Action Research: Outcomes and Measurements

1904 depiction of an acquisitive and manipulative business enterprise (Standard Oil) as an all-powerful octopus
1904 depiction of an acquisitive and manipulative business enterprise (Standard Oil) as an all-powerful octopus

This is an archive of articles and interviews done as an action research project which has the focus of administrative structures at work in the lives of people in Britain today. In particular it started as a response to having to respond to multiple agencies all with different bureaucracies, some of them esoteric, all of the agencies could not and would not share information even when I prompted them to, and many of them plain dysfunctional judged by the number of times that the administrative practices had to be repeated or by the fact that the actions of the organisation did not match that outlined by the administrative process.


As a result of this Terry Gilliam Brazil like experience, I had to seek advocacy from the Third Sector and found myself going from doorstep to doorstep to find support being told that I was ‘not covered by their policy’.  Like the legal system and the medical system, the esoteric systems of governance omit the general citizen from knowing the rules and procedures, or acting as their own advocates – certain areas of British life lock out civic involvement and require expert involvement. Essentially there are a number of bureaucratic black boxes in play. This is the story of that experience…


Each one of these articles is an installment of a longitudinal study:


It was only when someone stepped out beyond their remit to contact a local organisation to see if they would work beyond their policy remit that I got assistance as I was drowning in paperwork processes and being sucked down to be chewed up by unsentient systems. Distraught and helpless in an increasingly traumatising situation, the Edinburgh Cyrenians stepped in to assist, even though ‘they were not covered by policy’. I found myself working with excellent and challenging support workers to chip away at the quagmire of disparate processes and insoluble administrative problems/systems.


This was all well and good but what I found was that each time I had to meet with someone to help me we had to fill in an Outcomes Star. This nearly always took up so much time that very little coal face work could be done.  I also found that it produced a terrible representation of my situation and experience; it felt like a millstone around my neck – another administration.  The problem was that it was through filling in this paperwork that the organisation received funding and it represented one of the hoops which they had to regularly jump through in order to help people.


I was burning out; I was spiraling downwards as even with support the dysfunctional systems of governance were chocking me – life was a hell of uncertainty and arbitrariness worthy of Kafka. The psychological pain which constant uncertainty and being constantly forced on a march through one office or paperwork to another to be told to attend to yet another was damaging me. Before this I would never have believed that something non-physical could cause harm. Just when I had some glimmer of hope it felt like it was extinguished by yet another incidious paperwork injected into the client/support juncture.


I told the Edinburgh Cyrenians and they asked if I could write down the issues which I was facing. This is how this project started; initially an account of the situation I was in followed by a detailed analysis of the Outcomes Star – the newest bureaucracy to blight my waking hours.  I knew through doing the Ragged University practice that there was something called Action Research and found that it was cited by the author of the Outcomes Star as being a part of the design framework for the bureaucracy. I learned more about Action Research and the theory cited in the make up of the Outcomes Star and decided to embody the theory in scrutinising the bureaucracy…


What came of this was that the Edinburgh Cyrenians read and listened to the pain.  They realised that the paperwork was getting in the way of any progress and got rid of the paperwork. At that point things started getting better and issues started getting worked out; the millstone had come off the conscientious workers who were trying to help me.  I then went on to interview the people working with me to understand their experience, especially as I had started to witness that they too were witness to the dysfunctions of the administrative structures.


The project then continued whereby to make sense out of the crazy-making society, the mad world, I decided to start interviewing more people involved in the industrial-administrative complex, from frontline worker to senior support worker, to team leader and line manager, to Chief Executive Officer, bureaucracy creator, systems analysts, academics and senior civil servants. This was therapeutic for a number of reasons. Firstly it took the paranoia out of the world because I realised that it was not that the world was out to get me, but I found that the system was a hostile, dysfunctional system for nearly everyone involved.


The psychological relief of hearing people from all junctures and all levels affirm that the system was dysfunctional was amazing.  It was a medicine to counteract the poison of being told by casual observers not prepared to see the situation first hand or take the time to take on board the details of the reality which I lived – “it must be you”.  The casual observer and armchair commentator which the X-factor society has developed engender a toxic sociological environment; a sociological environment which prompted me to make a study of the behaviours I encountered leading me to the territory of dehumanisation psychology.


Knowledge itself and learning offered a therapeutic to take the edge off a society in denial.  When you start talking with people about their experience it starts to become clear that Policy Land is all too often a convenient fiction which obfuscates the daily existence of people living and working in and under ruling structures. Looking at the administrative structures and learning about areas like Administrative Reform from well thought out thinkers like Gerald Caiden who has functioned in roles for the United Nations documenting areas like Pathobureaucracy became tonics and areas for further study.


All this extended my horizons to start looking at the anthropology of the administrative structures and practices with the intention of refining practical understandings which allow me/others to look at systems and work out whether they are healthy (i.e. capable of achieving their purported remit, capable of adapting, causing psychological and sociological harms, operational, etc) or unhealthy (i.e. see Prof Gerald Caiden and Prof John Sedon’s work).


As one senior civil servant imparted to me, “we are fighting tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s weapons”; many of the administrative superstructures and policy attitudes which are in situ regards the civilian landscape can be dated back to origins such as privateer practices of empire building (i.e. see East India Company and the Great British Tax Dodging system), from military organisational structures (i.e. see Triage and Samuel Pepys and Naval administration), and ethically devoid philosophical thinking (i.e. see Thomas Malthus’ Spectres and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon). This is palimpsest soul of colonial Britain; will Dorian Gray find redemption in the end ?


To this day I still feel they are the gold standard of organisation which I have encountered because of the humanity they embodied.  It was not more than their job was worth to help someone struggling in a problematic society; it was not more than their soul was worth to keep someone from drowning. I owe a great deal to them for helping me and being open with their experience.  Now I understand that people working in these ranging positions are too living with the stress of double binds and secondary trauma, I am concerned about not presenting insoluble problems to overworked, under resourced people.


So why am I doing this ? Why am I still pursuing the project ? Primarily because the administrative superstructures are organised so that they mark their own homework. The result of this is that they are not exposed to the environmental feedback any system needs in order to evolve and develop appropriate responses to the settings they act in/on. It is best expressed through the philosophy of Kintsugi which acknowledges and celebrates the imperfections in play. Many who manage to get out of their Catch 22 situation do not attempt to voice the experiences of dysfunction they have encountered or try to instigate change because they are exhausted, poorly resourced and afraid of kickback. I have chosen a route of radical transparency in order to provide a documentary account of repeat-offender problems to put something on the record, for posterity at least.


Maybe the introduction of the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 is an indicator of the Scottish government aspiring to move away from the soft Machiavellianism of never apologise, never explain which blights the recognising and fixing of current problems (or Failure Demand as Prof John Seddon termed it). Maybe the future of administrative reform is something like the Near Miss System which Colin MacLean pondered on along with wider discussion and contemplation of what is the P45 question:


If you did ‘x’, you would lose your job; or if you didn’t do ‘y’ you would lose your job; are the things that are on the ‘x’ list or in the ‘y’ list the right things ?



The issues of administrative reform do not only affect those superstructures of government – the administrative systems brought into being in order to help organise and provision public goods like healthcare, community safety, representation by the law, education, housing, etc – but also the issues of private enterprise.


Economic historian, and writer of the 3rd edition of the Routledge Dictionary of Economics, Donald Rutherford pointed out in conversation with me that the Conservative Party has championed the policy aim of Shareholder Democracy since the 1950s; FYI shareholder democracy is a system where owners of the shares ultimately have authority over the corporation, as they are the owners and have the right to exercise control. This situation amounts to a pay to play society which reinvents the privilege of feudalism by moving the locus of control offshore – i.e. into places where the legal system has no jurisdiction.



The economic environment (Political Economy environment) is a macrostructure which line manages society.  The Third Sector is an extension of the financial sector which is used to manage civic activity often in holding patterns that prevent important progress; you don’t need to investigate very deeply to discover the car crash which it is in many ways, just talk to people working on the front lines over many years to find out their experience. Just to be clear and to nuance this picture – I am not pitching that charitable deeds and the work of frontline workers is the problem but more the fact that the sector is undermined by the way it is resourced, churned and told to stay schtum about structural violence.


Big conversations need to happen involving acting on evidence bases and weighting the contributions which get pole position so that the privileged are not further ingraining their privilege through artificially creating scarcity.  The motion of politics is towards diminishing accountable governance/government and towards unaccountable privately owned enterprises asset stripping public goods to euphemistically ‘create markets’. I had the privilege of speaking with a senior manager of a multinational pharmaceutical company and something he said impacted profoundly:


“It used to be that private companies were an arm of the state; now the state is an arm of private companies”


As Britain (and other countries) hemorrhages money and resources to multinationals which invest massive efforts in order to avoid paying taxes whilst using national infrastructures to generate profits, new classes of impoverishment are coming into being as previously economically secure sections of the population are being re-situated in precarity. The Third Sector lives off the scraps which fall off the table of over paid CEO’s, financial privateers and a rentier class which is comparable to the Robber Barron‘s of wealthy and powerful 19th-century American businessmen.


Just when we are starting to see the legislature of Britain start to mature in terms of representing the general population (i.e. like human rights) rather than a heritage privileged class, we are seeing capital flight and a move of means offshore and out of legislative accountability via multinational organisational structures (see Prof Nick Robins’ book ‘The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational‘). The harms and psychological damages of the monopolistic systems in place are not being spoken about by-and-large as standards of living and complex PTSD is on the rise due to the metaphorical no-win economic gulags populations are being housed in.


In light of the disaster capitalism in play with the tax dodging culture in the financially affluent class, the Third Sector (which is often being utilised as an instrument to avoid paying taxes and to politically and socially shape society [see Prof Joel Bakan’s ‘The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel) can only act as a sticking plaster on a severed limb. As public goods are being dismantled and the state remit diminished forcing governance systems to exist in a constantly reactive state of triage, I would argue that we cannot understand the hostile environment precarious populations live in without knowing about the tax dodging going on. One of the most accessible commentators is Nicholas Shaxson: