Grenfell Tower and the professions

Posted by RDN under Economic affairs / Mind & body / Politics & campaigns on 14 September 2017

I hope that the official inquiry (and any other) into the Grenfell Tower disaster will discuss the role of professionals and professions in the failure to look after the safety of the residents. I rather doubt that vicious or heartless conspiracy will be discovered. But cock-up probably won’t quite do as an explanation either. In man-made accidents and disasters it is often professionals and professions that turn out to have lacked canny, energetic or brave diligence. The 2008 banking crisis displayed all of the symptoms. Well beyond Grenfell, I think there are several professional dilemmas which need to be stated clearly, and wrestled with. I attempt this below the fold. (1000 words, plus)

The failures at Grenfell Tower were presumably political, technical, commercial and regulatory: there will be plenty of blame to go round. Councils, ministries, politicians, firms, the higher echelons of the fire-fighting world, regulators, Quangoes of several sorts – these and others will probably wish they been more expert, vigilant, and transparent. Several will probably and crucially also be found to have passed various bucks, and to have turned loopholes into foxholes.

Some of these failures will probably end up being classified as institutional, as is usual. That is: an institution allows an attitude insidiously to inform or even govern its behaviour toward some class of person. I am sure that sometimes happens. But use of the term can also sometimes be a proxy or cover for real failure by actual persons. So whilst its first celebrated use (in the Macpherson Report on the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence) was on the one hand taken as a criticism of the whole of the Metropolitan Police, one could also say that it deflected at least somewhat from what may have been real failures by actual individual leaders – indeed, by many of them, over many years.

The backlash within the Force  might have been predicted: the Met now cossets the self-proclaimed victims of rape, however far-fetched their claims. One supposes that individual officers have read the memo, sniffed the breeze, shelved their professionalism, and looked to their careers and the well-being of their institution (as the institution defines it). So tick the “Victims are always to be believed” box, and move on.

I dislike witch-hunts against individuals (whether mighty or lowly), which I think are usually mis-directed by being, variously, perverse, convenient or arbitrary. Equally, I realise that institutions often have excellent cultures, and sometimes have dreadful ones.

I am inclined to think that the point of professionalism is to protect expert individuals from their own failings and those of their institutions. In effect, the professional person should feel that their professionalism provides an ethical framework which protects them from their personal and institutional temptations.

My point in stressing the role of professional blame is to give us a lever, or a vantage point, a viewpoint, from which to discuss blame, with as little scapegoating and witch-hunting as possible.

After any human disaster we need to consider whether there was enough of what I will call expert and energetic ethical advice and behaviour. This is what professions exist to provide. Individual professionals have a large personal responsibility, for sure. But their failures are often or usually in important part institutional. When a person with initials after their name is not up to scratch, the body which allowed them to put them there is in the frame, too.

[In the Independent in the late 1980s I proposed a statutory Agency of Risk Assessment, and revisited the idea in 2001 (Risk: The human adventure, European Science and Environment Foundation) and I discussed professions in a 2002 piece, “Professions Reborn”.]

The bottom line is that professions exist to produce knowledgeable and experienced elites who are mandated to put the wider public interest above the private interest of their employer. They do so in the real world in which (in the capitalist set-up) profits have to be made and (in the public sector) budgets kept to. Risks have to assessed, and costed. Compromises have to be made, and challenged and defended. But ultimately, the professionals always know they must allow themselves to be pushed only so far by expediency; indeed, they are obliged to press forward and, if need be, suffer for their professional standards. And the professional institutions exist to police those standards; to require members to adhere to them; and to defend their members when they cross those who employ them.

Thus, when there is a failure, we should be able to identify which professional – if any – did not properly stand as a guardian of good technical and ethical behaviour. But when we identify that individual we can temper our disdain with the realisation that his or her professional body should have been policing its standards better.

10 Professional dilemmas

Privatisation, Quangoes and the professions
Lines of accountability have become very tangled and attenuated as the connection between politically-controlled government and regulators are weakened. Increasingly, firms and Quangoes have to police their own standards and various professionals working with them need to show even more vigour and integrity. Pressure to lighten regulation produces the same pressures.

The professions and the poor
The poor are almost always the hardest case. They depend on regulation and the goodwill of others much more than do the rich. The professional who stands between the poor and either capitalists or the welfare state is often arguing for less profit for the former and more spending by the latter. There is no way out of this: in these cases, the professional just has a difficult role.  (The professional is in an even harder situation if arguing for Tough Love toward the disadvantaged, but that’s another story.)

Professions as individuals and institutions
Professionals always have very great personal responsibility for the quality of the advice they give, and for their ethical positions. But, contrariwise, they always have the corporate, institutional muscle of their professional body to turn to for advice, back-up and solidarity when things are difficult. In the final analysis, the failure of individual professionals is the failure of their institution to supoort or disciplne them. And much as each professional body is a proud stand-alone, in many areas it seems intuitively likely that professional bodies should club together to make their voice heard: solidarity again.

Public and private interest
Often, the professional has to juggle the private interest of one individual and against the collective interests of several others. Doctors make the obvious case here: a doctor in an NHS practice (whether it is privately-owned or not) has a responsibility to ration care. Maybe the bravest ethical path through such dilemmas is awful frankness as to the choices being made.

Public interest and public consultation
The modern mantra is that public consultation (Crowd Wisdom, the Cloud, vox pops) are essential sources of authority and trust.  Professionals need not deny any of that, but should understand that no amount of public acceptance would make a stupid or unethical decision a good one. The professional has to stand by a view of the public interest which is evidence-based long before it is merely popular.

Professionals: Servants or Martyrs?
The professional who is not prepared to be awkward is betraying the whole point being a sworn or signed-up member of a professional body. Resisting blandishments and bullying alike are the hallmark of professionals who are standing by the public interest and their own expertise, in the face of all sorts of pressure (popular as well as private). Of course, if professionals are required to be some sort of saint, they are also saints-for-hire. But they are contracted to their profession as much as to their paymaster.

Professionals: Entrepreneurs or moralisers?
Extreme cases are the professionals who set up in business to sell their expertise. The essence of the sticking-point they have to remember is that they must remind their customers that their integrity is not for sale. This is quite like the case of the professional whose work mostly looks like developing, say, products. Years might pass without much conflict between the professionals’ expertise and their ethical obligations, but the day might well come.

Professionals: Pacifists or activists?
Professionals have no hiding place. They cannot indulge in the more-or-less private morality of writing a strident memo for their employers’ eyes, or even in complaining in a weak way in public. Once a professional decides this or that is essential, he or she really has to get canny, active, clever and brave in making that view stick.

Professionals: Grown-ups vs infantilism
I like the idea that society needs grown-ups but that infantilism is rife in modern societies. In this formulation, I conceive professionals as certificated grown-ups. That means that they are analogous to parents or other adults, in being required to be informed, to take a wide view of the public interest, to regard public service of some kind as essential, and in the end being prepared to defend the public good at considerable cost to themselves.

Professions: Expertise vs opinion
Lots of jobs require certificates of qualification and plenty of others remain very important and influential and don’t. Journalists, politicians, actors, writers, campaigners, PR agents and economists are none of them professionals (in the full, institutionalised, sworn-in sense), and shouldn’t want to be. The difference seems to be that these people offer opinions much more than expertise. These are muddy waters, but the distinction seems to be the degree to which the evidence and expertise offered is testable. Besides, the opinion merchants – politicians included – are tested in the marketplace of public opinion: we do not need, and shouldn’t believe we have the right, to trust them to be informed, or even highly ethical, on the basis of being signed up to a professional body.



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