Saturday, May 10, 2008

The DI: A public service everyman?

"By the book Regan!"
"But Guv - I get results!"
When I'm trying to relax, I'm like a lot of people. I often do it watching a generic detective story on TV, or by reading a similarly-themed novel. And like good generic fiction, most of the embellishments simply mask the same story. The One Who Gets Results doing it in the face of opposition – not only from the bad guys, but from the bureaucrats who make the rules. The conspiracy of careerists.

Transpose this onto DI Frost's relationship with 'Mr Mullet', Morse (Thaw again) and his relationship both with his aspiring exam-sitting Sergeant and his time-serving boss. Or Lynda LaPlante's DI Tennyson. And, of course, the apotheosis of the driven DI: Ian Rankin's now-retired Rebus.

These characters are all, of course, flawed. They all have their own shortcomings. Morse is unable to form relationships. Tennyson has sacrificed her womanhood (the plot implies) to compete in a man's world – and she ends it as a lonely semi-disgraced drunk. Frost is 'a prat', widowed from a loveless marriage into a lonely insensitive late-middle age. And Rebus is all of these things.

They all detest authority. They are all regularly the targets of public-sector office politics. They're all cynical. Rebus confesses that he hasn't voted since the 1970s. They all hate criminality with a perspective that is lost in the kind of sentencing guidelines that let child-rapists walk after a few harmonious months in an open nick. They're all gloriously good at their jobs. They are all largely out of control. They are all utterly unaccountable to political structures that have only one concern: That the occasional cock-ups that are caused by pragmatic professional 'do-ers' must never land on the doorsteps of senior managers and politicians.

It's worth noticing that these characters are also nostalgic throwbacks. Reminders of a pre-modern age when men were men. Before political correctness went mad. Gene Hunt is also a DI. And in Life on Mars, Sam Tyler ultimately chooses the freebooting 1970s to the uptight present day.

But there is more to it than that. They are a very British phenomenon. They're more complex and humane than the American Dirty "I'm all broke up inside about your rights" Harry. And they are all the antithesis of the right-wing fantasy of the lazy, unproductive, self serving public employee. They are largely immune to the blandishments of promotion or pay-rises. They do what they do because they are driven by it. They will never simply shift professions because the pay or the package is better. And like teachers who know what they are doing, they make a nonsense of all management systems that attempt to emulate the market.

(I could digress again into football management: Wouldn't you prefer to have the fantastic Kevin Keegan or the late St Brian managing the team that you support more than anyone else?)

I suspect that this is part of the reason for the success of this particular narrative line. Millions of people – alienated from the contribution that they make to society – still need to believe that they are doing a good job – in spite of the tedious brainless mechanisms that they are forced to keep cranking. The Key Performance Indicators, the Quality Assurance, the Prince 2 Methodology, the stupid 'compliance' and arse-covering that fuels the Peter Principle of public service: The principle that lions must always be led by donkeys. The principle that people do what they're supposed to do in spite of what they are told to do.

It is worth acknowledging here that the decline in the autonomy of professionals has similar causes to the increasing centralisation of political power. But I digress.

Everywhere, teachers, social workers, those who work in the caring professions, the charities, local government, community workers, and so on, watch Frost, Regan and Morse. And they watch them partly for affirmation. They take Rebus to the beach, and they return to work resigned to the permanent battle with a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Resigned to a world in which pointless box-ticking managerialist clones are valued infinitely more highly than the people who actually do something.

I'm tempted to conclude that Rebus and Frost are heroes because they make most of us heroes. They open up a social division that is masked by political differences between left and right, or even the divisions of class and ethnicity. It's there even in the difference between the successful wheeler-dealer and the £200k-a-year twat with an MBA. But most of all, it represents a bubbling under of resentment – fully justified – of the way that it is assumed that top-down management, obsessive lines of accountability, and the imposition of inappropriate 'market' mechanisms can improve the quality of public service.

Where the caring conviction professional is subordinated to a system that believes that professionalism is an entirely transferable skill.

It reassures me that there is an overwhelming need for the development of a public service movement – one that is distinct from either the short-term material demands of the people who work in the public sector, and one that is distinct from the kind of public service that attempts to mimic the market.

One final point: It's tempting – with all this talk of managerial depravity – to be pessimistic about the quality of public service. But – as I've argued in other contexts where there is a widespread perception of decline (democracy and liberty) prominent setbacks mask a general trajectory of improvement.

My first teacher – when I was at primary school – is also a close friend of our family. She is a leftish catholic working-class Glaswegian who grew up in the 1940s and 50s. In the early 1970s, I'm told, she threatened to walk out of her job when her headmaster suggested that a policeman should visit the school to talk to the kids. I know that black professionals in London often reacted in a similar way in the 1980s and 1990s. But I think that the police are now fairly widely trusted in a way that they weren't then. And I'd also accept that this is partly the result of politician-imposed accountability.

So you could, perhaps, conclude that I'm arguing two contradictory positions here: Anti-managerialist, and high-accountability?

Maybe you'd be right. And that is where a popular culture of disrespect keeps the politicians and the managerialists on their toes. If the public continue to be cynical, perhaps managerialism will eventually give way to a more convincing public service ethos?

As usual, it's a case of two-steps-forward-one-step-back. In the meantime, keep reading Rebus. Build the anger. Because tomorrow belongs to us!

1 comment:

Mike said...

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