Rekindling Hope in Public Services
Chris Naylor writing at The King’s Fund – In the late 1960s the psychologist Martin Seligman made a name for himself by exploring how animals respond to the experience of powerlessness. His research involved delivering electric shocks to dogs in a series of carefully constructed experiments. He found that when the dogs had no control over what happened to them, over time they became passive and stopped trying to avoid the shock. In subsequent tests they did not attempt to stop the electricity, even when given the power to do so.
Seligman coined the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe their condition. Seligman believed that people, too, could have their sense of agency diminished through repeated exposure to negative outcomes seemingly beyond their control. Talking to people working in public services, I have sometimes heard the term ‘professional fatalism’ used to capture a similar idea – the notion that over time, confronted by complex or chronic problems that are not amenable to a simple solution, and working in systems that are often ill-equipped to support people with these kinds of challenges, it can be hard for staff to hold onto the belief that better outcomes are possible. A parallel process can take place for the people and communities they work with, who may experience similar feelings of powerlessness.
In the face of this challenge, it strikes me that several of the most compelling examples of public service reform we have examined in recent research at The King’s Fund share a focus on giving frontline professionals more control over their work and cultivating positive beliefs about the capacity of staff and service users to bring about change. Take this quote from a social care professional we interviewed as part of our research in Wigan: