing them away.  Surplus to requirements.

Retirement, early or otherwise, makes you wonder what, if anything, was worthwhile about what you did.

I could only come up with one thing. For a few people at a certain time in their lives, I was able to make things a bit better.  Perhaps they are out there somewhere now, enjoying their lives a little bit more, because of it.

Now that’s something that doesn’t get thrown away on the professional rubbish heap.