Institutional frailty, West Bromwich Albion and a glass box


Tonight on Moral Maze we are discussing institutions and their declining authority. Part of the background is, of course, the Savile affair and it will be difficult not to anticipate the atmosphere at Broadcasting House with a certain voyeuristic frisson. But, while Savile presents an extreme example, the loss of authority and confidence in institutions is a much wider phenomenon.

Indeed, the decline in hierarchical authority, which provides the normative skeleton of institutions, was a major theme of my annual lecture. In this I suggested that the capacity to tackle tough problems in society had been sapped by the decline of two of three sources of power – hierarchy and solidarity – and the consequent over extension of the third – individualism. The question for tonight is whether this sapping of institutional authority should be seen primarily as the consequence of the failings of those institutions, and therefore in essence a necessary and progressive process, or as evidence of a baleful loss of deference to authority and respect for tradition in a society readily willing to tear down things of value but much less able to build new ones.

This opens up a question that was implicit but unanswered in both my annual lecture and the theories which informed it. Has individualism become predominant because of extrinsic factors which have led the decline of institutions and solidarities, or is it individualism itself which is responsible for that decline? The structure of this conundrum can be illustrated through a footballing metaphor; can Manchester City’s defeat of West Brom on Saturday most usefully be understood in terms of the former’s strengths, the latter’s weaknesses or the interaction between the two? As this suggests, there is a real and important distinction here, but rarely a clear conceptual dichotomy.

Ultimately, I plump slightly more for the extrinsic drivers explanation for institutional frailty than the triumph of individualism, although I do think the same forces are implicated in both processes.  Technological progress, increasing affluence and rising levels of education have created a world which is more complex, fast moving and in which people have higher expectations and are more querulous. In this world the slow and unreliable way in which information tends to travel up and across, and decisions down and across, institutions has often meant their responses to the outside world have often been ill judged or flat footed. Not only have institutions becomes less effective but it has meant that inherent organisational dilemmas have become harder to handle: dilemmas such as innovation versus risk, short term results versus long term capacity, internal ideas of fairness versus external perceptions of appropriateness.

Institutions are not to blame for the factors making life more uncomfortable but they are often to blame for the choice many have then made. Instead of understanding these changes, owning them as challenges and opportunities and publicly airing the dilemmas which then emerge and the way the institution intends to resolve them, leaders have too often merely intensified or adapted the old forms of control. The classic example here is Westminster politics where the response to 24 hour news and a more critical public is not to embark on the difficult but noble task of achieving a richer and deeper public engagement but instead to try to impose rigid communication hierarchies. The wonderful tragi-comedy of ‘The thick of it’ is in essence all about people trying counter-productively to exert ever more control in a world where control of that kind is ultimately doomed.

Instead, institutions need a different mind-set. Put simply they need to see themselves as operating in a glass box in which most of what they do and most of why they do it is visible to everyone. The response to a problem of inauthenticity is not an authenticity communication strategy, it is to act authentically (and when this is difficult – as it often is – to be open about it and as far as possible invite colleagues, partners, customers and other stakeholders into exploring and resolving the dilemmas).

Healthy institutions are vital to a healthy society. They are concentrations of accumulated and current human energy which protect us from the overbearing power of the central state and the market. Institutions will not thrive through self-pity and self-indulgence but through self-awareness and a much deeper idea of accountability.

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