After reading about an unfortunate mess at a nearby school, I am left feeling that the basic prescription for today's messes — that is, more policy and procedure — is not enough, nor practical.
A March 24 article in the Seattle Times reports, “Probe Finds Missteps by Lowell Principal.” Principal Gregory King and Assistant Principal Rina Geoghagan have been officially reprimanded for failing to properly report and investigate an incident in which an instructional assistant is alleged to have kissed a student’s foot.
Leaving aside the oddity of foot-kissing, there were two things about the long and tortured report which caught my attention. First, the actual results of a year-long special investigation by attorney Cristin Kent seem somehow incidental to the whole thing. In the last sentence of the third paragraph we read, “The investigation found no foot kissing actually occurred."
Still, the article continues for another 30 paragraphs regarding the investigation, the reprimands, the person who brought the allegation, and the need for more thorough procedures and additional training.
Such allegations do, of course, need to be looked into. But the investigation and subsequent turmoil seem oddly out of proportion to the single telling sentence — “the investigation found no foot kissing actually occurred.” This judgment pales to invisibility compared to all the fallout and subsequent community uproar. Truly, if there were ever such a thing as, to put it in Shakespeare's words, "Much ado about nothing," this would be it.
The second thing that caught my attention is the report that the administrators in question, one of whom had a job offer in Tacoma withdrawn because of the investigation, would be sent for more training. Not only that, but the school officials themselves acknowledged the need for more and better policies with respect to such matters.
The overall level of anxiety and the recourse to more training and more policies and procedures brought to mind the book, The Death of Common Sense, by attorney Phillip K. Howard. First published in 1994, it is now out in a new and revised 2011 edition.
Howard makes the argument that in the decades since World War II, “We have constructed [in America] a system of regulatory law that basically outlaws common sense." He observes that, "Modern law, in an effort to be self-executing, has shut out humanity.”
Howard’s point is that we keep trying to write procedures, policies and regulations so extensive that they will, one, cover every possible contingency, and two, rule out the need for human judgement. So Seattle Schools’ response to an allegation that proved without basis is more training, more procedures, better and more extensive policies. And who can blame them? These days it is our answer to everything. Got an issue? A concern? Develop a law, regulation, policy, or procedure. Send people for more training. Problem solved.
However, Howard suggests a different answer. “Sensible government requires officials [in this instance, a school principal] to make judgments . . . not to mindlessly comply with rigid mandates.”
The key word there is judgment. You can’t really avoid human beings making judgments about what is correct, necessary, and wise. But we try. Nor should we want a world in which people are not expected to make sound judgments. Yet, we create ever more extensive laws, policies, and procedures in an effort to not have to count on people to make reasonable and intelligent judgments.
But is that really possible? Is it even wise? And is it working?
Howard argues that we labor under the false assumption that law should be as detailed as possible. He proposes a different path: to move away from the ever thickening thicket of policy and procedure to “Radically simplify law, leaving room for real people to take responsibility.”
One curious upshot of this recourse to more detailed law, more policy, and more procedure is that personal responsiblity and accountablity seem to vanish. The answer we get, should we inquire, is, “Well, no one actually made the decision — it’s what the policy mandates.”
A simple example takes place in the bars of most major airports. Regardless of one’s grey hair or wrinkles everyone is carded, no exceptions. For the thirty-somethings, it may be a thrill that someone would still think they might not be 21. But they don’t, not really. The point is that no actual barkeep can be trusted to make a reasonable judgment. The rules have to be followed no matter what.
Howard terms this “the death of common sense.” If the airport bar example is trivial, others aren’t. He tells the story of Mother Teresa’s order finding a building suitable for a homeless shelter in New York City. The religious group was prepared to rehab the building and operate it at no cost to the city. But city inspectors insisted that nothing could happen in the abandoned four-story building without installation of a code mandated elevator, which would have cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. The nuns didn’t have that kind of money, so the project was abandoned. Code won; common sense lost. And no actual human being could exercise reasonable judgment.
Howard anticipates the objections to giving people, rather than policy, greater sway. “Giving people responsibility always raises the fear that someone may misuse their authority. But there’s no need to trust anyone. Protecting ourselves from mean, venal, or stupid people also has a simple requirement: are we personally accountable? To induce prudent behavior everyone needs to be at risk.” The ironic result of the triumph of procedure is that seldom is anyone really accountable.
I suspect that in many areas of life and in a host of institutions, reasonable people opt out because they discover that they aren’t allowed to exercise judgment or common sense.
Reading the saga of this sad elementary school incident that apparently never happened — the year-long investigation, the reprimands, the resignations, additional training requirements, the withdrawn job offers, the turmoil of a school community — and then the note, “the investigation found that no foot kissing actually occurred,” seems downright Kafkaesque.
It called to mind both Howard’s lament for The Death of Common Sense as well as Kafka’s own tart observation that, “Just because we believe in Progress does not mean that any progress has been made.”