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The search for truth – and the shadow of Nietzsche

'Only the sky knows' - the search for truth

‘Only the sky knows’ – the search for truth

One of the most significant moments in my professional career occurred when public service organisations in the UK began to adopt a ‘quality of service’ philosophy. This philosophy was a departure from the traditional ideas of ‘service’ – because it was concerned to address some absolutely basic issues – such as making best use of resources, demonstrating high professionals standards, achieving best value, and insisting upon genuine accountability and transparency. It meant that meeting the needs of the client and serving the wider interests of the public should be paramount – and should shape the conduct of everyone working in the public sector.

The leadership and organisation-development college in which I worked was chosen as the site upon which to launch the new approach – an approach that was to underpin service delivery; in 1992 a major seminar (lasting for three days) outlined the principles and different aspects of the new strategic emphasis. In fact, I think it was really more than a strategic emphasis: it was supposed to be a re-configuration of the cultural DNA that would govern the public sector: public service professionals were now supposed to live and breathe the ethos of ‘quality of service’.

A part of the new philosophy identified the cognitive framework (the mind-set) that should manifest itself in working practices if public-sector organisations were to be trusted. In the case of the UK’s police, trust was contingent on an unswerving commitment to a ‘search for the truth.’ In fact, one of the key papers presented at the seminar was entitled ‘Trust in the police – the search for truth.

I particularly liked the idea of grounding the practice of policing in a search for truth. Apart from its obvious value in the pursuit of justice it seemed to me that if an organisation were to be committed to a ‘search for truth’ then two things immediately followed: First, decision-making (as well as policy and strategy) would stand more chance of being based on evidence rather than on traditional practices, custom, convention or prejudice. Second, the search for truth would enable the organisations’ members to resist corruption or sectional interest. More generally, they would have the chance to confront mediocrity and slovenliness: they would have a mandate to seek out the facts and follow the best (and valid) arguments rather than collude with the conveniences of the moment.

In fact, for the next few years most of my teaching and lecturing was directly or indirectly concerned with the ‘quality of service’ philosophy – and especially the ethical development of police leaders and managers. But, oddly enough, a commitment to ensuring that my practice reflected a search for truth proved to be fairly disastrous.  It was disastrous because a ‘search for truth’ is always closely associated with a critical spirit – with uncertainty and doubt. And it is also associated with a certain independence of thought, a tendency to ask questions and an inclination to voice dissent. These are not qualities that are always valued in organisations – especially those organisations (like mine) that were subject to regime change. The search for truth is difficult and painstaking. It takes time and it often results in less rather than more certainty. My feeling is that people who search for the truth become infused with a sense of the hypothetical and a deep sense of contingency. In short, everything could be otherwise.

SO, I did not do well when it came to ‘standing up’ for my part of the organisation*. And this was largely because I was never as sure as I might have been that what we were doing was as effective as it should be. The programme I ran was remarkable in that it gave considerable time and space for future police leaders to explore their value priorities and self-conceptions. It enabled them to uncover group dynamics and to become full-blown self-managed learners. But did it make any difference to their practice? I do not know. I could have pretended otherwise. I could have pretended that I had convincing data to demonstrate how effective the programme actually was. But, whenever I tried to do anything like that (to cover each base) I felt completely exhausted and demoralised. So, in the end, I was not able to protect the integrity of the project for which I was responsible.

Overall, I think that it’s very difficult to engage in a ‘search for truth’ because any such search will sooner or later collide with the power structures and micro-political relations that are part of an organisation’s reality. I suppose that the moral of this tale is: Read Nietzsche. I say this because Nietzsche underlined the fact that we are ‘human all too human‘…

*The particular programme that I was directing was built upon a rigorous theory of ‘development’. It had little if anything to do with conventional approaches to training. I am still not sure that the theory and practice upon which it was based was ever properly appreciated by the majority of people who made judgements about it.

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