Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Them and us

Yesterday I wrote about two different types of dialogue – both in politics and in organisations. In the first of these, people accept their position and are grateful for what is provided to them, sometimes being allowed to offer their feedback to their betters. In the second, the people expect more involvement and seek to influence change more directly. While leaders may claim to believe that the latter is good for others, and indeed for themselves, in practice they are tempted to seek shelter behind the certainty and protective shield offered by the former’s hierarchy.

By a strange coincidence, as I was sorting through some papers yesterday evening, I came across a Guardian article by Madeline Bunting dated 19 January 2004. In it she quotes David Marquand (in his Decline of the Public) referring to ‘‘Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the parent state which aims to keep its citizens in ‘perpetual childhood’: power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild … it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing.”.

Bunting recognises that ‘The 19th century Frenchman has provided a chillingly accurate assessment of Blairism. In a reworking of the bread and circus formula, New Labour will tirelessly seek to deliver the electorate better schools, hospitals and a rising standard of living (for the majority), but has no appetite for the debates on how that should be done. To a significant section of public opinion, that’s enough – just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s called democracy’. In other words, don’t confuse the content with the process.

All large organisations reflect that dilemma. Employee climate surveys, for example, reinforce simple upward feedback in a version of Transactional Analysis’s parent-child model. Negative feedback can be easily shrugged off with a “Well they would say that at this time wouldn’t they”. But what does this say about trade union relationships with, say, signalmen and cabin crew. What about striking workers expressing a concern for safety? Is that management’s responsibility? Or is it everyone’s?