Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Karl du Fresne: St John and the cult of managerialism

I thought it significant that in Consumer’s recent comparison of emergency survival kits on the market, the one that scored worst by far was marketed by the St John Ambulance organisation.

Its “Emergency Grab Kit” got a scathing “fail” from Consumer, with a score of 38% – far below any of the six other kits tested. How humiliating for an organisation that traces its history back to the 12th century, when the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem looked after sick and injured pilgrims to the Holy Land.

What was almost comically ironic was that the St John emergency kit didn’t even include a first-aid kit – this from an organisation that’s synonymous with emergency medical assistance – or food rations. And to make matters worse, the pack wasn’t cheap ($200 compared with one at $85 and another that costs $139).

In a sense, it’s a betrayal. People buying an emergency kit bearing the name of St John are entitled to expect that it will set the standard for all others. In fact it appears the reverse was true.

You have to ask: how could an organisation with St John’s proud record end up in such a state?

Let me hazard a guess. It’s been corporatised.

What typically happens is this. Organisations like St John start out as voluntary. They are run on the smell of an oily rag by enthusiastic, committed amateurs whose only reward is the satisfaction that comes from doing good for the community.

No doubt that’s still true at the grassroots level. But what happens as such organisations grow is that they reach a point where enthusiastic amateurism no longer cuts it at the top level. They evolve into bureaucracies.

They adopt all the trappings of the private sector. They acquire a flash office in Wellington and they hire professional managers, public relations consultants, fundraisers, marketers, website designers, health and safety trainers and HR advisers.  They also recruit university-educated careerists whose lack of life experience doesn’t stop them from wanting to re-invent the wheel.

In other words they get corporatised. With this come expense accounts, corporate credit cards, business-class travel and company cars. Along the way, the purity of purpose that originally motivated them tends to get diluted.

They also get contaminated by the deathly cult of managerialism, with its key performance indicators, meetings, values statements, general control freakery, risk avoidance, more meetings, arse-covering, preposterous jargon, more meetings and bitchy office politics.

Of course an organisation as large and complex as St John requires an appropriate management structure. The danger is that as these organisations grow bigger and more unwieldy, they became so pre-occupied with the minutiae of management that they lose sight of their core functions. Management becomes an end in itself.

If they are partly funded by the state, as many are, things get more complicated, because government bureaucrats create hoops for them to jump through. So they hire more people to ensure compliance with the government’s requirements – which might include, for instance, paying someone to come up with Maori names for everything they do, even though no one ever uses them.

Under the headline Vision and Values on the St John website, for example, you see things like: “We Make It Better – Whakawerohia. We find solutions – step up, own it, do it.”

There it is, right there: management psycho-babble that means whatever you want it to mean.

All this, needless to say, gobbles up money that might otherwise be used for whatever purpose the organisation nominally exists for.

In the meantime, the faithful and tireless people at the grassroots go on doing what they have always done. But the corporate head office grows gradually more distant and disconnected from its original ethos, and the people at the grassroots feel powerless to influence decisions and policy.

I’m not saying this has happened at St John, but it has certainly happened to other organisations in the not-for-profit sector – for example the IHC, a $280 million-a-year behemoth whose head office sometimes gives the impression of being unaccountable to faithful, long-serving members.

Some would say New Zealand Rugby has gone down a similar path, moving ever further from the game’s muddy amateur roots.

Is the same true of St John? I admit I can’t be sure, but the fact that the organisation couldn’t put together a basic emergency kit – or worse still, perhaps couldn’t be bothered – suggests it may have lost sight of what most of us assumed it existed for. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at First published in The Dominion Post.

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