On April 3rd I attended a training course for LINk members, run in Taunton by Regional Voices on behalf, we were told, of the Department of Health. The course was one of a set of five being provided for LINk members throughout England at many centres over the next few months.
Regional Voices is a consortium of fake charities that provide a way for government to lobby itself on regional issues. Their purpose is to make it appear that there is broad support for policies that have in fact been made behind closed doors — a process known in the US as “astroturfing”. The origin of that term is that what looks like “grass roots” public opinion is really a manufactured product, in the way that the artificial plastic grass marketed as AstroTurf looks just like real grass.
The term “fake charity” refers to a private company that is registered as a charity but gets most of its income from ordinary business activities and government grants. In the case of these charities, their ordinary business activities are training and consultancy. Look at the accounts of any of them and you’ll see an impenetratable tangle of grant funding that makes it impractical for anyone to find out where the money really comes from. It doesn’t come from charitable giving by ordinary members of the public, that’s certain.
Regional Voices outsourced the running of the event I attended to Disability Rights UK, a recent merger of three fake charities that has not yet published any accounts of its own.
The five training courses on offer to LINks cover:
- Enter & view
The initial invitation made it clear that there could be “no more than 2 delegates per LINk” at each event. Later on, the joining instructions said, “There are a few spaces remaining on this training course”. At the event itself the room was set out for twenty attendees. I asked one of the instructors how many people were expected and I was told ten. There were in fact just three of us.
The event was in two parts, a lecture and a workshop. There were two trainers, one who mostly ran the event and another who had travelled half the country to be there but did little more than write on the flipchart.
The lecture was based on a dozen PowerPoint slides. It approached the topic of leadership at around the level of GCSE coursework. Some famous theories of leadership were reduced to garbled bullet points, and some famous national politicians were held up as examples of leaders. None of it related in even the vaguest way to LINks.
One slide quoted US President Harry Truman (allegedly):
My definition of a leader…is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.
But another quote from Truman that wasn’t mentioned is:
I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them … that’s all the powers of the President amount to.
A perplexing slide headed “Leading self” caused quite a lot of discussion. The lead trainer felt sure that it’s important to lead yourself in the same way as you lead other people, but he couldn’t explain what he meant in a way that anyone else in the room could understand. It seemed to me that he was advocating splitting yourself in two, with one of you making the decisions and the other following blindly. He defended this idea by stating that no one is ever completely authentic. It may be that he himself really does blindly follow the plans he has previously made, no matter how badly things turn out. That would certainly explain some things about the training event.
The workshop was supposedly an Action Learning Set (ALS), although it lacked key elements of the ALS concept. For an ALS to work, the group has to be larger, it has to meet regularly, and members of the group have to take action between the meetings. Trying to do an ALS with only three people meeting once with no actions was always going to fail…and fail it did.
The ground rules for the workshop included a confidentiality agreement that would have meant none of use could report back to our LINks about the event, and I could not have written this. Challenged on this aspect of the ground rules, the lead trainer simply backed down. (This was training in Leadership, remember?)
We agreed new rules under which we can all report on everything that happened as long as we don’t mention the names of people or LINks.
The workshop was based on challenging scenarios that we had been asked to identify in advance. We didn’t have sufficient time to deal with even our three scenarios, so it was fortunate from that perspective that no one else had turned up.
One challenge concerned difficult people on the LINk’s governing body. These difficult people constantly disrupt meetings by returning again and again to the topics that interest them, refusing to discuss the real work of the LINk. The challenge was how to deal with them.
One thought was that it’s the Chair’s job to deal with these people, but in this LINk the Chair seems to lack the ability to do that. Another thought was that someone new is needed in the role of Chair.
The topics that interest these difficult people are things the LINk can do nothing about. For example, one of the topics is the number of drug and alcohol related deaths in the area. However, the LINk’s only role is to conduct Enter & View visits to the local psychiatric hospital, and PEAT inspections, both at the invitation of the hospital management. The LINk can’t do anything about drug and alcohol related deaths.
It seemed to me that the people being described as difficult may be feeling frustrated that their LINk can’t make a difference to matters of life and death, and instead takes more interest in whether the hospital curtains are clean.
The lead trainer seemed out of his depth with this challenge. He kept trying to think up instant solutions to the problem, contrary to the ALS philosophy. He never went back to the first principles of what a LINk is for, and he never referred to any of the material from his own lecture on leadership. Nothing clear emerged from the discussion, although it filled a couple of flipchart pages with ideas.
Another challenge concerned the LINk’s membership strategy, which was to recruit more young people. This LINk had no effective strategic planning, and when it did come up with a strategic goal it didn’t take action to achieve it. The challenge was how to get the LINk to plan and then act.
Again the lead trainer floundered, even though one of the bullet points in his lecture had been:
Setting direction – having a well-developed orientation towards the future
He was unable to refer back to this and relate it to the real-life problem. Much of the discussion was around the practicalities of recruiting young people, ignoring the leadership and strategy issue entirely.
The discussion became surreal when a participant stated that the term “young people” should no longer be used. Instead, we were told, we should use the word “age”. This is because calling people “young” is discriminatory.
The rest of us were flummoxed. We wondered how to use the word “age” to replace “young people”. Unfortunately the participant who raised the matter was unable to help, and simply repeated the instruction that “young people” is not to be used. After discussing several suggestions we settled on “less aged people”.
Another challenge concerned the Government’s plans to replace LINks with Healthwatch in a year’s time. This will mean that volunteers will be overloaded with work that should really be done by professionals. The challenge is how to cope.
It wasn’t clear to me that this problem is real. The Government’s plans don’t seem to say very much about volunteers, and there has been criticism that what will happen to LINk members remains uncertain. I suspected that this challenge was partly an expression of political opposition to the present Government in general, rather than a practical problem of leadership.
One suggestion was that as Healthwatch is a Government decision that can’t be changed, if it is going to have bad effects then the important thing is to limit the damage. No one could think of practical ways to limit the damage, unfortunately.
Another suggestion was that if the new Healthwatch system is going to collapse, then it would be best if collapses sooner rather than later so that it can quickly be replaced by something better. No one seemed keen on thinking about its replacement, however.
Although it is always nice to talk with other LINk members, as training this event was an utter waste of time. It was designed and delivered by people who have no more knowledge of the subject than the participants, who have considerably less knowledge of LINks, who don’t have the presentation skills to deliver a lecture with any practical impact, and who don’t have the facilitation skills to lead a discussion towards consensus.
The workshop closed with the flipchart pages containing the collected ideas for solving the challenges being given to the participants. Unfortunately I ended up with the flipchart pages for someone else’s challenge — a fitting souvenir from a useless event.