Things look different from bottom up. So when we think about the future, we have to do so fully conscious of the assumptions we make about our own prejudices. Where do you sit? Looking down on us below or up to those above us? It took me almost a life-time to recognise this in myself.
For over fifty years, after leaving school in 1953, I wasn’t conscious of how I was thinking about how things were. It was a mindless journey in which my biases and prejudices were implicit and driven by my working life. Now, in so-called ‘old age’, I have discarded my top-down mindset and I like to think that I am able to base my thinking on my personal values and prejudices, and see things from the bottom-up.
In hindsight, the actual experiences of my working life have enabled me to see how different kinds of systems of governance work and the outcomes they have on those they are supposed to serve.
My experience of institutional life began in a very small village school of children aged four to 15, where the Lord of the Manor (a lady) visited us on high days and holidays, such as Empire Day (Queen Victoria’s birthday) . Then, after grammar schooling and training as a municipal engineer, I climbed the hierarchical ladders of six local authorities and a university. That was enough bureaucracy for me and, from 1983 onwards, my wife and I ran a business, from a cottage in the Welsh Marches.
As a bureaucrat, I was content with my lot. The further up the ladders I went. the more control I thought I had over the eventual outcomes. And the higher I rose I discovered (albeit subconsciously) that, to go further up, I had to behave in ways which convinced those above me to let me have more staff below me, to enhance my prospects of further promotion or a better job in another authority. My work at the lower levels was to design projects, which then went up the hierarchy for approval at each level.
These mindless systems use predefined objectives, standards and processes, mostly sent down from government and generally seen as the proper way to do things. The outcomes ‘on the ground’ may be subject to consultation with so-called ‘service users’, but it is the top-down processes which determines what happens. The services people get are nothing to do with what they want; it is a quirk of how the top-down management processes operate.
Seen from above, the system seems to work well, even in times of financial constraint, because there are ways to hide underlying problems. Increasing indebtedness or endless reorganisation has been the story of UK public service development, with top-down hierarchies getting bigger and top manager’s salaries and pensions increasing. Not just public service organisations, but also the private sector organisations spawned by public service spending. Which is not a criticism; this is the way it is.
Then I got to know the small Channel Island of Sark and was the Planning Adviser to the Island government for a few years, just before the feudal system of governance and land ownership began to be dismantled. So I learnt about Ordinances, the Treizieme, Tenements and Clameur de Haro. Understanding how this tiny independent island works has helped me become aware of my own long-held top-down prejudices.
Imagine a community of 600 people, making their own laws and putting them into day-to-day practice, with no interference from above, and you will begin to understand. In finding out how a bottom-up system actually works, I now realise that – if fundamentally different ways of doing things are to be found – those involved must be aware of their prejudices and be open about them with others.