I read an opinion piece the other day which discusses, amongst other things, the concept of false consensus. We pretend to believe something because everyone else appears to believe it. They are pretending too, because they don’t want to be the only person who appears to disagree. One example from the article is a company that trumpets its deep commitment to customer service, while treating its actual customers poorly at every turn. Staff know that customers are badly served and unhappy, but sit surrounded by cheery signs proclaiming “Customers are our No 1 priority!!”.
So that got me thinking; are we guilty of this? Are there things we say but don’t mean, because saying what we really think would get us into trouble? I believe there are.
We have a vision of being ‘One Council’. We are one organisation, working together across all disciplines to better serve citizens. We are not supposed to make distinctions, to say “that’s not my job”, to limit our interactions only to our immediate team or chain of command. But somehow it can be quite tricky to actually do the thing. Why is this?
One reason is that we have organised it that way. I’ve discussed before how we have set up support systems that prevent us from being as effective as we’d like, and these systems are designed to conserve and manage resources. Obviously this makes good sense, you can’t just have one big pot that everyone takes from … but at the same time, maybe it could be a little more straightforward sometimes to buy pens or book a meeting room.
The example that I fall over most often, though, is sharing data. It’s very very difficult to get hold of certain information across the organisation. And this is right – it shouldn’t be too easy, because we need to consider data protection regulations, personal privacy, and appropriate access levels. So if you need data managed by another team you shouldn’t be entitled to just swoop in and take it. There do need to be rules.
But should it be so hard to ask someone from that team to share the data with you? To request a small data set, or a summary, or a report, or even an estimate? It really shouldn’t, but sometimes it really is. Data is withheld because it might be misinterpreted; because it might make someone look bad; because it doesn’t support a pet theory, or downright disproves it; because it would be too much hassle to extract; because it’s incomplete …
So, lots of reasons. It usually boils down to, colleague A won’t share with colleague B because they don’t think they should have to. If you think that’s a little harsh, consider this; the number one phrase I hear when information is requested is “What do you need it for?”. This translates not as “How can I best meet that need?”, but rather “Are you going to use it in a way I don’t approve of?”. Once the data is shared, it’s no longer under its original owner’s control.
I have heard this used as a reason not to obey FOI requests … we’ll share our analysis, but not the raw data “because they might twist the figures to show something else”. Our paranoia about losing control, and about others not taking our word for the way things are, gets in the way of our learning. We have decided what the figures show and we are not comfortable with ‘our’ data being used to support an agenda we might disagree with.
Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it? Things went badly wrong at Mid Staffs, to name just one high-profile example, partly because data wasn’t shared, information wasn’t turned into action and the warning signs were buried under ‘approved’ messages of reassurance. That is not who we want to be.