Are You Being Served or Stifled? Paging Mr. Lucas
Are You Being Served? is a wonderful BBC sitcom from the 70’s, it follows the exploits of employees at London’s Grace Brothers department store, as they parody the British class system but also the worst of institutional behaviours.
In the first series, there was an episode called “Our Figures Are Slipping” (January, 1973) where sales figures for the department are falling, and Mr. Rumbold insists the staff stay behind after the store closes to learn more about effective customer engagement and sales techniques. The results are comical and produce the very opposite of what Mr. Rumbold intended. Rumbold’s (senior management) instruction to Mr. Lucas “the junior” to smile more in an effort to help boost his sales figures offers a neat allegory for the way some Public Sector organisations are currently dealing (badly) with ‘austerity’.
In the series Mr. Lucas represents fresh, modern thinking, in the early series’ he was the young sparky guy, whose energy and ideas contrasted with the crusty, outmoded thinking that typified the culture at Grace Brothers. Grace Brothers was “an institution” committed to high standards that resulted in the perpetuation of standard mediocrity. The most radical change at Grace Brothers came in series 5, where in an effort to Americanize the store, they decided to allow all employees call each other by their first name. Dick Lucas was a “jack the lad” he was mischievous and disruptive, irreverent and fun. But he was neither productive nor innovative, at Grace Brothers he was stifled, and as sales figures slumped the culture became even more stifling and he became more marginalized and disabled.
Grace Brothers was an institutional dinosaur that never received the memo telling them that the meteor had already struck, and change or extinction are the only options. Their best hope of change was in Mr. Lucas, who knew instinctively how to build relationships and get beyond the bounds of the system. The sitcom tells the story of how the culture at Grace Brothers cannibalized their only hope; metaphorically they ate their young. This is exactly what I see happening in a lot of organisations in the face of stinging cuts, but the results are far from comical, rather they are both tragic and unacceptable.
Characters like Dick Lucas are disruptive innovators who never get to innovate, at least not within such systems. That said who knows what he did when he went home? From one episode to the next of “Are You Being Served?” we were treated to guest appearances by famous actors and actresses of the ‘70s who play the role of customers were asked: “Are You Being Served?” the answer to great comic effect was always a resounding “No”, instead they were regularly insulted and demeaned in a funny sort of way. Far too many of our Public Sector institutions are run like Grace Brothers, as well as eating their young, they demean their patrons because they can only think of them as consumers.
In theatrical circles there is a concept called “breeching the Fourth wall”. Which symbolizes the space separating the audience from the action of a theatrical performance, traditionally conceived of as an imaginary wall completing the enclosure of the stage. Far too many of those engaged in the enterprise of radically reimagining our public sector systems, think that their challenge is to better engage the audience so that in turn the audience can better consumer their services. A challenge that Grace Brothers failed at miserably, but our public institutions are not Department Stores.
Most public sector organisations have modeled themselves on commercial businesses, thereby losing sight of their primary functions as public servants and stewards of local democracy; accordingly seeing their patrons solely as customers. This is particularly true of Local Governments; it is a source of tremendous irony that at the same time austerity is so clearly revealing to many savvy citizens and disruptive innovators within institutions that this is a model of public service which has reached the limits of its usefulness, the Grace Brothers style of Local Government is more evident than ever-albeit nowadays the audience are being asked to provide the prompts, and increasing perform cameo roles on stage in place of professionals. It makes for interesting theatre but dreadful democracy.
So if the Grace Brothers style of Local Government is being sent unwillingly to pasture, what’s the alternative?
Well curiously the answer still involves breeching the fourth wall, but in reverse order. It calls on systems to intentionally relocate authority off their stage into the heartland of communities, by reducing dependency on their systems, structures and programmes and increasing interdependency in community life. For Public Sector organisations to achieve this, when their back is against the wall, will necessitate massive disruptive innovation, predicated on seeing people in their audience, not as spectators, but as the directors, of real lives, in real places, who sometimes require services, but mostly want a life.
The central problem for most public sector organisations is that they are negotiating the journey of change while relying on a map that has made all the wrong assumptions about the terrain. Chief among these flawed assumptions is that institutions are the primary investors in and problem solvers of social, environmental, and economic challenges, and that the most effective tools at their disposal are their expert-driven, process managed programmes.
Moving beyond the institutional assumption that people’s wellbeing is primarily determined by professional intervention is made easier by the fact that it is unscientific. The great preponderance of evidence contradicts this assumption.
Epidemiology for example is remarkably consistent in naming the four primary drivers for health and wellbeing as:
- Personal behavior
- Associational life
- Economic status
- Environmental conditions
Access to formal health care interventions does not even appear on the primary list, of course they matter, but the primacy of position they currently enjoy is not based on evidence but on flawed assumptions, and institutional self-interest. The same four primary determinants hold true for wisdom/learning; justice and public safety; and ageing well across the life course. The evidence points us away from institutions as our primary hope for wellbeing and towards each other. It tells us that self-determination is better, and community interdependence is even better again than programmatic intervention.
But in a free society where is the space where such citizenship and association can connect and seed invention? The answer is our neighbourhoods. Our communities of place provide the most effective stage for including a diversity and density of voices and citizen led efforts towards justice, safety, ageing well, local economic growth, health, care, inclusion, wisdom and democracy. Therefore the modest, all too often ignored neighbourhood (ideally) is where the four main determinants of wellbeing can come together, across all kinds of fault lines and divisions. But this requires a process of community building, a process very few public sector organisations understand, let alone invest in.
The word ‘neighbourliness’ hardly seems adequate to capture the significance of the productive capacity and activities of our neighbourhoods -described above- when they become dynamically connecting places, yet our language provides us with few other options that haven’t been appropriated into system space. So for want of a better word, what can Local Government, and their partners across public sector and civil society do to support neighbourliness?
This is a question I hear more and more helping professionals asking at both a practice and strategic level. In asking this question some are motived by a misguided belief that their new primary function in the face of austerity is to recruit volunteers that they can then sprinkle on various socio-economic problems that previously were dealt with by professionals. Yet others are charting a very different path and using a very different map to guide their steps. Instead of seeing local government as in the business of managing scarcity, they believe its job is to support communities to organize abundance.
In a chapter of a book on Neighbourliness, Tony Pilch asks the question: “What is neighbourliness?” and in doing so reflects on what role Local Government can useful play in supporting it:
“There is a fine and delicate balance to be struck by government in trying to promote neighbourliness: one person’s idea of neighbourliness may be another’s idea of a nuisance. An added difficulty is the remoteness and sometimes inability of government institutions and processes to affect change at the neighbourhood or street level, where structures matter less and where informal practices and relationships become more important.
Yet, the government has a strong interest in, and a rich program for, the development of neighbourliness. Joe Montgomery, Head of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit at the ODPM (Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management), argues powerfully that “promoting neighbourliness is as vital as improving public services and maintaining the public spaces in our neighbourhoods.
Government cannot manufacture neighbourliness, but it does have a crucial role to play in putting the basics in place and in providing sensitively tailored support. If we can get this balance right, we can unleash the potential of residents to create an active brand of neighbourliness that can accelerate the process of renewing neighbourhoods and creating sustainable communities.”
Neighbourliness (page 10), Edited by Tony Pilch
This is an immensely useful framing, because it doesn’t dissociate the role Local Government from Community, but instead reimagines it beyond the provision of services and into the domain of practice. And it strikes me that as we see the emergence of new disruptive innovators in post-Grace Brother-like Local Authorities and Public Sector organisations generally, we need to support them in honing this new style of public service, which is less about services or servicing and more about servantship and serving.
On that journey there are a number of precautions worth noting, they are well curated in the extract below from Building Community from Inside Out –A Path Towards Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets, by John Kretzmann & John McKnight
Because governments are usually large, complex and formal, it is often difficult for them to deal effectively with small, simple and informal local asset development groups. Often government efforts to support are dominating, distorting or demeaning. There are a few principles that can help government officials avoid this overbearing propensity.
- “Public servant” is the best definition of a government worker or programme. A servant never suggests that the employer could “participate” in the servant’s work. The servant “supports” the employers’ work.
- Be clear about the limits of government. If government replaces the work of citizens and their associations, it will not have created a good society. Instead, the evidence is clear that it will have created a dependent society. And because it will not be able to fulfill all its claims, local problems will grow worse. There can never be enough schools to create effective young people. There can never be enough clinics to create health. Secure, wise, just and healthy communities are created by citizens and associations and their enterprises, supported by government making investments in local assets.
- Leave the credit to local citizens and their associations and enterprises. Too often, governments that have been a part of local development effort take most of the public credit for the activity, overshadowing the efforts of local citizens and their community. The Mayor cuts the ribbon. The Governor announces the grant. Those who do the work go unrecognized.
- Don’t replace local associations and institutions with systems, institutions, centres or agencies. One of the most significant causes of weakened local citizen initiatives, associational work and institutional capacity has been the introduction of new government sponsored structures and organisations. As new organisations appear in the neighbourhood with impressive buildings or offices, lots of money, and well paid outside professionals, they unintentionally but necessarily replace some of the power, authority and legitimacy of local groups. Although they assert that they are there to strengthen community, they are as likely to replace community initiatives. Therefore, government representatives can ask, “What do you community folks think we should do to support you?” rather than, “We have this new programme that we’re bringing into your community”.
- “One size does not fit all” at the neighbourhood level. The essential characteristics of local associational life are diversity, proliferation and informality. Higher levels of government, on the other hand, are characterized by uniformity, standardization and formality, seeking to establish general guidelines and regulations that will “fit all”. It is this generalization imperative of central governments that is structurally at odds with creative local initiatives. And yet, it is creative local initiatives that are the essential power for regenerating community. Therefore, great flexibility is necessary if large governments are to support community building. And if this flexibility is not possible, it may be best for large governments to learn how to get out of the way of local efforts.
Building Communities From The Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets, John Kretzmann & John McKnight (Pg. 373)
In a consumer society the most radical idea of all is that we can best resolve our challenges by first connecting with what is close at hand and of our place. Literally growing the solutions to our most intractable challenges from inside out. There is mounting evidence, that it is only when the ground has been ploughed by local people; outside investments can hope to stick.
This is the reverse of the business paradigm which as I’ve argued above mirrors the culture of our public sector organisations, albeit they do not count the profits at the end of the day, they do count the numbers of their clients. While this is a step up from the farcical Grace Brothers set up, it is no less of a dinosaur, and based on the now infamous graph of doom (see below), will result in extinction.
As such institutions falter, in their wake will come even worse forms of institutional largesse, this time directly from the corporate world, they will unashamedly promote the virtues of their business like approach to Public Service, and demean those who have gone before them for their lack of business and managerial savvy. This of course is tantamount to throwing the baby with the bath water.
But there is still hope. Increasingly people are seeing through the neo-liberal rhetoric that makes a virtue out selling the family silverware, and are reappraising the prognosis of our Public Sectors’ challenge. The root problem is not the lack of business acumen to make this model of public service work, but that business model was bankrupt from day one and continues to be fundamentally inadequate to the challenge of stewarding the public good. Doing more of what doesn’t work, doesn’t make things better, it makes them worse.
We desperately need to re-imagine ourselves into a brave new world, where servantship is an honour, and keeping people out of our services is the goal. In this brave new world of Public Service we need to entreat Dick Lucas to rejoin the ranks, bringing all his mischief making and innovation with him, but we also need him to find a deep humility that constantly reminds him he is the servant and we (the citizens) are the landlords. Of course inside every public servant is a citizen waiting to be liberated, so Mr. Lucas will know in this brave new world what he does on his street outside of work matters as much if not more than what he does within his paid role.
So, Are You Being Served? Or Stifled?