Category Archives: governance

The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

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‘Those ain’t our rules’

‘Those ain’t our rules
We didn’t write’m
No need to read’m’
[From the film of ‘The Cider House Rules’ – the apple pickers come back each season and only when Homer Wells joins them and reads the rules out loud have the rules ever been shared. Rules, and doing the right thing regardless of the rules, are the core themes of the film, elaborated in the book.]

We come across that a lot. How to to make rules that work and are not just the voice of a pointlessly rigid authority. Three illustrations.

1. Early on in the life of Spark, Philippa joined us, rejoining having left the team for a while and gone via one of the Big Five consulting firms. She brought with her the dress code instructions (lipstick, belts, earrings, every tiny detail proscribed). We wondered why there could not be a rule which was ‘dress appropriately’.

2. There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.

3. Last year we spent most of the year engaged in a substantial lessons learned review for the Chief Scientific Advisor and Futures and Horizon Scanning head of a government department. The intention of the work was to research, emerge lessons and lead to production of governance and good practice guidelines for commissioning, carrying out and disseminating this kind of work. We initiated the work with private interviews with those directly involved with the original programme, supplemented by 10 minute telephone calls with 70 – 80 of those more on the periphery. Then we used this raw material to create an annotated timeline of the key turning points in the first 5 years and pinpoint where lessons might be found and to frame more detailed questions to work through in short, recorded conversations supplemented by a week of structured cross-department events, using pinboarding and narrative techniques. All the audio and visual material was documented. The body of materials was segmented and analysed in a tailormade cataloguing and research device designed for us by Spanner (www.spanner.org) and the emergent insights used to construct provocative essays on aspects of governance – a way of reporting back to the client and inviting department-wide reflection on developing and upholding standards and behaviours in these emergent and complex areas of evidence-gathering. At no stage did will tell anyone what to do or that that was a definitive guideline. Rather, we gathered experience and presented this back in such a way that the recipient would be inclined to consider it and form judgements in relation to it which would affect how they acted in future.

It calls to mind the story of the hotel key, as told by Bruno Latour in a essay on knowledge claims. The question is, how do you get the hotel guest to return the key? Do you put up rules? (‘Those ain’t our rules’) Do you attach a huge wooden object to the key that is a constant physical reminder and makes it bulky, uncomfortable and easier to leave at reception? Are the rules outside the object, or prompts, embedded in the object? So do you get to rules by words, or by a kind of oddness which interrupts the flow, the autopilot of actions and reactions, and shifts the relationship between person and object without anything having to be said?

Of course nowadays, the key is a disposable credit card sliver of a thing which mostly doesn’t work and needs reprogramming after several increasingly irritable trips to reception.

[Latour, Bruno (1991) ‘Materials of Power: Technology is society made durable’ in John Law (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination Sociological Review Monograph 38 Routledge, London, pp 103 – 132]