I have been having a lot of conversations recently about trying to reform the system from within. It’s a conversation about how to behave ethically and how to act with a view to a future in which good things are possible when you’re a participant, sometimes a driver, in making things happen according to a more powerful set of rules and codes that aren’t focused on either ethics or the future of good things. Sometimes I hear that yes, we can ever so slowly make incremental changes to the systems we sell and administer. Sometimes I hear that we can’t, that we are too invested in systems of discipline and dividend to ever really undermine the institutional operations of power.
I’d like to believe that it is possible to make space for agency in employment, for agency to be part of the contract by which we offer our time and energies. I see everyday that in my own institution this is encouraged. Under the overarching rubrics of participation and satisfaction we can be the builders of ever more impressive and agile workplace cultures. Get involved! say the posters on toilet walls: You can help us, your ideas, your feedback, your efforts will contribute to the continuous improvement of our institution. Everybody wins!
I’ve seen it in action. I’ve seen colleagues get all sparky with ideas and their ownership, volunteering their time and effort to see their idea through. Things do get better by these means, a bit. The shredded remains of draft confidential documents can now be found in our compost bins for example, and some of the more obscure zebra crossings are now in fluorescent yellow. Small steps like these, they do improve something but mostly these are about mitigating the costs (human and otherwise) of what we’re already committed to doing, and have been doing for ages. The suggestion box is about amelioration, not reform.
In a practical sense the outcomes from employee suggestion boxes are about constructing the appearance of participation and engagement, the reverse flow arising from the exchange between customer and management and staff. (Nothing makes this urge for appearance clearer than a prize for the best staff idea to keep the customer satisfied, leadership and strategy by proxy.) This appearance is important, for all parties, because otherwise the fictions that sustain the collective effort might fall apart. There might be nothing to keep the presentation of client-centredness at the forefront of the brand personality, and that is too big a risk to take. Clients might go elsewhere.
Reforming the system from within is the ultimate lefty fantasy: a scenario for managing the antagonisms that arise from the abrogation of agency by accepting employment and making oneself subject to the directions of organizations, bosses, and clients. With this in mind I can’t believe it’s possible. Systems are designed to resist, systems amenable to reform aren’t well designed systems. Controls, mitigations, appeasements, distractions, alleviations, pacifications, palliations: strong systems build these in and allow for them. The very architecture of effective systems is purposed toward the construction of enfilade and defilade spaces, exposures and protections.
When we operate systems and attempt to humanize them we are, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, playing with the monkey and the plywood violin. Just like we’re supposed to.