Bureaucracy and Ethics

bureaucracy #2I was doing a telephone interview for a client this morning and my interviewee, let’s call them Ali, said something that made me stop and think. Ali had spent around 35 years working for local government and was talking about the devastation of public service budgets in the UK which has left some local areas with no services for those in need of support as a result of mental health problems, domestic violence, chronic illness, and so on.

“People are seeing a need,” Ali told me, “and setting up projects in neighbourhoods to help each other. But they’re quite naïve. They don’t understand the need for proper health and safety procedures, DBS checks, and compliance with other statutory regulations.”

What I wanted to say to Ali, but didn’t because I was being a professional interviewer at the time, was that I don’t understand the need for those things either. This reminded me about the Casserole Club, set up by the UK coalition Government in 2011, the idea being that those who were able to cook an extra plate of food could share it with a hungry lonely person nearby. What a great idea, I thought, and went to check it out. I found that I needed to fill in a lengthy application form, pass a food hygiene test – and, yes, have a DBS check to confirm that I have no criminal record.

After my grandma died, my 88-year-old grandfather struck a deal with a nearby neighbour to bring him a plate of dinner every evening. He paid for the ingredients but she cooked the food and brought it round with love, for four years until he also died. She didn’t fill in an application form, pass an exam, or interact with bureaucracy in any way; she just did what her neighbour needed, and he contributed what he could.

I didn’t join in with the Casserole Club. I was put off by the bureaucracy. I was also a little bit ashamed of myself for being deterred by having to fill in a few forms and take a test – but nevertheless that was the case. The Club appears to have fizzled out at a national level and many local levels too – the most recent posts on the national Facebook page and on the page from my locality are dated 2015 – and I wonder how much of a role bureaucracy played in that failure.

I think bureaucracy is often counter-productive. Yesterday I was teaching ‘Ethical Thinking and Decision-Making In Practice’ to doctoral students at the University of Manchester. Several students spoke of their concerns about the system of ethical approval at UK universities. As they talked, I could see that they viewed ethics as a barrier to get around, a hurdle to jump, a bureaucratic obstruction to their research. I feel sad that our ethical governance systems have moved so far from helping researchers to work more ethically. They seem all about compliance and policing, and not at all about raising ethical standards or improving ethical practice.

I’m not advocating total anarchy; researchers certainly need to operate within the laws of the country or countries where we work, and I believe we should act as ethically as we can. But it seems to me that for researchers to be more ethical, we need less regulation and more education.

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2 thoughts on “Bureaucracy and Ethics

  1. [Comment emailed to me for posting as commenter having difficulty commenting here]

    Thanks, Helen, for highlighting the counterproductive effects of many regulations.

    Research ethics requirements have been subject to devastating criticisms. Carl E. Schneider, The Censor’s Hand: The Misregulation of Human-Subject Research (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015) examined the system of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), the US equivalent of research ethics review processes. Based on a careful analysis, he concludes, “Researchers have been disposed to suffer accustomed evils, but the lawless and unaccountable IRB system’s long train of abuses and usurpations has grown despotic and destructive. It cannot show it does good, but it demonstrably costs lives, health, and welfare. It is built to err: Its method is improvident. It gives amateurs tasks beyond their competence and workloads beyond their capacity. It lacks a legible and convincing ethics, cogent and convincing regulations, and effective and fair procedures. It overtaxes informed consent. It corrodes free expression and academic inquiry. A system so fundamentally misconceived creates evils that can only be righted by abolishing the forms to which we are accustomed.” (p. 185)

    Other incisive critiques of research ethics review include Zachary M. Schrag, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) and Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Seduction of Ethics: Transforming the Social Sciences (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

    There are also critiques of regulations in other fields, for example business.

    Brian Martin, http://www.bmartin.cc/


  2. Thanks Brian for your thoughtful and informative comment – and for persevering in the face of such difficulty! Chapter 4 of my own book on research ethics gives another critique of these requirements. I cite Schrag and van den Hoonaard, among others, though not Schneider because I didn’t know his work. Thanks for bringing it to my attention; I’ll make a note in my ‘second edition’ folder. Much appreciated.


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