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 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.