‘“The good professional” finds that their values and integrity are gradually corrupted’

Blair McPherson finds surprising parallels with social care in the slick portrayal of politics, law and marriage in US series The Good Wife

Picture: Image Broker/Rex Features

By Blair McPherson

I’m in the middle of watching The Good Wife and finding it compelling for a number of reasons.

Like much American TV, it’s a twisted morality tale. The series follows Alicia, the wife of a disgraced politician who returns to practising law to support her family when her husband is sent to prison on a corruption charge. Peter appeals and is cleared of corruption, but there is no doubt that he slept with the prostitutes provided by those who sought to gain political favours.

Alicia stands by Peter whilst he rebuilds his career – hence “the good wife”. But the real story is of her gradual corruption as her career as a lawyer goes from strength to strength. Or you could see it another way: she sheds her naivety and comes to recognise that, in the real world, it’s not about moral principles and how you behave – it’s about winning for your client. It’s about making money for your firm and it’s about public perceptions.

This ‘real world’ extends beyond corporate law. Being corrupted by business is a theme many in the public sector will recognise. It’s not just that we’re doing more business with the private sector; increasingly, it’s about adopting the business ethics of the private sector – which can be summed up as “as long as it’s not illegal”.

Business values

Business is about making money, whether that’s bonuses for those at the top, or a profitable return for shareholders. So tax avoidance is clever business – unethical but not illegal. The same is true of employing people on zero contract hours or finding ways round the minimum wage, such as not paying home carers for their travel time. A local authority contracting with businesses that do these things allows its values to be corrupted.

“The good professional”, who entered the public sector to help people and do a worthwhile job rather than just make money for a company, finds that their values and integrity are gradually corrupted. Or you could see it another way: they shed their naivety and come to recognise that, in management, it’s not about moral principles and how you behave, but about making efficiency savings, hitting performance targets and presenting the organisation in the most favourable light.

The lawyers in The Good Wife don’t lie in court but neither do they tell the whole truth; likewise senior managers in the public sector “spin” the message.

Below the “spin”

The social worker and manager know that the choices offered by personal budgets are severely restricted by inadequate cash limits. They know that 15 minute home visits can only result in inadequate support to the client and an unrealistic expectation on the care worker. They know that “reviewing care packages” is a cost-cutting exercise which removes support on offer to vulnerable people and puts more pressure on families to fill the gaps. They know that the contract price negotiated by the local authority is so low that homes require relatives to agree to top up the fees, so those without relatives able or willing to do this face a severely restricted “choice” of homes.

The professional’s values of promoting choice, independence and dignity are corrupted by the requirement to cut budgets. The organisation’s values around being a good employer are side-stepped by outsourcing services. Senior managers’ integrity is undermined by the perception that to express concerns about quality of services and safety of service users or unfair contracts is an act of disloyalty.

From the social worker assessing someone’s needs against eligibility criteria set so high they excludes the majority of people in need of help, to the senior manager negotiating a contract price so low it make the exploitation of staff inevitable, we all feel helpless in the face of this erosion of our values and integrity.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services, and an author and commentator on the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk.

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3 Responses to ‘“The good professional” finds that their values and integrity are gradually corrupted’

  1. Stephen Barber November 5, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    As a former senior manager I would say that you do what you can with the money you’ve got. If you have to cut or withdraw a service because you can no longer afford it, then that is the case. In the reports I submitted to politicians on possible cuts I always pointed out the consequences, without exaggeration or minimizing. So did my colleagues. Assessments of need always have to be with regard to available resources. They are a rationing and prioritizing device. They always have been.

  2. chesters November 8, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Excellent comment Stephen Barber. There never has been a bottomless pit of money. Assessments of need are never made in a vacuum. Being a ‘good professional’ often involves balancing competing demands; of course this can be very difficult but it doesn’t necessarily require the abandonment of one’s values or integrity, or result in a feeling of helplessness.

  3. Jim Greer November 10, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    This article, while raising some worthwhile points also contains a number of prejuduced views about the private sector and business ethics. Unfortunately, similar views are all too common in social work literature and discussion forums.
    The ‘profit’ which businesses return to their shareholders is a reward for people risking their capital. If a range of individuals, institutions and pension funds did not do this then there would be no new or innovative drugs, technology, products or services. The more innovative a product is the greater the risk the investors take.
    Would any readers be prepared to accept a small return if they put their money into something where they risked losing every penny they had invested?
    As a Project Manager for a regional body I worked with a number of technology companies who were producing telecare products. One of the products we piloted was a satellite tracking device for people with dementia. It was really helpful for young fit people with early onset dementia as it allowed them continue to walk and exercise independently without fear of getting lost. The small company who had developed it were taking a high risk with this product. I was very impressed with the professionalism and dedication of the private sector partners I worked with.
    The lack of funds for social care is not the fault of the private sector. The budget cuts are imposed by central Government who must in turn pass them on to the companies they contract with. Local authorities are squeezing private providers and refusing to pay for things like the the travel between home care visits. They must know that these policies, coupled with the poor hourly rates that they pay to providers must inevitably lead to low pay for workers. Margins are squeezed to breaking point.
    Unison recently commissioned a report from the Adam Smith Institute which revealed that a major motivation behind most recent privatizations is cost cutting. It would be politically unacceptable for local authorities to cut the pay of their existing employees so outsourcing the work is a mechanism by which this can be done in a less politically sensitive way. Public sector organizations are effectively outsourcing low pay. They have little choice but to do this because of centrally imposed spending cuts but the blame for poor pay and low cost services does not lie with the private sector. I am sure they would much rather provide high quality services with a satisfied workforce of the contracts they were given allowed this. The last section of the article gets to this point but the earlier parts of the article are unfortunately all about business bashing.
    People who work in the public sector can have poor ethics or be motivated by self interest just as easily as people in the private sector. I have written more about this here. http://fearthenextpage.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/is-it-wrong-to-profit-from-human-misery.html