Thursday 11 May 2023

Institutional amnesia can affect any organisation


It’s clear that the UK Government’s plan to ditch all EU-originated legislation by the end of the current year has run into significant difficulties. Whilst ideologues like Jake are demanding that the government stick to its original plan, those responsible for actually implementing it are slowly realising that most of the rules and regulations are there for good reasons, and that simply abandoning them without thinking through a replacement is a really bad idea. It’s highlighting an instance of what is known as “institutional amnesia”, an organisation's inability to recall and use historical knowledge for present-day purposes. Whilst the rules are still there, the reasons for putting them there have often been forgotten.

A lot of organisations suffer from the problem. I’ve worked for large organisations, in both the public and the private sector, which have reams and reams of policies and procedures, all carefully developed to respond to some stimulus or other – sometimes external, such as legislation or a problem very publicly hitting another organisation which they don’t want to repeat themselves, and sometimes internal, such as ensuring that something which has happened is never repeated. One potential result, from direct personal experience with one large employer, is that when a situation arises, all those carefully prepared and shelved policies get ignored because no-one remembers what’s in them or is able to find the relevant needle in the haystack of documentation, and those charged with responding to the situation re-invent their own shiny new wheels to address the problem. And then write a new procedure to cover the future. In simple terms, when organisations forget the ‘why’ which lies behind the ‘what’, they tend to ignore the ‘what’ as well.

If that’s a problem for large, well-resourced organisations under full-time professional management, imagine how much bigger that problem might be for an under-resourced organisation run at least partly by part-time volunteers with frequent changes in both its officers and its committees and groups. Particularly where competing egos and ambitions are in play. Like a political party for instance. And that brings me to Plaid’s recent travails and the report of the working party into the allegations of a toxic culture of misogyny, harassment and bullying. When I read some of the report’s recommendations, I couldn’t help but feel that the party was suffering from a bout of that institutional amnesia which eventually afflicts most organisations. Some of the proposed ‘new’ wheels looked extremely familiar to me. I’m well aware that, during my period as Chair, the party’s rule book got ever longer and more complicated – far too long, according to many – as rules were tweaked and new committees and groups established, invariably in response to an actual or perceived problem. One thing that I learned from that experience is that whilst rules, procedures and processes are very good at documenting what should happen, they are a very poor way of documenting the learning and reasoning which led to those rules and processes in the first place, and over time (to the extent that they are followed at all) the rules are followed with no real understanding of the rationale behind them. And then fall into disuse or get thrown into the nearest convenient bonfire of red tape.

It's not a problem to which I had (or have) a solution, and I don’t immediately see a solution to it in the working party’s report either. Plaid isn’t unique in facing the problem, although other parties making hay is only to be expected. As the report hints, the long-term solution lies somewhere in the area of the collective culture of the organisation, but changing and then maintaining a single cohesive culture is easier said than done. Particularly bearing in mind those egos and ambitions.


CapM said...

Politics seems to be near unique in that appointment to the jobs of party representatives and constituency candidates needs no other qualification than being popular.

What's to stop political parties setting up a system of testing candidates on their knowledge and understanding of a party's standards and expectations and the candidates passing that est before the party endorses them.

John Dixon said...

There's nothing at all to stop parties doing that - other than the fact that the people who need to be convinced first are those who got their positions, as you suggest, primarily through popularity, and might not always feel well-disposed to the idea of a more objective process. I have the t-shirt on that one.

dafis said...

Ditching EU originated regs is of itself no bad thing if all those regs were irrelevant to everyday life. Unfortunately most of them are relevant and particularly so if an UK citizen or company wishes to trade with an EU entity. Now some of those regs might only need a few word changes to suit a pointy head in London and still meet the standards set by the EU reg. However likes of JRM have a myopic all or nothing outlook and nothing short of a big bonfire will suit their appetite for destruction.

dafis said...

Relating to Plaid, but not uniquely, the capacity for churning out new rules to tackle today's problem seems to grow with the increase in bureaucratic grey suited blokes (and some female equivalents) occupying positions of authority or influence. Not advocating going back to ad hoc responses to everything but a basic set of rules of conduct should be simple enough to lay down and be sure to reach all members. Getting members to call out the various bad behaviours on time rather than years later is a major obstacle to keeping things orderly.

CapM said...

@John Dixon
"There's nothing at all to stop parties doing that ....."
I guessed that was the case.
It's a missed trick I think as it's a relatively easy (and cheap) to implement, Unique Selling Point for a party to gain for itself. It wouldn't necessarily exclude those inclined to behave badly but maybe limit the ambitions of the incompetent, the lazy, the slapdash ie those whose confidence outweighs their ability.

John Dixon said...


It sounds easy and straightforward, but... Difficulties arise when it comes to working out who applies the rules and does the testing and questioning. Options are: delegating it to staff who can be in a difficult position if being asked to judge their bosses / potential bosses; delegating it to elected officers risks clashes of ambitions; asking existing elected members to do it risks perpetuating current culture; setting up a panel of members risks variations in the application of the rules as well as working to different agendas. I don't think it's impossible, but it isn't as simple as it might look either.


"a basic set of rules of conduct should be simple enough to lay down and be sure to reach all members" Maybe, if there is sufficient unity of purpose with a shared objective and culture. However, experience teaches me that ambitious people competing with each other for position will seize on any loophole, and do anything that is not explicitly forbidden.

"Getting members to call out the various bad behaviours on time" But never forget that some of the behaviours we are talking about involve a differential power relationship between perpetrator and victim. I entirely understand why many victims decline to report, or delay reporting, bad behaviour for fear that the perpetrator may end up still in place and make future working relationships even more difficult. I would never blame the victim for that delay.

CapM said...

Tens of thousands of GCSEs are set and marked every year so we would have the capability in Cymru to organise and run a modest independent system that tested and assessed wannabe politicians and officers of a political party.
Maybe some of those working in education, academia and other fields would be interested in being involved.