Friday, 12 March 2010

Battle of the systems

On BBC Radio 4’s PM programme yesterday evening, there was a discussion between experts on the significance of the systems viewpoint in the incest case reported in yesterday’s post in this blog. A father had raped and abused his two daughters over 25 years, leading to 18 pregnancies, many giving rise to genetically malformed babies and embryos. By the ‘system’, the interviewees were concerned with what people (including perpetrators and professionals) were surrounded with that either led to inappropriate behaviour, prevented undesirable behaviour, or encouraged positive behaviour. But they were talking about several different systems.

Professor David Cantor, the psychologist who pioneered offender profiling in Britain, wanted to talk about the effect of society and the neighbourhood as systems. A family too is a system. Christopher Hayden, the theatre director, also wanted to talk about the systems operating in authorities (local councils, police, health, schools) that can help or hinder the prevention of abuse of children. They are all systems, of course, all having their 'wicked' way with those inside them.

Christopher Hayden reminded listeners of Professor Philip Zimbado’s Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, which showed how the allocation of roles (either of prison guard or of prisoner) to 24 unsuspecting and ‘normal’ young volunteers (between the ages of 18 and 24) very quickly brings out extremes of stereotypical behaviour. In particular, the volunteer prison guards turn nasty very quickly, so much so that the Stanford experiment had to be terminated abruptly.

Rightly, Hayden is appalled by the Abu Grahib treatment of Iraqi prisoners. He stopped short of pointing out the weakness in the MOD’s recently announced training of soldiers aimed at getting them to behave ethically. This kind of intervention neglects the system conditions, which then limit training’s effectiveness. If the toxicity is in the fishtank, don’t expect to solve it by remedying the (bad) fish. Once they are plopped back into an unchanged environment, the system will reassert its own ‘authority’.

Professor Cantor goes on to say “We know plenty of people who get themselves into bureaucratic positions who will be perfectly pleasant friendly people within a pub, but once they get into a particular situation where they think they have to act out a given role, they can be very unhelpful". In a boring and routine job, for example, people can find inappropriate ‘fun’ things to do at the expense of customers and their employers. Trying to police this and stamp it out is usually a less successful strategy than enriching the job. ‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’, advised Frederick Herzberg a long time ago.

Returning to child abuse, the inspiring work of Professor Eileen Munro shows how the reaction of authorities to clamp down on social workers’ initiative, discretion, and judgment by circumscribing their work roles ever more tightly with procedures, protocols and inspections, ultimately turns professionals into defensive robots, more concerned with their own protection and survival, leading to “distorted priorities and growing alienation of the workforce”, as Munro expresses it. It is still a system, but no longer an enabling one and instead a controlling one.

A ray of light is being shone by Hackney Council in their bold ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ programme. This new model prioritises shared risk and the reduction of bureaucracy, allowing social workers to spend more time working directly with children and families. But that has required Hackney to stand up to another system, the Government one that tries to circumscribe Councils with controls and inspections. Being a leader requires the courage to push against the system. No other councils have yet had the courage to follow Hackney’s lead. Human behaviour being what it is, the failure of one system may cause much glee in another.