Loyalty to institutions


Why are people loyal to some institutions but not others?

This post stems from a comment by Hilary Barnard in response to my last blogpost. Why was I so angry at the fund raiser who phoned me up out of the blue from my old university asking for money? After all, the guy on the phone was only doing his job. I blogged about what happened at the time, but given the crises that are happening at a number of institutions, it’s worth digging further.

My original blogpost following that phonecall is university-specific. But looking at a much wider spectrum, out of all of the ‘institutions’ that I have been part of – whether in education or work, the only one that I feel any sense of ‘loyalty’ to is my old primary school – of which I’ve since returned as a governor. As far as secondary school was concerned, I left with a clutch of very good GCSEs but under a cloud of loathing and hatred. At sixth form college, a cloud of disappointment at unfulfilled dreams. And ditto with university.

The civil service and trade unions? Strange really, because I got a lot out of working for the former and volunteering for the latter, even though they both have more than a few faults. The difference there was that I was able to have some sort of impact on both, and that both have a role to play in upholding the public interest on the delivery of public services in particular. (That’s not to make a judgement on how well they do it!)

Did the institution look out for me?

In the case of my old university, I wrote the following:

“During my time at university, I never got the feeling that anyone within the institution was proactively looking out for me. The bloodbath that was the annual search for accommodation was administered in a manner by staff who seemed to be so emotionally removed from what people were going through at the time. It wasn’t just me, it was other people too”

The same was the case with the institution itself: I never got the feeling that it was, due to its people, its systems and its processes looking out for the best interests of its students. Looking backwards from university, the same feels true of both secondary school and sixth form college. In the case of school, because I was one of the academic high fliers, everything at the time was deemed all well and good. A clutch of As and Bs (this being the mid-1990s) and job done. In the case of college, it was – and is – one of those that judges itself by the number of people who get into oxbridge and where it scores on the league tables. When institutions start doing that, its processes and policies start impacting on its decisions – such as which students to enter into exams. If the incentive is strong enough not to enter a student for whatever reason, pressure can be put on the student to ‘voluntarily withdraw’ from that course – irrespective of whether it is in the longer term interest of the student concerned.

What do I need to do to get the best out of my staff/students?

It sounds all touchy-feel/politically correct to put things in this sort of context. Ask me that question as an angry 15 year old and I’d have said it sounds like giving commendations to school bullies for not beating up kids when really at the time I’d probably have wanted them lined up against the wall and shot! Or just gotten rid of somehow so as not to make my life a misery.

Yet in the case of larger organisations, I sometimes wonder whether those responsible for  others – whether in a management context or otherwise, actually take the time to ask – and answer that question: How can I get the best out of people? It’s not just a case of finding what makes someone ‘tick’ but also trying to find out what sort of things destabilise them too – then try to mitigate for that. This is one of the things the Coalition failed to understand with its huge programme of cuts. How can you expect to get the best out of your staff when they spend half their time worrying about whether they would have a job left, and/or in the case of more senior managers, whether they would have the competent and knowledgeable staff left behind to deliver what was being asked of them.

One of the many problems with large institutions is that it is very easily for people to become faceless numbers. Whether in education or even as patients in a hospital, once you start dealing with the macro numbers, it’s very easy to become ‘dehumanised’ from the whole thing. It’s one of the reasons why in a couple of my policy areas I made it my business to get out and about while having a role doing that amongst other things involved number-crunching budgets measured in hundreds of millions of pounds.

The customer is always right

Apart from when they are not. I have a big problem with being viewed as a customer by public services – in particular ones that I am dependent on. (See On Patient Choice). This is because the relationship between a customer and a service provider is not the same as the one between the citizen and the state. With the former, the relationship feels like it’s a much more passive one – the customer as the ‘dumb’ (and not in the pejorative sense) recipient of whatever services are delivered. Remember that with public services, more often than not, the provider is a monopoly provider – often with good reason. (e.g. the goods/services provided are merit goods, under-provided by the market even though the public interest is best served with the greater and subsidised provision of such things. Think public transport, health and education).

The citizen-state relationship is (in principle) a much more active relationship. This is because in a reasonably well-functioning democracy, there is a need for citizens to be active in its engagement with the state. At its most basic level is voting. Beyond that it could be things like volunteering to be a school governor to providing feedback on planning applications in your local area, all the way up to being active in a political party and standing for election to public office. This is an entirely different relationship to the customer-provider one.

Perhaps that’s where large institutions have got things wrong. In the dash for all things free market and the pressure to treat people as customers, we’ve lost something in the active relationships between citizen and institutions. Honest conversations have been replaced by lines to take from automated machines or pre-approved sentences to use. The focus on ‘value for money’ has more often than not ended up as ‘who is the cheapest’ rather than ‘what is best for our community?’

That’s not to say customer service is all bad. When I go to the swimming pool I have every right to expect decent service. At the same time, caution should be thrown the way of learning from the private sector when it comes to customer service – especially from large institutions. This is why. While sales & the bottom line ultimately count, sales alone is a very ‘blunt’ method of measuring customer satisfaction. Why? Because by the time sales fall due to bad customer service, it can be too late. As in previous articles, are there better methods of information collection and improved systems of feedback into decision-making that can improve things?

Wanting to be part of something greater than the individual

You’ve seen the slogan “Be part of it” more times than is sensible. The marketing men have gotten hold of the idea that people want to feel a greater sense of connection with each other and the wider world. Various slogans have invited me to be part of a pair of trainers all the way through to a new development of luxury apartments. What they don’t say is that you can only ‘be part of it’ if you hand over stack loads of cash. Which I don’t have. It’s one of the places where the Olympics went badly wrong – the over-commercialisation of it. Being ‘part of it’ for them meant signing over monopoly rights to purveyors of really expensive low quality food, beverages and merchandise. How many people who went to the Olympics and Paralympics talk about the quality of the gastronomic delights they enjoyed? Or the outstanding quality of the tailoring in their sweatshop-produced merchandise?

Take the money and whatever the institution is measured by in terms of targets away, and then ask the question: What does it mean to ‘be part of it’? Institution-by-institution, I wonder what the answers would be. How would they differ? Political parties, religious groups, educational establishments, employers, the uniformed services, charities and campaign groups, sports teams, even private sector brands. Just intrigued, that’s all.


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