From the archive: Policymaking shouldn’t be a bully pulpit

Michael Harris /   March 23, 2012 at 8:31 PM 1,341 views

How we treat other people often reflects how we are treated, and in many organisations this gets established at the top. Workplaces with assholic chief executives easily turn into environments where bullying, passive-aggressiveness and small ‘p’ politics are rife; once modelled by leaders, these behaviours can become permissible, even normalised. We increasingly recognise that these behaviours are bad for business. So why have we normalised these behaviours when it comes to how we develop and implement social policy? And is there a link between this and how people get treated at the frontline of public services?

I’ve written in the Guardian blog about the perverse ‘everyone hates us, we don’t care’ approach to policymaking, for which think tanks are partly responsible. Starting in the 1970s, a group of commentators associated with the new right think tanks began to characterise organised frontline workers and service users not just as ‘self-interested’ or ‘obstructive’ but as the underlying cause of the country’s problems. These groups, went the argument, effectively hold politicians to ransom until governments pay them off by spending more on public services. This only makes them stronger and turns the “collectivist ratchet” inexorably away from a free society. This situation had to be reversed.

As a result, not listening to frontline workers has almost become a badge of honour for politicians, as if there’s something suspect about a policy developed in partnership or supported by professionals (i.e. the people who are responsible for making it a success on the ground). Without the participation of the people who use and provide public services it’s not that surprising when social policy is poorly evidenced, badly designed and difficult to implement.

There’s something of the bully about this approach to policy development, a passive-aggressiveness. It’s the political equivalent of the boss who believes that low staff morale means that he (it’s almost always he) must be ‘doing something right‘ – a sentiment recently supported by the secretary of state for education (the person ultimately responsible for ensuring that schools are safe, respectful environments that foster learning, creativity and civility).

Policy should be contested, but this doesn’t mean it has to be mean, or that division and divisiveness make for better deliberation. Those who relish the ‘contest of ideas’ neglect that politics requires conciliation and compromise. Macho policymaking might make for tough headlines but rarely for good policy, and the type of people who compulsively need to win are invariably also losers.

Sadly, many think tanks in effect contribute to, rather than challenge, this assholic political culture. Our ideas are always right, theirs are always wrong. The other ‘side’ needs to be destroyed (rhetorically at least), because they are stupid/dangerous/evil. And if this is how (thought) leaders behave, is there a danger, as in the workplace, that the rest of us become infected by the same disease?

When people aren’t listened to, the result at the frontline of services is often low morale and stress, leading to disillusion and disengagement. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder that policy fails to achieve its objectives, which in turn encourages some policymakers to adopt an even more aggressive approach designed to defeat their ‘enemies’ at the frontline. Given this kind of thinking, and without taking away responsibility from anyone, should we really be surprised to discover bullying, abuse, and neglect at the frontline of services when these are the same behaviours we witness at the centre?

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