Action Research: The Situation I am In; The View From The Other Side

What follows is the writing up of my lived experience of struggling with the over bureaucratisation of my life.  It became a project when several years ago I realised that I was going between several agencies all tasked with supporting me trying to rehabilitate from a life where I had been homeless.  I fell into what is categorised as ‘multiple needs’.

Buttle and Tuttle are two identities of characters in the film Brazil which illustrate this essay on bureacracy

Having slept rough I had developed dependencies on various intoxicants to anaesthetise my experience and survive.  The experience was deeply traumatic and compounded what traumas had brought me to such a place in my life and collectively this all led to mental health problems which were also connected to physical health problems.


To top this off, the criminalisation of the drug use which was to sustain me served to further ostricise me from society and the opportunities which are imperative for wellbeing of anyone. Most distressing is the misrepresentation, lack of representation, lack of understanding and the plain ignorance which exists surrounding issues of homelessness, mental health and addiction.


This is escalated by the inhuman ways which systems and structures engage with such problems, often dehumanising not just the ‘client group’ (i.e. the homeless, the drug and alcohol dependent, the criminalised, the mentally distressed) but also the front line workers who are tasked to try and help the people who have fallen upon such hard times.


This is one story of a growing number of people who are being structured out of society by impersonal and unhumane ways of managing a society.  I started writing this when a support worker asked me to write down my experience to help them understand my growing anxiety.  I felt like I was in that great scene from the film masterpiece Brazil where we see the end of the character Harry Tuttle, played by Robert De Niro; death by bureaucracy…


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Despite having multiple agencies tasked to help, I was spending all my time going between offices and processes filling in outcomes and measurements paperwork, person centred plans, along with various applications etc etc etc…  I had several person centred plans but there was not a person at the center of any of them; there were only funders who were gatekeepers.


This drove me deeper and deeper into despair, and I could see the effect it was having on the people who were trying to help me; these practically arbitrary paperworks were demoralising them and sometimes making some despondent with their job – in practice – me.  At points I wondered what it would be like to pick up a bin and put it through a window of MacDonalds, one of the grand exploiters of our world, just to go to jail as in my mind at the time the torment might have been less.


I never did that but it was a dark fantasy which came with desperation when it seemed apparent there was nothing I could do to change my circumstances.


This was all before Ragged University and setting out on this journey.  It was the Edinburgh Cyrenians who stopped and listened; they paid attention to my distress at the ad hoc, misaligned, arbitrary, disparate systems I had to try and negotiate to be a part of the living world of human beings.  I wrote it all down, and it was cathartic.


Even though it may not change the world – though I should like to think it in some way will contribute to doing so – it helped me make sense of a mad, crazy, unequal world where the people at the bottom must endure the relentless downsourcing of responsibility from those at the top of the pyramid. Now, with some time passed, I am publishing this as the action research project which it has become.


Studying, documenting and analysing the world which I have to negotiate has been therapeutic leading to better mental health and having a clear voice.  Self directed learning and education have become this therapeutic means of development for me particularly as I have had to learn about other perspectives than my own and spend time engaging with people to understand the various facets of the collective madnesses which they see.


This story is one narrative.  I am not suggesting it represents everyone, but I do put forward that it puts a name to issues not commonly identified or spoken about in the discourse which is used to frame so many who rely on some support or help in the 21st Century Britain we are facing.  It is an ongoing project of action research that insists that a better world is possible through more sensible and sane practices that do not hobble people hired to help support people living in this technocratic information age.


I hope this provides some insight both into the difficulties heaped on those who are least resourced to deal with such demands, but also that it might stand as a tribute to how success might come from humane people working under hostile conditions and some systems which are not fit for purpose – specifically those of the Edinburgh Cyrenians; in my humble opinion a collection of people embodying a gold standard of how we might move into a future where the destitute are helped out of destitution.


What begins is the essay I wrote for Evelyn Forbes when all the paperworks, systems and structural calamities became too much for me to bear.  What developed out of this was a 186 page document I called ‘This Is the House That Jack Built: The Development of Outcomes Assessment and the Idea of Integrated Practice; An Action Research Project on examining the form and function of bureaucracies in the support/need juncture; a dyslexic trying to survive in a land of bureaucrats’.


This is one story of multitudes….


The power of bureaucracy is that the reader is not seeing a person but a cipher of a person's life
The power of bureaucracy is that the reader is not seeing a person but a cipher of a person’s life which they did not construct

“One needs to be nominalistic, no doubt: power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society.”

(History of Sexuality, p.93, Michel Foucault, Penguin, New Ed edition 29 Oct 1998, ISBN: 0140268685)


I start out this essay with a quote to try and indicate the complexity of the nature of my position in relation to other. Indeed, everyone’s situation is complex and nuanced understandings must always take precedent over the simplistic – no matter how convenient or appealing the simplistic might be. Nominalism is described as ‘the doctrine holding that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no independent existence but exist only as names.’


Since working with Evelyn Forbes at Cyrenians my life has changed for the better, as can be said for working with Ursula Donnelly of Urban Renewal, as so it looks like with the diligent workers at Forth Sector who are working to try and ‘improve my employability’. Here I try and address some of the barriers and obstacles as I see them, and as I have encountered them; also I try to provide a rationale for my choices on the trajectory I am on.


My motive here is to try and provide some insightful feedback, so that it potentially might feed forward into more efficient systems, processes and multi-agency relationships. It has been absolutely of primary importance to have been connected with Evelyn Forbes as a support worker, as in a time of massive and abrupt policy change I could not access any contiguous support due to ‘my not fitting within policy’ when I critically needed to get advocacy and facilitation in trying to do, what are in theory, simple societal tasks.


Here I am trying to rationalise my encounters into a narrative to try and civically return something of value in exchange for the thoughtful and humane kindness in providing the practical support which they have unconditionally afforded to me as an individual trying to rebuild my life and navigate to a self sufficient lifestyle in a part of society I don’t entirely understand – primarily the bureaucratic one.


As a part of the third sector client base it has been important to me to work with the third sector rather than centrally administered and delivered services or commercial contractors hired by central government. This is because my experience of government social work services has been a repeatedly blunted and negative one, and for multiple situated reasons.


Equally, commercial contractors hired through tendering contracts to implement government policy has been one of dread, as there is less accountability and a lack of ethical constraints in the way they operate – outcomes and measures are their primary target and how they are achieved usually seems to be a secondary consideration [140].


Escher maze


“Unfortunately our laws are not generally known; they are the secret of the small group of noblemen who govern us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously adhered to, but all the same it is exceedingly distressing to be governed according to laws that one does not know. I am not thinking here of the various possible ways of interpreting the laws, or of the disadvantage involved when only a few individuals and not the whole people are allowed to take part in their interpretation.”


(Page 128, Franz Kafka; Description of a Struggle and Other Stories; Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Malcolm Pasley, Tania and James Stern; Penguin Books; copyright 1973; ISBN 0-14-00-846-4)


My wariness of government and centrally delivered services comes from the obfuscated nature of the policies which govern my course and the absenteeism of any clear statement of my entitlement as a UK citizen with dignified human rights with equivalent responsibilities and agency which broach the mid-ground.


The social services I need to operate in such a specialised society are grounded on the reliance on the paperworks which are required to be in place before any aid is given to my situation. I will be using ‘paperworks’ throughout to emphasise and re-emphasise the plurality of encounter. When asked (gently) to account for my avoidance of governmental services by Evelyn, I took some time to think about my response.


I have had poor encounters with governmental services from my teenage years – when I was told by the social work department ‘come back when you are homeless’; through my twenties in dealing with the terrifying process of attempting not to be forcibly medicated for distress from circumstances compounded by a penultimate dependence on alcohol to psychologically get through cold, dark homeless nights…


…to my thirties where arduous and acrimonious process of trying to get my boiler fixed for 18 months by a repairs department who constantly added pressure back into a leaking system without fixing the fault; to recently where having returned from a holiday before starting on a work placement and education course, I found a forced entry into my house (without adequate notice or available warrant) where ‘they’ had the locks changed without my notice or consideration, simply to do a gas appliance check (I was stranded until they gave me access to my own house)…


…All this has been part responsible for my distrust of huge government structures and autocratic departments which are often:-

  • Bureaucratically illogical – cryptic paperworks which have dependencies upon other paperworks being in place
  • Interdepartmental misalignment – poor or no cross networking amongst departments which have dependencies on each other [141]
  • Processes which are structured with paperworks which are sometimes, at best, not reflective of my realities, at worst, misrepresentative through flowchart/tickbox answers
  • Implementing processes in reductive organisational structures thus limiting choice
  • Using ‘loam’ processes which suffer from loss of continuity of experience with the workers who are implementing policy
  • Lacking of any complaints procedure which deals with the issues raised
  • A major failure seems to be that, as an individual I have no agency in the interpretation of policy which is administrated often by people who are competent and well meaning, however also hold no agency in their position in a superstructure; thus are wary about the bounds of their job remits employ risk averse behaviour in fear of reprisal.


Often the command and control style organisation of superstructures gets choked up in a gridlock system of older decision trees and newer decision trees which have been retrofitted onto ‘communities of practice’ that developed to deal with the older culture of administrations. There are also other issues with domain which can arise when as a client a suggested route forward can be interpreted in a negative tense.

[Page 141 – 144, Cultivating Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, copyright 2008, ISBN: 1 -57851-330-8]


Coupled with the end user inability to be aware of their legal and agencial position within the bureaucratic systems (i.e. not being aware of all the relevant supports, services, grants and mechanisms for treatment, which would work towards long term upwards mobility) there seems to be two cultures I have observed which are at odds with each other – one which encourages additional information, and one which discourages information.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights


I have thought about this in terms of rights, and education of rights, in context with commonly agreed value systems such as that found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in Article 26 (1):


“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit”…


It goes on; “2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.


3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” [142]


These are tricky texts to invoke with a sense of level headedness and I understand the problems with delivering a practical embodiment of such ideological notions. This said, I also feel that the law is in great part a working example of the road to better, more functioning societies where the benefits of working in networks improves the lots of all the participants.

There is a subtle difference between representation of the law and representation by the law
There is a subtle difference between representation of the law and representation by the law


Indeed Hernando de Soto Polar discusses the importance of representation of the people by the law being a fundamental element to the basis of a healthy capitalist economy where everyone is a producer.

(Page 193, Hernando de Soto Polar, The Mystery of Capital, Bantam Press (1 Sep 2000) ISBN: 0593046641)


“Human rights norms do not treat people as if they were equal because they are not. They demand that people be recognized as having equal rights… The main aim of human rights is to accord everyone equal opportunities for free and full development; hence methods of eliminating discrimination include redressing factual inequalities in the enjoyment of human rights”

(Tomasevski, K., at P242 ‘Women’s Rights’ In Symonides, J. (ed.) Human Rights: Concept and Standards [Paris: UNESCO, Ashgate and Dartmouth, 2000], pp.231 – 258).


Thinking about the birdseye view, I cannot help but feel that it is relevant to bring this perspective into play here in a time when the legal agency of low income people is further being eroded by public spending cuts. The rights to involvement in the culture in which we live is predicated upon a covenant of democracy and representation by the social contract; in the most positive sense the discourses of human rights hold this as an aim.


“Universal recognition of human rights is not yet a reality. Neither then is the realisation of the equality of the rights all peoples enjoy. For sure, progress has been made. States today are more acutely aware of their legal obligations to guarantee universal rights to all and advancement has been made for those discriminated against on grounds of sex and race.


United Nations Declarations demonstrate a willingness to address other forms of discrimination. In the meantime, discrimination will continue to be viewed as an aggravated form of violation of rights or, at best a contribution factor to a violation”

(Equality and non-discrimination – Page 202, Textbook on International Human Rights, 2nd Edition, Rhona K. M. Smith, Oxford University Press, Copyright 2005, ISBN 0-19- 927416-9)


Thus, in response to this literature, I conclude that being made aware of my rights and responsibilities as a citizen is of a key nature to participating in the collective norms of a society. How am I meant to function as a productive adult if I am not informed as to the agency I have, or the responsibilities which I must fulfil, in a clear and understandable way [143].


Held in context with my experience of trying to co-exist with a bureaucratic superstructure is a suspicion of the regular way in which top down policy is changed from one administration to the next. The result is that compared with the fixed constitutions of Non-governmental Agencies and organisations serve as much more reliable and contiguous service where the nuances of the individual life are not lost in a massive reductive paperwork system which is held in thrall to regular complex changes – i.e. in practice what this equates to is that the top decision maker has contact with all the people in the organisation hired to fulfil the organisational remit.


The fact that there is invigilation may also play a role in effective service provision as with centrally administrated superstructures the complaints procedures are often inward facing, non-transparent and are designed in such a way that they are disconnected with legal procedure such as would be found in a professional contractual situation.


The feedback mechanisms often amount only to threshold values and numbers weighed against targets used to evaluate procedures. Qualitative feedback in complaints procedures is lost to multidepartment handling and summarizing along the way; this information is ultimately decoupled with external advocacy, so due process is observed in the rarefied context of the expression of the specially designed complaints function.


System Failure

Due to discontinuity of communications, misalignment of policy, and non-effective interdepartmental working, problems arise client end due to there being a reliance on being able to:

  • Have access to your paperwork and bureaucracies
  • Know where to get copies, if at all Incur the costs of getting copies
  • Muster the energy to deal with deadweight procedure
  • Rely on all information being transferred and each brief being read by operators


The result on the end point user is that there is massive repetition and subject fatigue in re-expressing the situational knowledge particular to the context. The attempts to successfully work in a multi-agency way might benefit from a wiki system where a singular personal development plan is worked on and co-constructed with the client.


This technology would resolve the transparency issues, the collaborative entropy and the duplication problems. My experience of multi-agency working with several competent support workers resulted in a confusion of duplication and a dead weight cost in that; with too many new individuals all scheduling important steps to a ‘structured framework of rehabilitation’ it created a situation of enculturation where the client-users (me) life is so filled with check point procedures that it is driven by the agenda of the workers trying to all fulfil the obliged paperwork attached to working with individuals who need help attaining agency [144].


In short, and from a personal perspective, my whole life became filled with trying to keep track of several different personal development plans, trying to be implemented by several kind, intelligent, diligent support workers, who were all driven to make sure that all the several sets of governing paperwork were completed on the specific and time limited goals which they have been given.


The logistical problems for me as an end user to keep the schedule were manifold. The bus fare system of getting remunerated after the event was, at several points, problematic when there are so many meetings in different places, at different times. Additional complexities come from the unrelenting pressure from financial burdens of fuel and food poverty whilst living on subsistent income premiums; also the fact that public transport is now run as a profit making venture rather than a merit good which supports the whole of the lower socio-economic classes.


The mental strain of living in this entropic societal position is considerable, and added to when extra meetings and changes are installed. The client-user has to effectively manage what becomes a full time, unproductive workload with neither a bus pass (for enablement), nor expenses to accommodate a disadvantaged circumstance – for one an illustration of such barriers, see digital inclusion literature and reduction of cost of living.


This is a grey point, which could be argued from each side, however the trend in culture is to outsource and streamline every cost in an organisation. This ultimately affects the consumer, and more importantly, the citizen. There must be a balancing equation somewhere that suggests the onus is on the enfranchised to enable their own plans, and for the enriched premiums they get for their enfranchised situation, they have duties to the society which brings them those premiums; rather like a farmer has a duty to tend the soil.


This duty to the disenfranchised is so that they meet a standard of living which is not further impoverished by the enfranchised, setting up a scaffolding in which people can become successful contributors to an enriched environment which geometrically benefits the whole.


Joseph Stiglitz at the World Economic Forum
Joseph Stiglitz at the World Economic Forum


“Part of the social contract entails ‘fairness’, that the poor share in the gains of society as it grows, and that the rich share in the pains of society in times of crisis”

(Page 78, Joseph Stiglitz, Gobalization and its Discontents, copyright 2002, Penguin, ISBN: 0-713- 99664-1)


In practical terms, the corporate bodies have the responsibility to renew the public domain, as it is this that ultimately feeds them and enables their existence. Finding ways to practically facilitate people to live a standard of life that makes provision for a normative and sustainable functioning; particularly as normative function is what is being demanded of the individual citizen [145].


In this case, I am thinking of unreasonable paperworks and conditions which surround someone who is long term unemployed, that are in theory, meant to provide a scaffolding and support towards a utilitarian presence. Whether financial, or in terms of power (capital), those who lack need to be assisted by those who have surplus.


Bourdieu social capital


“It was impossible, Bourdieu argued, to understand the social world without acknowledging the role of ‘capital’ in all its forms, and not solely in one form recognised by economic theory. He had initially adopted the concept of cultural capital in order to explain the unequal academic achievement of children from different social classes and from different groups within social classes”

(page 16, Social Capital; key ideas, John Field, Routledge, copyright 2003, ISBN: 0-415-25754-9)


The demands on the client-user with several agencies to work with, and arguably the workers participating in the same ‘wicked’ problem [*], suffer from SMART planning (or not so), time problems where the meeting and decision cycles are usually out of alignment and compete for resources (client time and ability).


[* Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169, copyright Elsevier Scientific Publishing in Scotland, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Horst W. J. Rittel, Professor of the Science of Design, University of California, Berkeley; Melvin M. Webber, Professor of City Planning, University of California, Berkeley]


There is still only tacit recognition of the sociological/psychological and spiritual needs of an individual, so in effect (when left unchecked) the drive of policy can take precedent in the clients life, and only becoming a recognised factor when health, happiness and functioning are in fact termed in expression of illness or critical breakdown.


The bedroom tax is so fundamentally flawed that I will only briefly deal with a more nuanced of the problems. If I were to find a one bedroom house in the available housing stock… With the introduction of the bedroom tax, it was suggested that I ‘rely on friends and family’ to implement a move.


Whilst the axiom of Samuel Smiles’ Self Help [*] impressed the Victorians and Classical economists the truth of this when taken as a given can be quite destructive, thus further degenerating an individuals social capital. Interrelationships are based upon reciprocity and when this two way process cannot be fully realised, relationships falter and dissolve.


[ * Page 7, Introduction by Sir Keith Joseph, Samuel Smiles, Self Help, copyright 1986, The Penguin Business Library, ISBN: 0-14-009100-9]


To use friends as financial supports is more damaging than using family. The more robust of the two, in theory, being family; even these blood ties do not stand the pressures of trickle down debting. This is particularly so when the public rhetoric of the premiers and fourth estate (press) is one of ‘scroungers and workshy’ [146].


This dangerous way of attempting to address the ‘Free Rider’ [*] problem regularly crushes the milieu important for cultural, social and ultimately economic capital; it also is misdirected when the most obvious Free Rider problem exists where those who reap the grand benefits of a culture or country omit from paying a relative share back into it via tax.

(* page 233, Routledge Dictionary of Economics, Donald Rutherford, copyright 2013, ISBN: 978-0- 415-60038-5)


Tax evasion

A simple recognition of the fact that someone on low income cannot pay a tax lawyer to avoid paying tax is an example of some of the much larger problems at work here. To build civic involvement and ‘feed the economy’, societally there needs to be an incentive which comes through opportunity; also the premiers need to lead from the front through example, as it is exactly these examples which are the primary role models for the aspirational socio-economic groups.


A careful balance must be struck in society where the government is trying to cut costs whilst generate civic society. Under the auspices of social capital research (AKA in degenerate form, the Big Society branded voluntarism), sweeping cuts to integral support systems are made. There needs to be a balancing intellect drawn from established thinkers to address the current problems which are being faced.


The idea of throwing a baby into water to teach it to learn how to swim is flawed and policy should take this into account before undermining what sparse opportunity already exists for social mobility.


“For if, taking social conventions as our starting-point and remaining faithful to the respect for them which education has bred in us, it should by mischance occur that through the perversity of others we encounter only thorns while evil persons gather nothing but roses, then will not a man, possessed of a stock of virtue insufficient to allow him to rise above the thoughts inspired by these unhappy circumstances, calculate that he would do as well to swim with the torrent as against it ?


And will he not say that when virtue, however fine a thing it be, unhappily proves too weak to resist evil, then virtue becomes the worst path he can follow, and will he not conclude that in an age that is utterly corrupt, the best policy is to do as others do? Or if you prefer, let the man have a degree of learning and allow him to abuse the knowledge he has acquired: will he not then say, like the angel Jesrad in Voltaire’s Zadig, that there is no evil from which some good does not flow?”

(Page 1 The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales, The Marquis De Sade; A new translation by David Coward; Oxford University Press; Copyright 1992; ISBN 0-19-283695-1)


I hope that this serves to stimulate debate about the aims and objectives at work in culture at the moment, but particularly so the means by which these are trying to be achieved. I welcome feedback and critique on my perspectives as I wish to develop this to a holistic view of the wicked problems at work.

Alex Dunedin




So that was the first desperate essay I wrote to try and politely bring attention to some of the problems I was facing.  The further to the bottom of the economic society people exist, the fewer opportunities are extended.  The triage system damns the bottom third as either not worth helping or too hard to help.


In a time when ‘scientific management’ has taken root like japanese knotweed in all that we do, civic, social, cultural and economic living spaces are being run like factory floors where distant and well off managers imagine that they can program society like they do the Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacture robots of car factories, all the while ignorant of the damage which the dark satanic digital defaults are doing to the sociological habitat of complex human beings.


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In the next installment of my action research project I offer an executive summary of the project along with recommendations from the perspectives I had developed.  My intention is to make a coherent in situ analysis of the poverties visited on the likes of me through bureaucratisation which attempts to distinguish between meaningful organisation and useless paperwork that colonizes the person’s life.


It started with analysing one of the bureaucratic instruments (The Outcomes Star) which was cutting into my life and simultaneously taking up the time and energy of the people tasked with helping me from drowning in what is in the top ten richest countries in the world (out of 195 in total).


If you would like to read the next installment of this Action Research project – ‘Outcomes and Measures Executive Summary and Recommendations’, please click the button below


by Alex Dunedin