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Human Relations

http://hum.sagepub.com/ Conflict, ambivalence, and the contested purpose of public organizations
Paul Hoggett Human Relations 2006 59: 175 DOI: 10.1177/0018726706062731 The online version of this article can be found at: http://hum.sagepub.com/content/59/2/175

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Human Relations DOI: 10.1177/0018726706062731 Volume 59(2): 175–194 Copyright © 2006 The Tavistock Institute ® SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks CA, New Delhi www.sagepublications.com

Conflict, ambivalence, and the contested purpose of public organizations
Paul Hoggett

A B S T R AC T

This article argues that public organizations are inherently more complex than private ones. Their complexity derives from two sources. The public sphere is the site for the continuous contestation of public purposes and this means that questions regarding values and policies saturate all public organizations, particularly at the point of delivery. Second, because government partly acts as the receptacle for the alienated subjectivity of citizens, public organizations have to contain much of what is disowned by the society in which they are situated. It follows that the fate of the public official, sometimes referred to as the ‘street-level bureaucrat’, is to have to contain the unresolved (and often partially suppressed) value conflicts and moral ambivalence of society. Such a perspective has implications for all of those who, in their different roles, seek to bring about change or development in public organizations. Psychoanalytic approaches to organizational consultation have not adequately understood the contested nature of public organizations and some key aspects of this approach, such as the concept of the organization’s primary task, need to be reconsidered.

K E Y WO R D S

ambivalence ᭿ primary task ᭿ social anxieties ᭿ value pluralism

Introduction
The question whether education, health, transport, energy and other utilities and services are best delivered by the public or the private sector is a debate
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which has raged for over two decades now. Much of this debate has necessarily been couched in terms of quality and efficiency but this has tended to obscure the dual character of the public sector, not just as a means of delivery but also as an element of societal self-governance. This article focuses upon the nature of the work of public service professionals and the organizations to which they belong. I will argue that it is the dual character of public organizations, including all those not-for-profit and quasi-autonomous organizations which rely heavily or totally upon public funding, which provides them with their distinctive and complex nature. In particular, I will argue that this complexity derives from two sources which are surprisingly little discussed within the disciplines of public management and administration. First, there is the complexity of governance within pluralist societies in which differences of culture, faith, lifestyle and values proliferate, differences which place public organizations at the intersection of conflicting needs and alternative definitions of the common good. Second, in addition to these reality based conflicts, it is the task of government to have to deal with the projections of its citizens. This means that public organizations are also engaged in the management of social anxieties and other collective sentiments which are partly conscious and partly unconscious. These anxieties ultimately express concerns about the survival of oneself, one’s family or one’s group. Understanding these two sources of complexity enables us to grasp the different nature of the challenges facing managers, professionals, consultants and change agents working in the public sector as opposed to the private sector.

The value of bureaucracy
It has become fashionable to think of bureaucracy as an outmoded, inflexible, inefficient and unresponsive form of organization rather than the unique and necessary form that public organizations must assume given their complexity. Consequently the neoliberal critique of bureaucracy which has been responsible for waves of privatization and marketization in Western Europe, and the enfeebling of government capabilities in many developing and former Soviet bloc societies, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The original Weberian meaning of bureaucracy, as a particular (and therefore unique) kind of moral institution, has become largely lost (Du Gay, 2000, 2005). I want to build upon some of Du Gay’s arguments about public bureaucracy’s particular purpose – what is it about the requirements for effective government in contemporary society that make bureaucracy necessary?

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My focus in this article is the public sphere of government. But this immediately gets us into definitional problems because even within western democracies the nature of this sphere differs. Moreover as the boundaries between public, private and what is variously referred to as community, associational or social sectors become increasingly blurred the very notion of government itself gives way to the more fashionable concept of ‘governance’. There is no easy way of bringing conceptual clarity to this field – the public spheres of government in Stockholm and Miami are dramatically different. Suffice it is to say that my primary focus here is upon the working lives of those professionals and officials who are employed by organizations having primarily a public purpose – so this does not include all teachers or all nurses, not even in Sweden. I wish to argue that such organizations have, among other things, two unique characteristics. They are the site for the continuous contestation of such public purposes and a receptacle for containing social anxieties. Such characteristics, and there are others such as social regulation which are equally important although not the focus of this article, serve to remind us that government, and the public sphere which supports it, is as much a site for the enactment of particular kinds of social relations as it is a site for the delivery of goods and services. To reduce it only to the latter is to commodify such relationships, to strip them of their moral and ethical meaning and potential, meaning which is inherent to the very concept of ‘citizen’ but marginal to the concept of ‘consumer’. Neoliberalism as a radical market discourse first emerged strongly within the Thatcher/Reagan era and has spearheaded programmes for the modernization of government which have involved denationalization, contracting out and other forms of marketization, the introduction of forms of internal competition and so on (Hood, 1991; Le Grand & Bartlett, 1993; Kikert, 1995). Seen from this perspective, public bureaucracy as a particular and necessary form of organization with its own unique purposes, has no place. Bureaucracies (whether public or private) are seen simply as outmoded and inefficient ways of organizing things. In contrast I will argue that far from being a problem, public bureaucracies are a vital resource, the epitome of what Weber called substantive rationality (where ethical, aesthetic and spiritual considerations are not split off from technical ones) rather than instrumental rationality. As such it is perhaps the one place where questions of technique (‘what works’) and questions of value stand a chance of being integrated. In reality there are many kinds of public bureaucracies, some are highly decentralized and some involve extended forms of citizen participation. What they have in common is that they are funded primarily out of public revenues

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and governed according to publicly agreed policies. This constitutes their being as, in Weber’s terms, a particular kind of moral institution in which principles of impartiality and fairness are paramount. But, as we shall see, what constitutes impartiality and what constitutes fairness is always and necessarily publicly contested.

Bureaucracy as contested space
Many aspects of the discourse of management – for instance, such terms as management by objectives, strategic goals, primary task, organizational mission – portray a view of ‘the organization’ which is relatively consensual. In contrast, it is proposed here that we consider that public organizations are intimately concerned with the governance of societies in which value conflicts are inherent and irresolvable. Take, for example, liberty, equality and fraternity, the three guiding principles of western democracies since the storming of the Bastille. As MacIntyre (1985) points out, these values are incommensurable; for example, before long, as you push for equality you rub up against liberty (particularly economic freedom). Or take the principle of universalism, the fair and impartial treatment of all, a key principle of the Enlightenment as far back as Kant. We realize now that the impartial treatment of individuals may happily accompany discrimination towards groups (Williams, 1989) as when, for example, a ‘universal’ education service, by excluding some kinds of denominational school, denies Muslim children the education they need. The tension between universalism and particularism is inherent and irresolvable (Thompson & Hoggett, 1996) but, as such, it is just one instance of the conflictual nature of public purpose. Radical pluralists argue that we live in an increasingly diverse society and that much of this diversity is incommensurable. Chantal Mouffe (1993) insists that ‘politics in a modern democracy must accept division and conflict as unavoidable, and the reconciliation of rival claims and conflicting interests can only be partial and provisional’ (p. 113). To return to my argument, the commitment to universalism as embodied in the ethic of impartiality cannot be sustained given the strength of particularisms in an increasingly plural society. The problem for the public official is precisely that s/he must be both a universalist and a particularist at the same time. For a similar reason there are other value contradictions which the public official is required to enact every day. For example, one which has been articulated in recent years concerns the tension between an ethic of care and an ethic of justice (Mendus, 2000). On the one hand a

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compassionate concern for the individual and his or her plight, and on the other a realization that whatever the merits of this particular case the public official also has a responsibility towards all those potentially equally worthy cases whose claims, because not immediately and physically present, can only be brought to mind abstractly. Conflict, impassioned and ongoing, is a vital dimension of public life. But, and this is crucial for our thinking about public bureaucracies, it also follows that the public sphere (which includes the organized apparatus of government) is the necessary embodiment of such conflictual purposes. And whilst different political projects emphasize different values, those that they suppress inevitably return to haunt the political system, typically returning at the level at which policy is implemented. As Lipsky noted, ‘a typical mechanism for legislative conflict resolution is to pass on intractable conflicts for resolution (or continued irresolution) at the administrative level’ (Lipsky, 1980: 41). As a consequence it is often at the level of ‘operations’ that unresolved value conflicts are most sharply enacted, public officials and local representatives finding themselves ‘living out’ rather than ‘acting upon’ the contradictions of the complex and diverse society in which they live. Lipsky uses the term ‘street level bureaucrat’ to refer to the army of public officials – police officers, teachers, nurses, health inspectors, benefit administrators, magistrates, planning officers, etc. – whose task it is to operate in this environment. At the heart of their work is the exercise of judgement and the use of discretion in the application of policies to particular cases, or the implementation of policies where there are no precedents, or the operationalization of rule-governed systems in full knowledge that no system can ever provide guidance for every eventuality. Thus, in contrast to the ideal of impartiality, in reality ‘there is often considerable disagreement about what street level bureaucrats should primarily do’ (Lipsky, 1980: 46). Thus the very concept of impartiality is subject to contestation. In the United Kingdom at this very moment there is a heated debate about whether students from state schools wishing to enter university should be asked to achieve the same entry grades as students from fee-paying private schools. In the past the two groups were treated in the same way. Was this impartiality or discrimination? Because, as Lipsky noted, the potential demand for free public goods is always potentially unlimited, public professionals are nearly always involved in rationing decisions based upon the publicly agreed policies of the time. A university admissions tutor may disagree with the policies s/he must implement but it is part of the ethos of the office that the decisions that are made should be unaffected by personal ties, inducements or their own political beliefs. In reality, as we have seen, this is impossible to do without the exercise of discretion and the use of individual judgement.

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It is no wonder then that Lipsky entitled his formative study ‘Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public service’.

Government and social anxiety
The idea that institutions such as the health or education service have an unconscious or implicit purpose has been a tenet of psychoanalytically informed perspectives on organizational life for over 40 years. Central to this view is the idea that such institutions, besides performing their ostensible functions (health care, education, etc.) also deal constantly with fundamental human anxieties (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). I do not feel that public institutions are unique in being a receptacle for unconscious aspects of citizens’ emotional lives, nor that anxiety is the only affect involved. Recently, for example, writers have drawn attention to the impact of envy (Stein, 1997) and hope (Cummins, 2002). However, I do feel that such institutions, and the apparatus of government as a whole, play a vital role in ‘containing’ some of the troubling feelings which characterize citizens’ lives and that anxiety seems to be the most powerful of these. But the concept of ‘social anxiety’ remains largely untheorized and this is a great shame as, for instance, it means that the systemic and psychoanalytic way of thinking which deploys this kind of concept has not been adopted by researchers or policy-makers in the broader field of public or social policy. So, why is anxiety such a powerful affect? To answer this question we need to consider three different dimensions of anxiety – ontological, cultural/historical and contingent. At the ontological level there are good grounds to believe that anxiety is a fundamental aspect of our being. In their different ways Existentialism and Psychoanalysis have given anxiety this status, and within psychoanalysis Kleinian thought gives it a particularly privileged position by linking it to our fear of our own destructiveness. Here Klein draws a distinction between psychotic anxiety and depressive anxiety (Klein, 1948, 1952). Psychotic anxiety refers to the experience of breakdown and disintegration in which the survival of the psyche is at stake. Whilst Klein’s focus is upon the individual, such survival anxiety can also be experienced by the group at times of organizational or social crisis (Lawrence & Armstrong, 1998). Depressive anxiety, on the other hand, refers to destructive attacks towards those on whom we depend, at first towards those (typically the mother) who nurture us and who inevitably frustrate and ‘fail’ us. In this sense it resonates with Freud’s observations on the ambivalent role of guilt in the civilizing process (Freud, 1930). Jaques (1953) was the first to apply Klein’s work to the study of organizations. For Jaques anxiety was inherent to group life, a means by

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which group members were unconsciously able to place part of their deep inner lives outside themselves. In this way Jaques drew attention to the role that the group (and, by implication, organizations, communities and governments) played in providing a receptacle for anxieties that individuals were unable to contain within themselves – a kind of displacement of affect from the internal to the external world. It will be remembered that Freud once spoke of the ‘great reservoir of libido’ – it could be useful to think, in a similar way, of a great reservoir of anxiety that society then gets to work upon. Klein also indicates the way in which this primitive and formative anxiety is first dealt with by the infant so that the danger within becomes a danger without; in this way a nameless dread becomes a tangible fear. Fear fixes something which otherwise is free-floating, now it can be given a name, now it has an object (Hoggett, 2000). So Klein develops a picture of the human condition in which we escape from internal anxieties by projecting them into external figures. In this way we become alienated from ourselves and the emerging personality becomes fractured (subject to splitting) and lacking in integration. This process can be mitigated if the individual acquires the internal resources to contain the worst of her/his own anxiety. The strength of the individual’s life force and loving impulses are important here, as is the existence of what Winnicott called ‘a facilitating environment’ (Winnicott, 1965), an environment which includes the institutions of both the private (i.e. family) and public (i.e. civil society and government) spheres. As this capacity to tolerate anxiety is built up so the individual is able to reintegrate into the personality what had been previously alienated (Steiner, 1996). But the process is never complete and the human subject never becomes unitary or whole, there is always a reservoir of anxiety ready to latch onto new objects of fear. The nature of these fears however will be culturally and historically relative. For example, Christopher Lash (1978) and others have made a persuasive case that western type democracies such as Britain and the USA are narcissistic cultures which are in flight from dependency and the acceptance of human limits. Death, ageing, physical degeneration and incapacity, madness, helplessness and loneliness confront us as incomprehensible forces but the difficulty our culture has in facing these ‘facts of life’ is not one that all societies have faced at all times. Indeed, the social arrangements of any given society produce their own difficulties as Sennett has recently noted with regard to fear of failure (Sennett, 1998). Some have argued that anxiety is inherent to the project of modernity itself, a project which ‘frees’ people from the anchorings of tradition, family and community and thereby forces upon them ultimate responsibility for the choices they make (Bauman, 1993). This

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links to the idea, first put forward by Raymond Williams, that whole eras or epochs, such as the period between the two world wars, may be characterized by particular ‘structures of feeling’ (Williams, 1977). So far we have considered anxiety as something both inherent to our being and a cultural product, but this reservoir also provides the basis for more ephemeral manifestations of social anxiety, forms which have been grasped within the sociological imagination in terms of ‘moral panics’ (Glasser, 1999). Typically these are more ephemeral forms of collective anxiety ‘whipped up’ by the mass media and by political elites. The effect once more is to give something indefinable and intangible a specific object – paedophiles, refugees, and so on. ‘Social anxiety’ therefore refers both to those relatively abiding and more contingent fears which are either culturally embedded or politically mediated. What then of defences against such anxieties? We have already considered how Klein sees these operating at the individual level but they will also operate at the institutional and societal levels. At the institutional level, Menzies Lyth (1960) focused upon the way in which particular kinds of work, work such as nursing, created anxiety by reconnecting the adult worker with early childhood anxieties concerning sex and death. Her analysis of the organization of nursing then explored the ‘social defences’ against anxiety which found expression in the structure and culture of the teaching hospital that she examined. Following Menzies Lyth’s pioneering studies (2002) a considerable body of work has now been developed which largely focuses upon the way in which public organizations deal with social anxieties and other collective sentiments (see for example, Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). Much of this work focuses upon the impact of splitting processes and other mechanisms of defence on the internal life of welfare organizations. Several of the social defence mechanisms that Menzies Lyth outlined find an echo in Lipsky’s work on ‘street level bureaucracy’ (Lipsky, 1980). Distancing and depersonalization, for example, were also used by many of Lipsky’s respondents and this was often linked to labelling processes (Menzies Lyth uses the term ‘categorization’). In a recent study on the housing allocations process (Jeffers & Hoggett, 1998) a similar labelling process was found to be at work in terms of distinctions drawn between ‘demanding’ applicants and others. Such categories strip users of public services of some of their humanity and many officials are acutely aware of their own involvement in such processes, processes which nevertheless help to protect them against the ‘assaults on the ego which the structure of street level work normally delivers’ (Lipsky, 1980: 152).

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Citizens, governments and ambivalence
What, then, of societal defences against anxiety? As we have seen, to the extent that we cannot individually and collectively contain anxieties we externalize them into the other. Indefinable anxiety becomes a tangible fear, the danger within becomes the danger without. It follows, that in the context of welfare societies, the mad, the bad, the sad, the old, the sick, the vulnerable, the failures, and so on, receive not just our compassion but also our fear, contempt and hatred. This is the terrain of the ‘moral panics’ referred to earlier. To give recent examples from the UK, these have included sudden and intense collective fears about schizophrenic killers at loose beyond the control of psychiatric services, unruly young children who terrorize housing estates and epidemics of depression in teenagers. Typically these panics lead to sudden and unthought-through policy interventions (often of a largely symbolic form so that government can sustain the appearance of doing something) which professionals in the field have to implement despite their reservations. Citizens therefore project onto government all that they cannot contain within themselves. It follows that part of the authority invested in government is citizens’ own disowned authority. Here is an example from research I am presently undertaking.1 A youth worker who had dedicated over 20 years of his life to work with young people on a poor public housing estate describes the process by which local residents became aware that there was a drug problem in the area, an issue that he had been working on without support from local parents for several years. Speaking of his first meeting with angry residents he noted, and they came and first of all they shouted at me. And I had this strange meeting with them, about 15 women, where they were all very angry . . . and it just sort of taught me how just people have to be angry because, I mean I don’t see myself as a particularly powerful figure of authority, but to them, the only way they could say these things was actually to be angry. He continued, I was hauled before a meeting of about 80 people, and they just sort of lashed into me as being this fucking middle class wanker who liked arts and didn’t fucking understand things and heroin users everywhere and I’d been the youth worker and, you know, what the hell was I doing about it . . . It was very difficult those meetings, I had somebody

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standing up and shouting at me about how appalling I was with kids, and her kids were the two most difficult kids we had here at the time, and I couldn’t say ‘But . . . these two have been doing these things, and I have had to go around your house several times’. As a public official this man was aware that part of his role was to accept the angry projections of these local residents and to survive them without retaliation. This he did and he noted that sometimes angry residents would approach him at the end of the meeting to ask him if he was alright. And because he survived these attacks he gained their respect and from this basis he was able to work with local people to help them set up a range of initiatives to tackle the problem – one of his most angry critics is now one of his most trusted members of staff. Here then we can see the process whereby a local community begins to reclaim its own authority, no longer seeing drug users and dealers as somebody else’s problem, somebody towards whom they could express callous indifference. To the extent that troubled children or adults are seen as someone ‘other’ to ourselves, part of the foundation underlying social solidarity is destroyed. As Baldwin (1990) noted, what fosters solidarity is a common experience of vulnerability, ‘a sense of community is encouraged, most simply, in the face of universally shared risk’ (p. 34). In contrast, in the UK at least, for several decades this notion of ‘shared fate’ has been eclipsed by a collusion between governments and citizens which says ‘they’ (i.e. the government) must do something about this – child sexual abuse, the neglect of people with chronic mental health problems, the old and alone, the containment of uncontained children, etc. The systemic and relational dimensions of such social problems become obscured. Public officials get caught up in the bad faith which surrounds such issues, a bad faith which, for instance, wills the ends without willing the means. So splitting processes also attack the actual patterns of interdependency which constitute a welfare society – splitting self as funder of public services (taxpayer) from self as user of these services; self as service user from ‘other’ as service provider. The public sector is founded upon ambivalence and it is because of this ambivalence that the struggle to defend, let alone extend, this form of government and citizenship has been so difficult. To the extent that governments collude with the self-alienation of their citizens they take on themselves a series of impossible tasks (such as the protection of vulnerable people from abuse) in which failure is inevitable. The collusion is based upon an implicit contract, one with echoes of the ‘contract of mutual indifference’ that Norman Geras has described (Geras, 1998). Through this contract government derives some of its legitimacy by not confronting citizens with issues they would prefer not to think about
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(e.g. citizens’ contempt for their own vulnerability, a contempt which fuels a willingness to exploit or neglect vulnerable others, of which child or elder abuse is just one manifestation). As a consequence of such failures of political leadership (Alford, 1994) the hapless public official becomes the whipping horse, the one who can be blamed for things that neither citizens nor governments will properly address. To summarize, ambivalence is an inherent dimension of the social relations of welfare and, to the extent that this remains culturally unaccepted and unassimilated, we become alienated from the shadow side of our shared subjectivity. One of the functions of public bureaucracies is to ‘contain’ these disowned aspects of our subjectivity. This occurs literally and concretely in the physical institutions that many children and elderly people end up in, and symbolically and psychologically through the projected social anxieties that become part of the emotional labour of health workers, teachers, probation officers and other street-level bureaucrats. The issue is: how are these things to be contained? So long as this contract of mutual indifference is maintained the potential exists for public officials to abuse the authority which is projected into them so that the weakness of the citizen becomes the power of government. According to Bion, ‘the link between one mind and another that leads to destruction of both is the lie’ (1970: 104). Such collusion offers a parasitic form of containment which leads to the impoverishment of both citizens and government. In contrast, an encounter which leads to the mutual enrichment of both parties requires a commitment to truth and therefore an acknowledgement by each party of that which they might otherwise disavow. The image of the virtuous citizen faced with an indifferent or interfering government is as much a lie as the image of responsible and altruistic government. Only by recognizing the bad within the good is it possible for an encounter which is realistic and relatively free from the myopia of wholly individualistic (citizen good, government bad) or collectivistic (citizen bad, government good) ideologies. For public officials, like the youth worker in our study, this means accepting the dilemmas and paradoxes of the job whilst retaining a sense of one’s own authority. In this way citizens can clear a path through their own projections and then really make use of what is available (in Winnicott’s, 1971, terms, this is the journey from ‘object relating’ or relating by identifications to ‘object usage’).

The ethical bureaucrat
My argument has been that it is the fate of the public official, broadly conceived to include all those whose job involves some degree of discretion
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within the welfare state, to have to contain the unresolved (and at times suppressed) value conflicts and moral ambivalence of society. Far from the picture of the rule-bound bureaucrat who slavishly follows procedure, the public official lives out the contradictions of the complex and diverse society in which s/he lives on a day-to-day basis and, as a consequence, is pulled this way and that in what Bonnie Honig calls ‘dilemmatic space’ (Honig, 1996). Honig draws on the work of the moral philosopher Bernard Williams (1973, 1981) who is keenly aware of the incommensurable nature of human values. Things just don’t fit together as we would like them to, values rub up against each other, the moral agent has to live with conflicts that cannot easily be resolved and simply have to be lived with. You have to end up disappointing someone. Williams argues that in such situations there is often no right thing to do, all we can do is ‘act for the best’ (Williams, 1973: 173). This is exemplified by the working lives of public officials and corresponds to what Lipsky described as ‘the assaults on the ego which the structure of street level work normally delivers’ (1980: 152). There are two categories of dilemma which correspond to my two characterizations of government – as the embodiment of an inherently conflictual and an inherently alienated public. In the first, the public official seeks to act impartially (‘acting for the best’) in the face of competing claims (care versus justice, the individual case versus the greater good, consistency versus responsiveness, and so on). Susan Mendus (2000) notes that we are in the terrain not just of pluralism but also of the impossibility of harmonious reconciliation in which the agent is not exempt from the authority of the claim they choose to neglect. As she puts it, such situations are characterized by ‘pluralism, plus conflict, plus loss’ (Mendus, 2000: 117). For public officials it is loss which is experienced as failure. It is as if they internalize the flaws and faults of reality and make them their own thereby taking on responsibility for what is irreconcilable in their world. The second category of dilemma is the consequence of ambivalence, and specifically the inability of the other to contain their own ambivalence. Michael Feldman (1989) suggests that where X deals with ambivalence by projecting it into Y the consequence is that Y is put in a ‘no win’ or ‘damned if I do and damned if I don’t’ situation. Social workers, trapped between the rights of the family and the needs of the child, know such situations only too well. In contrast, then, to the heroic view of many contemporary writers on management (a group Du Gay, 2000, refers to as the ‘new charismatics’), a view which stresses change-embracing, go-for-it, visionary types, the view of the public official and manager offered here is in the best traditions of tragedy. The merit of such a view is that it deals with reality rather than

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make-believe. It is not pessimistic. If only we could abandon the chimerical pursuit of ‘excellence’ or ‘total quality’ we could focus our energies on creating systems of welfare and governance which were ‘good enough’ (Williams, 2000) – something we are presently far from achieving, either in Britain or elsewhere. I couldn’t put it better than a doctoral student of mine who is also a senior public manager: I have seen ethical responsibility as being closely associated with the public service ethos. There is a persistent argument that accompanying the role of the public services manager are duties of care about facts and proper process, duties of balance in argument, and duties of balance in advice. I have understood in my working life that the manager gives expression to the ethos through dealing with people in terms of care, diligence, courtesy and integrity. The public service ethos is best perceived through the quality of these face to face relationships, through processes as much as results. (Watts, personal communication, 2003)

Consulting to public organizations: Revisiting the concept of ‘primary task’
To recapitulate, in contrast to private, for-profit organizations, organizations of the public sphere perform a number of functions which link them directly to the ethical and emotional lives of citizens. This adds to their complexity as unique moral institutions where questions of technical efficacy (‘what works’) can be integrated with value questions. It follows that to work as a manager, consultant or change agent in such organizations one needs tools and capacities which can meet the challenge of this complexity. The concept of an organization’s ‘primary task’ has enjoyed a powerful hold on the imagination of consultants working within the Group Relations tradition which emerged from the work of the Tavistock Insititute in the 1950s. Yet the concept draws strongly upon classical functionalist approaches to systems theory which have been abandoned long ago in organizational research. A functionalist perspective conceives of any particular system as having its own goals or needs – typically some combination of equilibrium, adaptation and survival. But organizations per se do not have needs, nor goals or primary tasks for that matter; to believe that they do is simply to buy in to the dominant definition of what a particular organization is all about, a definition which is the outcome of particular relations of power.

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As the first section of this article argued, this is particularly true for public organizations, whether they are housing associations, children’s homes or primary care teams. Anyone who spends even a short time in such organizations cannot but be struck by the different views of the aims of the organization. It’s not just that the views of professionals will often differ to those of managers, service users and their advocates, nor even that many differences of view will exist within the ranks of the professionals themselves but those who have the formal authority to define policy (politicians, senior civil servants, inspectors and regulators, academics) constantly change their views as well. Within the public sphere definitions of purpose are constantly and necessarily contested, and, as Obholzer (2003) has recently suggested, it therefore makes more sense to speak of the contested primary task. Indeed, referring back to the first part of this article, it makes more sense to ask the members of a team or organization what are the primary dilemmas that they face and how can they negotiate a way forward through these dilemmas. In doing so we take the actual work of the organization, and its need to do this work efficiently and effectively, more seriously than if we fall back on some simple (and value loaded) idea that, for example, the primary task of the hospital is to care for the patients within its walls. Such simple nostrums actually demean the complexity of the tasks facing members of these organizations. To say that in human service organizations questions concerning tasks, priorities, objectives, etc. are constantly contested is to say that within such organizations questions of value are primary. I disagree strongly with the view, expressed recently for example by Chapman (2003), that the primary task is ‘relatively value-free’. In the face of this complexity the notion of ‘a primary task’ can seem not only simplistic but potentially destructive. Indeed, as I’ve suggested in the discussion of ambivalence in the second part of this article, one of the roles of public organizations sometimes is to take on impossible tasks. Contrary to the belief that the primary task is the task the organization must perform if the organization is to survive, if we follow the logic of the ‘impossible task’ we begin to realize that it is in the nature of some public organizations that they will be seen to fail, indeed it is necessary for them to fail if governments and citizens are to sustain their own sense of inner security.

Organizational survival and organizational development
The concept of primary task can also lead us to a dangerous blurring of the distinction, crucial to human service organizations, between survival and development (Armstrong, 1999). Within the private sector the market is the
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ultimate arbitrator of organizational survival, if there is no market for an organization’s product then it will not survive even if its product has considerable value to society. Conversely, if there is a market for the product then the organization will survive even if that product, like tobacco or junk food, is destructive of value in society. The same does not hold for public organizations, they only have legitimacy to the extent that what they do has public value. Within the public sector, therefore, it is not organizational survival per se that matters, it is the survival of the organization’s public value that counts. This was indicated clearly in recent research undertaken by Steele and her colleagues. They found that whereas private sector managers ranked ‘the prosperity of their organization’ as their primary goal, public sector managers cited their desire to ‘benefit the community’ (Steele, 1999). For managers and staff in public organizations it is this wider purpose which is the basis for their commitment and if that sense of wider purpose is destroyed then their commitment is undermined no matter how successful their organization (hospital, school, etc.) is in business terms. For public organizations the crucial question is not what it must do to survive but what it must do to survive with value, that is, as a place which can contribute to the development of the ethical and moral capacities of the communities that it serves. When an organization’s capacity for development is at risk what we mean is that its capacity to exist as a place with value is now in doubt. We speak, more perceptively than we know, of workers becoming de-moralized, that is, of losing a sense of value. These are the stakes that have been played for over the last two decades in the British welfare state. There were many things wrong with the old welfare state, not the least the way in which it disempowered the recipients of its services and programmes. But despite its faults it was at least able to keep in mind something of the complexity of the subjects that it dealt with. Compare, for example, the multidimensionality of the idea of ‘the patient’ with the unidimensional concept of ‘the consumer’, a ‘part-object’ to the institution as Armstrong (1999) put it. It is an old phrase now but worth remembering – markets tell you the price of everything and the value of nothing. The root of the crises which have affected many organizations in the public sphere over the last decade can be described as the abandonment of development for survival or short-term performativity, something experienced by many staff in terms of the feeling that their organization no longer stands for the values and principles which originally attracted them to it. We must make an additional distinction paralleling the one above, namely the distinction between task and purpose, means and ends. The concept of purpose is one saturated with value, that is, with a sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong for me/my organization to be doing. If a group or organization is to provide a facilitating environment for
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development to occur it must have a sense of purpose. I have in mind an agreement which is temporary and understood as such by all parties who subscribe to it. This purpose is necessarily ambiguous otherwise agreement could never be reached. The point is that parties accept this ambiguity or lack of consistency for it is this which provides each with the possibility of infusing the organization’s purpose with personal meaning and it is this which provides the creative space for further development and continuing dialogue, a theme picked up in Obholzer’s ‘Afterword’ to The unconscious at work (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). Such temporary definitions of purpose are therefore fictions (Hoggett, 2000) which serve to bind the group together and contain differences without crushing them. Such fictions are necessary illusions in Winnicott’s sense, illusions which enable the organization to traverse the transitional space between the ‘what is’ and the ‘what might be’. They therefore provide a means of sustaining direction and commitment for organizations operating in the fundamentally contested realm of public life. A group or organization with a strong sense of purpose has an inner confidence which is to be contrasted with the noisy declamations of those who, having lost all sense of purpose long ago, adopt the lapel-badge approach to values by bedecking themselves with Mission Statements, Chartermarks, Investors in People awards and so on. In this way values themselves become reduced to an element of strategy, something an organization uses to position itself in the marketplace (Greer & Hoggett, 1999). If we are to abandon the idea of there being a primary task in complex public organizations then it follows that consultants to human service organizations cannot easily make judgements about behaviour which is ‘offtask’ and irrational in some way. Moreover, there is a danger that irrationality is only seen in its negative and destructive guise. Bion’s ‘basic assumptions’ also fuel Work Group activity (Bion, 1961); magic, omnipotence, illusion and splitting can and are frequently put to constructive use in organizations. The creative uses of irrationality are as important as the destructive ones. What can be observed and confronted are those situations in which members of an organization behave in ways which counter the organization’s agreed purpose, where such agreement has been reached.

Sensing and making sense
So, if we strip away the device of the primary task what equipment is the consultant left with to navigate the unconscious currents of the organization’s psyche? How does the consultant get a sense of ‘what’s going on here?’ Sometimes the consultant learns from what people say, perhaps particularly from those whose powerlessness has until now denied them a voice with which to
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speak. But words are fickle things designed, as Bion noted, as much for the purpose of dissimulation as communication. Thus the usefulness of imagery and many consultants nowadays use imagery (pictures, sculptures, dreams, etc.) and the process of free-associating to imagery as a means of taking organizational participants beyond discourse. The consultant can also resort to her own experience of the emotional life of the group or organization. As an outsider, the consultant dips into the emotional medium of the organization, this is a medium in which organizational participants are so immersed that they have almost no cognizance of its existence. As Armstrong (2004) notes, a crucial aspect of this medium is what might be called the ‘primary process’ of the public organization – that is, the emotional work it unconsciously performs for the rest of society – keeping death at bay, managing vulnerability, containing madness or violence, and so on. To tune into this medium the consultant must be able to use the equivalent of the counter-transference and become aware of the feelings and sensations which they become recipients of as they work with the group or organization. But openness to such experience is only part of the story, sense must then be made of it. How is this to be done? There is a danger that consultants and researchers inspired by psychoanalytic perspectives come to rely so much upon their subjective experience and their own interpretation of this that they can become guilty of a kind of ‘wild analysis’, one which pathologizes the organization whilst leaving the consultant/researcher on a moral ‘high horse’. To guard against this it is vital that interpretation, the process of sense-making, is shared with the subject of analysis and/or with a supervisor or peer group (Skogstad, 2004). A number of contemporary models of organizational research, particularly those inspired by feminist methodologies, give emphasis to interactive approaches to sense-making which recognize the plurality of meanings which, within complex organizations, a shared experience can obtain. As Armstrong (1999: 151) notes, ‘I do not see dreams as containers of meaning – a puzzle to be solved once and for all; but rather as containers for meaning; available narratives through which we negotiate and seek formulation for the emotional experiences we register.’ The consultant therefore seeks to engender dialogues in which different meanings can be shared, knowing full well that no ‘higher truth’ will necessarily emerge or, if it does, knowing that the certainty that it briefly offers will soon be submerged.

A double reflexivity
Effective consultancy requires a double reflexivity, to one’s own emotional experience of the collective organizational unconscious and to the nature of
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one’s agency within the dynamic field of forces at play in any organizational setting. Whilst mainstream social science is conversant with the latter it is still largely ignorant of the former. If the Group Relations perspective is to emerge from the margins into the mainstream it must begin to demonstrate a much stronger appreciation of the interpenetration of the realm of the emotions and unconscious and the realm of power and politics. To summarize, for public organizations the search for an organization’s primary task is both misleading and fruitless. Such organizations have multiple tasks which are often in contradiction; they are certainly beset by conflicting notions of what they should be doing and, far from task achievement being necessary for survival, for some organizations, paradoxically, it is important that they fail in order to maintain their contested legitimacy by serving the public’s unresolved ambivalence. Working in, leading, managing and consulting to public organizations presents a set of challenges which are specific to the public nature of such organizations. Yet dominant models of work, leadership, management and consulting draw upon perspectives and experiences developed within forprofit organizations. Organizations are not all the same. Within the public sphere working life is akin to a dilemmatic space in which leaders need to draw upon tragic rather than heroic models of agency and consultants need to be aware both of the hidden emotional dimension of the group’s work and the continually contested nature of the group’s task.

Note
1 This is an ESRC-funded research project called ‘Negotiating Ethical Dilemmas in Contested Communities’, reference number RES-000-23-0127.

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Paul Hoggett (BA) is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for Psycho-Social Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol. He is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and has a longstanding interest in the role of unconscious and affective forces in organizational and political life and is co-editor of the journal Organizational and Social Dynamics. He has over 20 years’ experience researching welfare change and the politics of community life for funders such as the ESRC, the Home Office and the European Foundation. His books include Partisans in an uncertain world (Free Association Books, 1992) and Emotional life and the politics of welfare (Macmillan, 2000). [E-mail: paul.hoggett@uwe.ac.uk]

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