It Doesn’t End With Grenfell – Accountability and Power

6th July 2017

Have them sleep under the bridge

(Press the red ‘play’ button to hear the audio – 7:45 minutes)

Transcript of the Audio

The Grenfell Tower disaster, that took place in London on 14 June 2017, is symptomatic of a much larger problem – and a problem that is not confined to fire risk, or even all of health and safety.

The problem is that those with power do not listen to those that have little or no power.

We heard that, in the case of Grenfell, there had been many warnings and appeals by the tenants about the fire risk. We also learn that the fire services had warned councils about this very issue following other fires in tower blocks, but that no action had been taken.

Why don’t those with the power to act, listen when they should? , What would have made them listen and act?

There are many explanations but most come down to biases, misunderstandings, and systemic pressures. When some large catastrophe like Grenfell happens, we are only too ready to blame. Our instinct is to identify the culprit and to enact retribution. But blame is a complex concept (see: the blog post ‘Who’s to Blame?’). There is a lot wrong with the idea of rushing to blame.

Firstly, it is not necessarily the most useful thing to do. The most useful thing to do is to reduce the risk of something similar happening again. In the case of Grenfell, this might be evacuating people from high-risk buildings or it might be replacing cladding or taking other fire risk measures. It could for example, involve far better procedures for quickly evacuating buildings. This sort of remedy may have little to do with the cause (and hence who or what to blame), i.e. in this case, the cause of the fire and it’s spreading. Blame is only useful insofar as it helps fix the problem.

However, identifying the cause can be a very useful thing to do, because ultimately this may well lead to the most effective method of prevention. But, the second reason for not rushing to blame is that causes are often complex. In fact, they are almost never simple, and they very much depend on the perspective of the observer. In the case of Grenfell, we could say that the cause was the cladding, or the person or department that ordered or authorized the cladding, or the political atmosphere of austerity that may have influenced the decision as to which cladding to buy. We might also blame the advice to stay put in your flat in the event of fire elsewhere in the building. We might blame the building inspectors or the testing procedures. We might blame the more affluent residents of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea for wanting better-looking buildings or prioritizing the spend of council money on services other than fire prevention. We might blame the manufacturer for offering flammable cladding in the first place. So, there are many possible ‘causes’ ranging from the nature of the material through to the nature of the political regime.

Even though we can take many perspectives on the cause, it is difficult to ignore the fact that there were many warning signs and that these were communicated to the people who had the power to act. So why didn’t they?

I would suggest that it is mainly to do with biases, misunderstandings and systemic factors rather than gross moral turpitude. The biases I am talking about are not necessarily to do with prejudice against the poor or immigrants (although these could play a part). Rather they are cognitive biases such as biases in assessing the probability and impact of unlikely events, failure to recognize the part that one’s own decision-making might play in affecting outcomes, making assumptions that it is somebody else’s problem or that somebody else is dealing with it. There will be misunderstanding about how, and the speed with which, fire spreads, how people may respond differently if the fire happens at night, misunderstandings as to whether either fire prevention or evacuation measures are in place, how smoke, hot air and hot stairs might hinder escape and so on. The systemic problems may arise because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, the effects of staff changes making people unfamiliar with the context and circumstances, operating under the pressure of rising demand for services while having to save costs, prioritizing the demands of those who have power or who shout the loudest, and living in a culture of austerity. Few people would deliberately take risks with life if they had a full understanding of the context, the risks and probabilities, and the consequences, and if they had no subconscious biases.

However, there is a way that encourages people to think harder about all these factors. This is to have them expect to experience the consequences of their decisions. This is more than just putting their jobs on the line.

There was a time when, if you were the designer of a bridge, you would be required to sleep under it for the first six months after it was built. That provides a real inducement to ensure its safety. It is accountability in the most personal and direct way.

The problem is that in a modern, complex and global society we have lost the notion of direct accountability.

Take the financial crash of 2008. The people that designed the financial instruments and systems were far removed from the consequences of their actions on ordinary people. Take also the practice of organizations putting in place customer services department. They just distance the directors from their customers. As a consequence the customer becomes impersonalized and subjected to standardized, faceless procedures enacted by customer service representatives, and increasingly by automated systems such as telephone IVR systems and web-based form filling. There is nobody to answer the difficult questions, deal with the exceptions or rectify poorly designed services. I don’t think I am being too cynical in thinking that the people in charge of many of these companies deliberately evade responsibility and direct accountability in relation to their customers (or even their shareholders). Even the complaints procedures seem deliberately designed to wear down and dis-empower the complainant before a matter is dealt with, let alone remedied. This means that complaints almost never lead to service re-design, as they should, and, like any organism that does not respond to changes in it’s environment, it becomes dysfunctional and eventually extinct.

The systems of regulation are often no better. Regulation failed in the case of Grenfell. It failed in the financial crisis of 2008. It has failed with respect to vehicle emissions and exaggerated claims about miles per gallon. It fails in curbing the biases and mis-uses of power in much of the media. It fails because it is just another layer of protection and delay in feedback to those with the power to make changes.

In the last few days we have learnt that six people are to be charged with offenses relating to the Hillsborough disaster that took place on 15th April 1989, and where 96 people died. That’s 28 years ago. That is not direct accountability.

If we want those with the power, to listen, then we have to devise mechanisms of direct accountability. Those making decisions have to directly experience the consequences of those decisions. The people in Grenfell Tower had to face those consequences. That gave them the right to be listened to and it was incumbent on the decision makers without that same direct accountability, to listen to them.

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

Posted in Accountability, Inequality, Influence, Politics, Power, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

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• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.