Behold our strange new land

The past, it has been said, is a foreign country. Never has this seemed more so than in this year of pandemic lockdown. So much has been turned on its head or inside-out. It seems everything must be recalibrated. How much of what we previously took for granted counts for anything now?

In truth, disconnects between past and present are nothing new. In previous posts1, I’ve written about some of the changes which took place from my first permanent job, in the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) of the 1970s, through to my retirement from the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) of 2016. So often, these disconnects fractured continuity in ways which left behind much of value, diluting lessons learnt and discarding experience gained, laboriously, over time. Understanding relevance, or irrelevance, to the present day makes a rich subject for reflection and debate.

Many commentators and activists were quick to exploit the space opened up by lockdown to spell out how things can, and should, be different in future2. So much has been upended and so much else, it is argued, can be improved if only we take the opportunity to ‘Build Back Better’. An early contributor3 differentiated short-term effects (eg reduced carbon emissions) to highlight potential long-term opportunities for change. Much has been made of the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’, promoting improved resilience and co-existence with Nature. But, as lockdown has eased, and sectors of the economy emerge from deep freeze, few of these ideas seem to be gaining much traction4. Debate rages on the scope for funding change5, while the chair of the SG Advisory Group on Economic Recovery has disparaged ‘green zealots6. So perhaps not so much a new beginning, more like the familiar status quo ante.

A recent polemic, published in Ecos7, vigorously condemns the track record of conservation bodies over recent decades. While I can empathise with the author (whose career trajectory has had many parallels, in time and work areas, with my own) and share frustration at our failure to correct damage to our natural world, I profoundly disagree with his conclusions. He argues that nothing has worked, and nothing has changed, in terms of losses to Nature, because conservation bodies have allowed themselves to be drawn into a morass of bureaucracy, pointless ‘consultation’ and prevarication. Instead, he now intends to “work with smaller organisations that are less bureaucratic” and in “campaigning  directly as an individual“. These are both valuable but, for me, could never come close to the scale of response we need to make a big enough difference.

Having equipped myself with a vocation, a fistful of degrees and (miraculously) relevant paid employment, I quickly discovered that making further progress was less about me, but rather more about how best to align the energies of a critical mass of like-minded people pulling together. So it has been that I have tried to fathom how to secure large-scale collective action to protect nature, finding ways and means to harness resources on a scale sufficient to have an impact. For example during the 1980s I helped create environmental management schemes within farming policy which now spend hundreds of millions of pounds. We can argue how effective these have been, but in this sector it isn’t true that ‘nothing has changed’. I concede there’s more substance to criticism that wider engagement of conservation bodies has drawn them into a morass of paperwork, consultation and ‘management-speak’. Yet something of this kind has infected most organisations; those in conservation have not been able to maintain a principled immunity.

After graduating in ecological science, I went on to study natural resource management. A postgraduate Diploma8 in 1977 framed ‘management’ principally as a mathematical challenge based on measurement, drawing on engineered industrial processes. While these ideas resonated to some extent with my previous science training, in my subsequent work they failed to deliver results on contact with reality. I started work in NCC on Scotland’s rural land management as a singleton, then gradually assembled a small team. Through the 1980s, we fumbled our way forward, bidding for project resources and engaging with wider initiatives, growing in scale and confidence. There was minimal resource planning visible to us across an organisation which was emerging from a relatively quiet backwater of public life and engaging with increasingly controversial issues.

At the same time, I was helping to run two small environmental charities, valuable hands-on experience of how, and how not, to get things done. But scale always eluded us, limited by staff and resources, feeling somewhat lost in a busy wider world.

Successive governments urged public bodies more generally to develop and use systematic management information. Much more explicit expectations emerged that public bodies must set an example of good practice, demonstrating and evidencing accountability in all aspects of their work. Although funds and staff numbers gradually increased, so did the organisational overheads. Three years of secondment to The Scottish Office from 1991 broadened my experience to include a different viewpoint working within a much larger body closer to the heart of Scotland’s affairs. Throughout, the rapid emergence of digital technology made it increasingly feasible to assemble and present management information supporting decisions. Perhaps this was the right path to greater leverage of our combined energies.

From 1995, for several years I found myself in charge of a corporate planning team for SNH, a new body replacing NCC in Scotland, working at a larger scale and with a much higher profile. We drafted documents making the case for our grant-in-aid funding from government, supported the allocation of staff and funds across the organisation, assembled metrics to measure progress against targets to secure budget management outcomes, presented regular progress reports to senior management and drafted an annual report. Very little of this quite busy target-driven ‘bureaucracy’ had existed in previous decades, but SNH could not have opted out of a way of working energetically endorsed by our paymasters in government.

Even at this larger scale (an SNH headcount growing to more than 700) we found ourselves constantly held back by our capacity. We explored joint working and co-operation across other public bodies with related roles, especially in rural land management, which revealed a whole new dimension of challenge9.

In 2005, I contrived to embark on another postgraduate diploma10. I found that quantitative methods were now somewhat out of favour, with a new focus on qualitative understanding of human group behaviour and motivations. ‘Leadership’ was favoured over ‘management’ ( the latter now seen as too mechanistic). This led me to new insights11 which highlight the importance of human agency over algorithms. In other words, humans cannot be treated simply as inert cogs in a machine, but rather should be expected, and encouraged, to exercise their free will. But, however individually talented, the record shows this does not always go well. It seems that any organisation is capable of stupidity12 and unintended consequences are commonplace.

Such limitations of the public body managerialism of the 1990s and new millennium were exposed following the financial crash of 2008. Over the following decade, funding was progressively withdrawn across a wide spectrum, including the statutory environmental organisations. As a result, the capacity to tackle the many challenges revealed by recent survey and monitoring of nature has been steadily eroded13.

Earlier this year, I came across a paper14 which helpfully rehearses the evolution of these various organisational theories, from the positivist ‘scientific’ or algorithmic management I encountered in the 1970s to the more recent relativist post-modernism of leadership studies. My experiences leads me to agree that “tensions and contradictions are ubiquitous” in institutions, to lament the “misguided pursuit of scientific rationality and fascination with ‘heroic’ leaders“, and agree that we must “find better ways to manage the tension between getting things done and getting people’s needs met“. Getting the results we need remains a work in progress then, to address the frustrations expressed in the Ecos piece referenced above.

So is this strange new land we occupy truly a foreign country, one for which our prior experience provides only limited guidance? I’m not so sure. The rapid re-emergence of previous flaws and behaviours suggests to me that our right response, post-pandemic, is to draw on, and apply, our prior insights and learning.  After all, as another saying has it “The past is never dead, it’s not even past“.