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When community organisations sup with the devil

Andrew Hamilton |  03 April 2013

Plastic devil shakes hands with plastic man in tie with briefcaseSupping with the devil evokes a rare Faustian night out on the town. But for community organisations it is a regular gig when dealing with modern governments.

You are presented with a seemingly bland discussion paper on which future policy will be based. The paper invites suggestions, is tolerant of all views and suggestions and professes ideals that you can share. How can you refuse? The problem is that the paper politely excludes the value base of your own organisation. So whatever you submit will be translated into a form that at first looks unexceptionable, but which undermines your central concerns.

So do you pick up your bat and go home without a sou for your organisation, or do you engage, allowing hellfire to singe your soul?

Discussion papers speak of stakeholders, of inputs, outputs and outcomes, of a variety of trade-offs, such as those between risk aptitude and public accountability, innovation and maintenance, flexibility and quality assurance, client empowerment and equality of access. They also speak of stakeholders, clients, collaboration, governance and economic sustainability.

Their value statements put people at the centre, insist on the client's right to appropriate support, emphasise the need for respect, and focus on turning passive members of society into active contributors to the economy. Above all they seek a policy that will be economically sustainable.

It is difficult to argue against the values that each of these concepts enshrine. Who could argue against economic sustainability, public accountability, collaboration, quality assurance and flexibility, and encouraging people to be active rather than passive?

Indeed the evaluation of programs to which these terms give flesh is particularly needed in community organisations. Good intentions and mission statements do not automatically turn into programs that respect the dignity and help the growth of those they reach. Catholic organisations, in particular, need no reminding of that.

So community organisations should welcome being asked to provide appropriate evidence that they do the needed good things in the good ways that they promise.

The problem is that the discussion papers are systematically blind to much evidence that is appropriate. Underlying them is a metaphorical framework deriving from a financial analysis of a manufacturing business. The process of production is mapped in terms of costs and results from ordering of material to selling the completed product. All costs and processes are placed under the heading of inputs, outputs and outcomes. Innovation describes more efficient or cheaper production processes. Integration means combining plants or making them compatible.

When seen from this perspective, organisations that serve people in need resemble factory plants, identical in their part in the process, and so interchangeable. Differences between them unrelated to the productive process will be ignored or disapproved of. The people who work in organisations will be seen as units of input and measured by their costs and productivity.

The people in need, for whom the organisations exist, will be seen as the object of the productive process. Their value lies in the capacity to contribute to production. Respect is shown them by giving them a consumer's choice over the services they choose. All is commodified.

This metaphorical framework has its uses as a subordinate paradigm. It can focus attention on the costs and efficiency of programs. But when it becomes the master metaphor for caring for human beings, it betrays all that most community organisations are about.

Their fundamental insight is that each human being is of great value in themselves. When people are in need they make a claim on society independent of how they can contribute to it economically. Some may never be able to contribute. But the goal of working with people is to help them grow into responsible human beings able to relate to other human beings and to society. The ability to find work and work efficiently is only one sign of growth.

The process by which people move from isolation and from destructive responses towards others and society to taking responsibility for their lives is through relationships. Through community organisations isolated people may meet other people who care for them and respect them as human beings and model a way of relating to others.

This can lead them to reflect on their lives, to begin to see in themselves the value others see, and to ask in hope and not despair what they want to make of their lives. From that flows the possibility of contributing to society.

The manufacturing metaphor is inadequate to account for this process, partly because human transformation cannot be produced. It ultimately rests, not on choice, still less on repeated consumer choices, but on the recognition that one wants to change. That recognition is a gift, a grace, but it can grow in the context of relationships that are also experienced as a gift. It will always come as a surprise.

If the manufacturing metaphor must include among its outcomes such unmeasurables as gift, love, grace and surprise, not to mention the extraordinary courage that keeps a depressed person alive a day longer, or leads a homeless person to wipe themselves out on port rather than meths, its calculator will self destruct.

When organisations are required to define people as measurable inputs they will be struck dumb. They need a much broader and humane frame of evaluation.

When supping with the devil, the risk is not of being poisoned but of developing a taste for junk food and then feeding it to those you invite to your table. When supping with the devil it is best to bring your own Angel food with you, and offer it to the old adversary. Maybe he will develop a taste for it. 


Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

Ah, Angel food. So Devil's Food Cake is off the menu. I do voluntary work for a community organisation involved with frail elderly and disabled people. There are two paid employees in the organisation, an office co-ordinator and a driver. I've been given much - things like grace, love, and humour - by our 'clients'. So, they're treating me pretty well. Our funding comes from government so our staff meetings are interesting events. And we're not high up on the food chain of funding but no matter. I, for one, can write letters, pleading with my State and Federal members and generally make a nuisance of myself.

Pam 03 April 2013

You are quite correct, Andrew, there is indeed a basic utilitarian cost-benefit-analysis behind many of these position papers, which are often couched in a sort of Newspeak which obscures that origin. Oh for Plain English! The late (sadly almost forgotten) Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was a master of both the traditional Christian language and Standard English. Compared with the bland, seemingly obliging, sometimes unctuous (to the right people) Anglican clerics of today, whose specialities seem non-offense and all-inclusiveness (at any cost), he really spoke the traditional Christian message without rancour but not glossing over differences. I think, as Christians (not necessarily the same as those who seek to monopolise that name in the public arena for their own narrow sectarian purposes) we need to be clear that we come from a place which comprehends and includes economic justice but comes from a deeper place. Christ was not a bland, inoffensive bureaucrat. We need to remember that. He came to shake the earth. We tend only to limply shake people's hands.

Edward F 03 April 2013

Very fine Andy. Thanks for what you do, and for who you are.

Steve Curtin SJ 04 April 2013

Andrew, you are so right. I worked for several years with with one part time employee and other volunteers at St Vincent de Paul's Ozanam Learning Centre in Waterloo, teaching literacy on a one to one basis.The part time employee was escorted from the premises because she wished to extend the time she spent there voluntarily.The rest of us were asked not to return even though the literacy room was always full and our students were benefiting in many ways.TAFE has replaced us and as far as I'm aware very few people attend because the course is set,and not individually based.As one homeless and mentally ill client shouted when trying to navigate the bureauracy 'Jesus doesnt live here any more'.To our great joy he stuck his head into our room and said "but He's in here".Most of our students have not done well since.We all miss the humour, kindness,love and the satisfaction of doing something well and we miss Jesus in the room.

Helen Walsh 04 April 2013

Andrew you’ve hit the nail on the head. So much is about converting simple English language into bureaucratic idioms. Articulating an organization’s heart and soul ie values into sentences which includes words (or more like formulas) such as efficiencies + productivity = outputs, is a great challenge. Organizations these days have to employ staff with almost specialist skills in translating plain English into a bureaucratic one. Interestingly in the bureaucratic world these people with specialized skills are referred to as “Spin Doctors”.

Volkan Dogan 04 April 2013

Gobsmacked again! It's lovely to see your Provincial's homely appreciation of your work, Andrew. My response is not only to thank you but to wonder how you do it - day after day and on an amazing range of issues. And it isn't even your main job? How long is your day? How does one go about having a Living National Treasure acknowledged?

Joe Castley 04 April 2013

This article leads my thoughts in four directions: 1. As I read your list of "discussion-paper-speak" words, Andrew, I thought of Don Watson's warnings about weasel words. 2. As for the value system underlying government departments, plans and projects, a good example of public thinking is supplied in the report published in the current issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, which says that every quad bike death costs us $2.3 million. How do you compute in dollars the cost of the shock, pain, suffering, loss and grief each of those deaths costs? Do those things matter in our secular, economy-ruled society? 3. As for the outcome of gaining employment, for older people that is a joke. Older folk on Newstart are obliged to do voluntary work, and often do skilled and professional work at high standards, work that costs the local council, or the community organisation, nothing, and which costs the federal government only the small payment of the weekly Newstart allowance. Is that the real aim of the Newstart policy, to get people doing valuable work at little cost to the public purse? 4. In our area the council drew up a town plan. The plan totally overlooks the needs of pedestrians, the disabled and users of public transport. The plan is meant to help the businesses of the town make more money. They called for submissions and the only ones they took notice of were from the major supermarkets of the town. Submissions from local citizens were ignored, since they failed, I suppose, to indicate measurable (money) outputs of their proposals. How do we insert human values into a public life that is governed by economic considerations?

Janet 04 April 2013

Excellent article. The process of community organisations starting to 'take on' the culture of government bureaucracies is well established here in Australia. This needs to be a much bigger discussion in the sector than it seems to be.

Justin Whelan 04 April 2013

Excellent piece, Andrew. You have retold the fairy tale of the emperor's new clothes. While the emperor's tailors fashioned nothing from a non-existent finest of all fine gossamers, the bureuacratic tailors of our society do exactly the same with the finest of words representing nothing. We also now create university degrees out of nothingness dressed with expertise in a newspeak which seems to be intentionally meaningless except to themselves. It took the innocence of a child to point out that the emperor was wearing no clothes.

john frawley 04 April 2013

So right, Andrew! Regrettably, I cannot see a way of turning tide, and those who care are constantly fighting a rearguard action to ensure that within the organisation care and people-sensitiveness are preserved, while administrators are forced to play the Newspeak game. Of course, this "manufacturing" paradigm is not confined to institutions that offer careing services of the kind you refer to. Hospitals are funded according to mechanical efficiency style "targets" such as patient throughputs (or average time spent in hospital), universities are funded according to performance targets that include graduation rates and cost per student per course, and so on. Not only does this undermine the values appropriate to the institution, it also leads to a vast array of distortions - and even falsity - internally, as institutions battle to comply with these inappropriate measures by manipulating their actual performance so as to appear to comply with the rules. Kafka would be able to write his novels with vastly more new settings today, and Orwell's prophesies ring true daily. But how can we effectively battle with this, and at the same time be true to our ideals and values? We are caught in the web.

Dennis Green 04 April 2013

I can see your point Andrew, however the problem may be overcome by giving more space to the solution, advocated only briefly in your last two sentences. At Palms Australia we don't always win government contracts, but when we do I find it helpful to bring our approach (Angel food)to the relationship. Public servants can appear lifeless in their risk adverse culture of doing business, but I do find it possible to break through to the human being when we connect them to the lives of the beneficiaries and assist them to feel some responsibility and pride in that relationship. We still need to be efficient in engaging the necessary inputs and in producing outputs and outcomes, but this shouldn't prevent us from "engaging in mutually enriching and challenging relationships of understanding, acceptance and care, and sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own." Roger Schroeder SVD This is the same approach that we encourage in Palms volunteers for engagement with people of other ethnic cultures. It is how we “open our hands to the world” to achieve the love, humility,justice and solidarity described in Palms’ Values Statement.

Roger O'Halloran 04 April 2013

Excellent article, Andrew. One aspect of dodgy links with the devil is that "beneficiaries" cannot criticise the devil's other works. So government grant money becomes a muzzle on comment about government policy and practice in areas where social service agencies should be advocates for the less fortunate whose needs they know. You are bound not to bight the hand which feeds you. Having worked with organizations as a planning, organizational culture and community consultation consultant for many years I conclude that organizations are mysterious. One defense against the unknown is to use the control terminology given by accounting firms. Some of the terms you quote are technical and useful concepts. As technical terms they are arcane and group speak, like medical terms or engineering terms. However, as you suggest, they are mechanistic and inhumane when applied to much human activity. Being able to measure is a great consolation to impotent managers. But as you suggest, the most important and human factors:warmth, compassion, cooperation, collaboration, sharing, are beyond measurement. As too is the greatest destructive organizational force, the male ego. A couple of the most cruel and dysfunctional organizations, on big grants, I encountered offered services to the sick and the elderly and one was a church organization. They could tick all the requisite grant boxes without revealing their inhumanity. Governments too have gone along with these travesties posing as corporations.

Michael D. Breen 04 April 2013

thank you Andrew; you express clearly what many of us struggle to articulate so lucidly.

Anne 04 April 2013

This style of 'patronizing-speak'(using patron in the sense of being distant & elevated) is also used in Health Department funding, especially when the 'clients' are the most disenfranchised. Talk about weasel words!!

Ann Troup 04 April 2013

I wholeheartedly endorse Joe Castlely's praise for Andrew and his writings. But could I say there would be more clerical and lay catholic academics able to write similar articles if in addition to studying Thomistic Philosophy and Dogmatic Theology if they also studied Political Sociology, in particular the works of Max Weber on Alienation, Bureaucracy,Protestant Ethic,and Social Stratification. If the style of the archetypical German sociologist does not appeal then maybe the works of Balzac, Dickens, John Stuart Mill and Gaetano Mosca might provide more down to earth examples of bureaucracy's strangling tentacles. Of course catholics pursuing a public service career could probably tell how difficult it is to reform (humanise?)the office from within.

Uncle Pat 04 April 2013

Many years ago, G K Chesterton wrote that H.G.Wells scared people by raising the possibility of a machine that could think like a man. This hssn't (yet?) happened. But Chesterton suggested that something much more frightening HAS happened:- Men that think like machines; stripped of human values and considerations. In our time, we seem to have gone one better, by hiding such machinations under seemingly plauaible slogans. One example is "STOP THE BOATS". While it can seem quite reasonable, what it is really saying is "Stop the people. Ignore their suffering and desperation. Keep them out of sight and out of mind, so we can enjoy our self-indulgent affluence without such concerns." And what is even more disturbing, is that such slogans win votes from otherwise caring people.

Robert Liddy 04 April 2013

As a professional in health services for over 30 years I know very well the difficulties Andrew articulated about the semantics of input, through put, flow through etc and documentation. All concepts that work wonderfully for people like Toyota, however real people (staff and clients) are not as pliable and ammenable to pathways and interventions and production. ie it does not always go to plan. This is the dilemma of all human service organizations - How to quantify what is needed in dollar terms. People are more than commodities.

Jenny Esots 04 April 2013

Thanks, Andy for a great analysis that could serve as a very useful 'discussion paper' for meetings with the bureaucrats. There are a lot of government welfare bureaucrats who would welcome such a discussion and be prepared to learn from it. Your paper is timely for further development of the government/'agency' relationship. There has been a lot learnt and needed to be learnt by both governments and Christian welfare organisations over recent decades. We need to assert our Christian values but we also need to ensure that we think strategically about our purpose, values and governance. Governments and welfare organisations have a lot to learn from each other as we insist on our respective and sometimes different accountabilities. As you say, Andy, "When supping with the devil it is best to bring your own Angel food with you, and offer it to the old adversary. Maybe he will develop a taste for it".

Peter Johnstone 04 April 2013

An excellent article. Very familiar scenarios. Often in the bid to measure and for so-called accountability the frameworks set by funders reduce the work these organisations do in complex circumstances with people experiencing significant disadvantage and systemic barriers to simplistic, homogenised indicators. These rarely relate to realistic outcomes and the impacts that are actually being achieved. Given the obstacles such agencies face and the often entrenched nature of the problems experienced by the people they seek to assist, perhaps those who set the frameworks need themselves to engage in the direct service delivery so that this real experience can fully inform their policy- making and attempts to measure. It might make the measures realistic, useful and more reflective of the day to day realities of service delivery. Having worked for under-resourced community organisations committed to making a difference and social justice and more recently having been engaged in evaluation work the article resonates. Dr Liz Curran ANU College of Law

Dr Liz Curran 04 April 2013

In a state school with deeply unhappy staff I tried bringing in flowering perennials and placing them on window sills - fascinating and positive responses, except for the office staff who told me it wasn't my job etc. It's an impoverished attitude coupled with bean counter mentality. Finally I gave up, cheerfulness not wanted. I see it as a jealousy thing, just in case someone else gets more of anything. Thank God there are so many wonderful people in the world who can see over this jargon riddled outcomes behaviour and make a positive difference. Thanks Andy, it makes me want to weep. Let's start a movement to bring back good old common sense and the common good.

Flora 04 April 2013

While I was studying Dispute Resolution, I learned the importance of going in to a discussion with an open mind rather than holding a position. At the time in my workplace one of our roles was to organise 'focus groups'. I was often drawn in as part of the 'rent a crowd' for these. A really skilled facilitator was one who went in with a set position and made sure, sometimes with a little tweaking, that position was presented as though a fresh idea generated from the group. I am always very cynical about the outcomes of consultation. Those involved need to be very aware they are indeed supping with the devil.

Margaret McDonald 04 April 2013

For some years I've been watching with horror the 'capture' of various well-intentioned church-based organizations by their funders, government and otherwise. It seems that however acceptable the terminology used in the organizations, partnerships between profit-distributing organizations (like banks) and not-for-profits (like social welfare organizations) are difficult if not impossible to sustain without the funders capturing the aims of the organization funded. The words used both express and form the change as it happens. Good Shepherd Microfinance, good and competent and caring people all, used to talk about offering their 'clients' choices in addressing their financial issues. (Yes, I know, 'clients', but what other word)? Now, only a year into its life, the organization is talking about 'customers', 'customer service' and 'maximizing use of bank products'. Is this reflecting the aims of Good Shepherd or of the National Bank, a major funder? We started out believing in the power of relationships to help and heal, now we talk about 'target groups'. My gloomy suggestion - stay small. Don't try to 'grow your business'. Maybe the Spirit is the Spirit of the God of Small Things.

Joan Seymour 04 April 2013

And there is also the incredibly time-hungry effort of justifying your existence every year when you have to beg (sorry, make submissions!) for funding, never being quite sure if you'll exist for another year. Organisations/businesses categorise their staff as 'liabilities' on the balance sheet, instead of their greatest asset. It's all upside down.

Sue Hoffman 04 April 2013

Andrew, You have accurately described the dilemma of so many NGO's, particularly any that beg to differ. It is not just a question of walking away from the table, sometimes the devil actively sets out to hunt down, isolate and strangle those who challenge the prevailing hegemony within the funding agencies. The result is, as Robert Fitzgerald once observed, a community sector too which too often reflects the dysfunction of its clients.

Matt Casey 08 April 2013

Thank you for this article Andrew. The evolution of the welfare-sector into a welfare-industry, and the use of selective-language to limit the breadth of discussion of issues associated with it, is disturbing. Equally disturbing is the process by which welfare-recipients are demonised and isolated from the Mainstream marketplace. Space-limitations prevent me from elaborating very much here, but when we consider that the bulk of public-discussion about poverty is centred on personal dysfunction and individual-failure rather than labour-market-dynamics (Tony Abbott's response to a Four Corners question about poverty) the conversation loses balance. Then, when we consider that homelessness is discussed without factoring-in the influence of an artificially-inflated housing-market (the ABS definition of homelessness is 62 pages long and makes almost no mention of it), it's quite obvious that market-considerations have driven individual human needs into the background. Perhaps we should look to the United Kingdom for a vision of the near-future. The British government's "Workfare" program - which includes forcing people receiving benefits to engage in volunteer-work for charities under threat of loss-of-payments - is meeting with growing resistance, and organisations like The Salvation Army are feeling the brunt of community-anger. Don't think it can't happen here; it has already started.

Nick Costello 08 April 2013

Angel food: Only the name of Jesus is our salvation. Only he can save us. And no one else. Even less the modern “magicians”. And it was on the name of Jesus that Pope Francis focused his reflection on Friday morning, 5 April, in the Octave of Easter, at the Mass he celebrated in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae with the participation of the Sediari pontifici (the pontifical chair-bearers), and those in charge, employees and religious of the St John of God Brothers who work at the Vatican Pharmacy. The Pope drew inspiration in particular from the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (4:1-12), to think about the value and significance of the name of Jesus. The passage presents the episode of Peter and John who were arrested because they were preaching Christ's Resurrection to the people and were led before the Sanhedrin. To the question as to whether they had healed the cripple at the door of the Temple, Peter answered that they had done so “by the name of Christ”. In the name of Jesus, the Pope repeated, adding: “He is the Saviour, this name, Jesus. When someone says Jesus, it is he himself, that is, the One who works miracles. And this name accompanies us in our heart”. mano

Game Theory 08 April 2013

Thanks for giving a manus, Eurekastreet!

Game Theory 08 April 2013

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