People in power don’t think they have power


Most people who are thought to have power don’t think themselves they have power.

Let’s look at those thought of as traditionally having power[1].

In the world of health, we hear about the “power” of the clinician over the “patient”; in care the “power” of the social worker over the “service user”. In the world of services the commissioner is the most powerful, and in the civil service we think that power resides with (Prime) Ministers or Permanent Secretaries.

Inevitably, the person at the top of any organisation is often thought to be the most powerful: the higher you go the more powerful the people get.

And, to some extent, this is true: their decisions affect larger and larger numbers, whatever those numbers happen to represent (people, staff, money).

So how can it be that the person thought of as the most powerful in the world can lament his own lack of power?

It goes back to my opening: if you ask those people listed above who are traditionally thought to hold power, I doubt very many of them would feel anywhere near as powerful as they are perceived to be by other people.

Take a social worker: from the point of view of someone who uses care services the social worker is incredibly powerful: they potentially determine what money you do/don’t get and what types of services you can access. But if we ask the social worker about their power they will talk about the pressure of their caseload, the policies they have to implement, the limited number of providers that exist on their patch, the pressure from their manager, and several other factors that all act to curtail their power to act.

Ask the social worker’s manager if they are powerful. They’ll probably laugh at you and say they have a team of social workers completely under the kosh who don’t fill out paperwork in the way they should do. They’ll be harangued by management for implementing lovely sounding changes there is actually little resource or appetite to put into practice. They’ll be getting phone calls from providers at all times about placements that are breaking down, and they’ll be pestered to complete monitoring data they’ll never see again by people they’ve possibly never met.

Commissioners in the same area will be thought of as having the power because they hold the purse strings. When they look up from reading the scant information about the latest priority they have to reflect in commissioning intentions with no new money, alongside the 78 other priorities they’ve been given, they’ll tell you that big providers call most of the shots, or that health commissioners are in the driving seat now. For what it’s worth, the supposedly powerful providers will tell you they’re being asked to do more and more for rates that are decreasing rapidly whilst under greater regulatory scrutiny.

At the top of the care staffing pyramid, the director of social care will tell you about the unrelenting pressure of upward demand, downward resources, their obligations under the Care Act, the threat of judicial review from any one of tens of families who have been treated poorly by their department, a recalcitrant workforce working in a culture that can’t be shifted, and the waffling politics of their portfolio holder and the local health and wellbeing board. They want to do good stuff in and for their local area, but the politics (big ‘P’ and little ‘p’) significantly curtails them.

And on and on it goes: “powerful” people for whom power is little more than juggling clouds.

What to do? The only reflection I can give is to try to recognise:

  • The person you think has power probably doesn’t think themselves they have power
  • Helping them in their relatively powerless position will probably help you as well
  • To someone somewhere in the system, you are the person with power.

[1] – There is, of course, a vast literature on all types of power in a variety of different settings. I’ve not gone into that at all here, but a useful starting point for the interested reader is Chapter 10 of Fred Luthans’s Organizational Behavior (pdf).


Monitoring requirements and the power dynamic

Sometimes, I fascinate myself with the titles of my blogposts.

This latest one is inspired, insofar as anything can be inspired by considerations of monitoring requirements, by two things happening at once.

The first was the HMRC writing to people to let them know they may have underpayed on income tax and seeking immediate payment of that deficit. The second was a relatively unwelcome phone call at work from a well-known funding body telling me they hadn’t received a monitoring report we had actually sent four months ago.

In both cases, the fault for the issue at hand clearly and squarely lay with the agency doing the contacting. In the case of the HMRC it appears their system meant they aren’t always collecting the correct amounts of tax. In the case of the well-known funding body, it turned out that the monitoring officer assigned to my organisation had left the well-known funding body and that their replacement had also left. On both occasions, each person had not passed on any details about the organisations/projects they were monitoring to the next person.

Despite the fault lying with the agency in both cases, my frustration here is that the assumption of wrongdoing lay not with the agency but with the recipient. HMRC doesn’t appear to be sorry about their tax collection mistake and the potential hardship their demands for deficit payments could make. The well-known funding body assumed first that I hadn’t submitted a funding report and worked on that basis until proved otherwise.

This is clearly the result of power dynamics, and it’s one that niggles at me.

To note just one irony here: at even the slightest suggestion that the main point of contact for my organisation’s relationship with the well-known funding body was going to change, I had to complete a “Change of contact details” form which had to be signed by me, the new person, my Chief Executive and a member of my Management Board. A copy of this form then had to be sent to the well-known funding body and kept on file at my workplace. And yet when details of our monitoring officer changed not once but twice, we knew nothing about it.

I take the view that, irrespective of what organisation or what sector you work in, you do unto others as you would be done to yourself. The power dynamic between tax collecter and tax payer or funder and funded has created a distortion in which the former don’t treat the latter with equal respect.

It’s a dynamic I’m not altogether that keen on.