Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Good Old Days

Mary Beard has a typically eloquent lament about how her job isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be. What with all the codes of practice, the targets and the teaching criteria she has to fulfil, all the worksheets to fill in and policies for this and that to adhere to, she finds it increasingly difficult to do what she's best at:

The point is that I am now so busy with supervising, being a secondary supervisor, interviewing applicants for graduate funding, doing first, second and third year reviews -- that I am simply not available any more to meet a graduate student for coffee after half a morning in the library. So I go through the tick box routines, but don't any longer have the time to chill out with a student, doing what I am best at (and what my own teachers were best at) -- which is just talking about the ancient world.

Nor does she have any time to go to colleagues' lectures for fun (rather than in pursuit of some assessment objective) - "and we hardly ever have time to read each others' work, which was always one of the best things, the intellectual advantages, of being in Cambridge." She doesn't say so, but I'm willing to bet there's also rather less port on high table these days.

The story she tells could, of course, be repeated with slight variations in almost every walk of life - above all, but not exclusively, in the public sector. It goes something like this:

In the good old days, before New Labour came along with its politically correct platitudes and its culture of box-ticking and targets, or perhaps you have to go back further than that before Mrs Thatcher and her suspicion of professional closed shops, people used to just get on with the job. There was a way of doing things - passed on by older, experienced mentors - and you learned on the job, or just picked things up. No-one checked up on you. Problems could generally be headed off by some senior figure having a quiet word over a glass of sherry. It was all about trust - trust and professional ethics, which were never set down in writing but rather absorbed from the prevailing atmosphere. True, there were downsides. There were some people who were incompetent, or drunk, or psychopathic bullies. Colleagues covered up for them. Or their secretaries did the real work.

There were some appalling instances of sexual harassment. In hospitals, a few patients ended up dead. The police used to fit up known crooks. There were some people you wouldn't want hanging around children. But such cases were fairly few and far between. In the main, people did their jobs to the best of their ability, and were rewarded by unquestioned professional respect. To be a doctor, or a university lecturer, or a bank manager, was a position of respectability. People looked up to you, took you at face value, didn't question your expenses claims. And in return, by and large, you conducted yourself with integrity. If there were a few bad apples - well, they were more than compensated for by all the good eggs.

Nowadays, everything has to be written down, double-checked, accounted for. You can't so much as climb a ladder without attending a three-week residential ladder-awareness course and satisfying some jobsworth that you won't break your neck. Even if you're the Queen. It's ridiculous, a total waste of time and money. It smothers creativity and initiative. And if, as a consequence, some patients don't die, some children aren't sexually abused, some drunken bullies are dragged before employment tribunals, that still doesn't make up for the misery being inflicted on the honest, hard-working majority of professionals whose time is being wasted and whose ability and experience counts for less than some bureaucrat's pettyfogging form.

It's a conundrum. Personally, I'm convinced that things have gone much too far in the direction of risk-aversion and target-setting. Power should be returned to professionals - as David Cameron has been promising will happen (I'll believe that when I see it). But that's much easier said than done. It's not just that the inevitable result would be avoidably dead patients or whistle-blowers being punished rather than listened to. Actually, cases like Haringey social services demonstrate that the culture of institutional arse-covering has survived the accountability revolution fairly intact. For one thing, as long as politicians believe that they are responsible (or the media believe they are responsible) for everything that happens, they will seek to control it. That means paperwork. Most fatally, the informal ways of doing things, that used to frame people's working lives and formed their professional instincts, took decades to evolve. Simply sweeping away all the oversight and regulations won't bring them back - especially as the last generation who experienced the old way of doing things - Mary Beard's generation - is now approaching retirement.

And who was left who had known the republic?