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Generally Recognized As True: Theodore Dalrymple on Bureaucracy

Friday, August 04, 2017

Theodore Dalrymple on Bureaucracy

The latest work by the erudite Theodore Dalrymple - The Knife Went In - summarizes the ease with which bureaucracy proliferates in comparison with the higher standard applied to work of a more technical nature, and suggests one possible reason that this is sometimes the case.

In this section, he recalls an occasion from his work as a doctor and psychiatrist within the British prison system:

[...] There was an all too evident distinction made between the ‘scientific’ rigour with which the value of [technical] work was assessed, and the dubious standard which was used to assess that of the proliferating and vastly more expensive administrative procedures introduced almost daily into the service.
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New procedures mean new forms. These are invariably longer and more inclusive than the old, because more information is always better than less. Information-gathering is the process that will solve any problem, so that for every problem there is an apposite form. It doesn’t exactly do anything about it, but it shows you have done something. Belief in forms is to us what belief in rain-makers was to African tribes subject to drought.

During my time, the Prison Service became worried about the numbers of suicides in prison — or rather about the publicity given to the numbers of suicides in prison at the time. It therefore decreed the use of a new form to be filled out on every prisoner thought by any member of staff to be suicidal or potentially suicidal.
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The form was of such complexity that it would rarely be filled out correctly (which, as I shall explain, I came to see as its main virtue and purpose in the eyes of those who devised it). I recall being trained in its use by an officer who had himself been trained in its use and proselytised it with the zeal of a convert. [...] I knew the officer concerned to have been a perfectly reasonable, and even cynical, human being before his conversion. Give a man something absurd to do which he cannot avoid and he will soon become enthusiastic about it.
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Much of the prison officers’ time was now occupied by filling out these forms. There was, of course, no guarantee that they filled them honestly: if you can’t trust a man to do his best, you can’t trust him to follow procedure honestly. The last suicide in the prison before my retirement occurred was when there was a much reduced staff in the prison. Everyone else was away at a ‘suicide awareness training’.
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Some time after the form was introduced, I was called to the coroner’s court to give evidence on a prisoner who had hanged himself. [...] The barrister for the family, a young man, rose to question me. It was his aim to make the man’s death everyone’s fault but his own. ‘It’s true, isn’t it, doctor,’ he asked in a tone of menacingly unctuous politeness, ‘the 20/52 SH [the designation of the form, SH standing for Self-Harm] was not filled out correctly?’ The implication was that, if it had been filled out correctly, naturally the man would not have died.

‘Yes, it is true,’ I replied (though not actually knowing whether or not it had been filled incorrectly), ‘but it is also true that the suicide rate in prisons has risen since its introduction.’

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