Across the Ditch - Part 5

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How does change happen?

I moved here for work, for a job where I am expected to make changes happen. I am responsible for the university’s submission to something called the Performance-Based Research Fund. It works like this:

The government is also expected to make changes happen. It wants to advance the national interest. There’s lots of disagreement about what this in fact means, but powerful people of many stripes have agreed for many decades that advancing the national interest looks like encouraging things that strengthen the economy, enhance the country’s reputation and lead to impact of various kinds. Of course, other countries are trying to do these things too, so in every decision and outcome, the government is mindful of the country’s competitiveness. No-one is entirely sure how to go about doing these things exactly, but the same powerful people are very sure that it is not the business of government to do things itself or pick winners, because this almost certainly would end up being ill-conceived, inefficient or both. Instead, the government has created ways of giving responsibility and incentive to others to come up with the answers, and has devised lots of ways to detect and measure how well they are doing, and whether the desired changes seem to be happening.

Everybody knows that one of the ways change can come about is as a consequence of research. Aside from doing teaching, and – some would argue – making a rich contribution to public life, doing research is one of the major reasons universities as institutions exist. Research is expensive to do (lots of clever people being paid a lot to be clever and do clever things) and there isn’t an obvious ‘customer’ for it, so government puts up the money. Government doesn’t know where the next research breakthrough will come from, so it hedges its bets.

Through its departments or through quasi-independent statutory bodies, government puts aside a pool of money to offer in the form of grants to specific research projects that align most closely to the strategic national interests of the day and that it calculates are likely to have the most chance of delivering measurable impact. As this is a competitive process and there are more research proposals than grants available, academics in universities spend much time and effort – often up to a year, with the assistance of a variety of administrative and advisory staff – crafting proposals that are likely to succeed. The vast majority don’t (more than 4 out of 5). As a result, being awarded a competitive grant is a major source of academic prestige in and of itself.

Aside from funding specific projects, government also provides universities each year with a block of funding en masse to do research. How much and what it can be used for depends on variously complicated formulas devised by the powerful people to ensure something called accountability. In New Zealand, this is called the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF). It’s a pool of money – currently around $300m per year – distributed to universities based on how well they do in three areas:

  • how much research income the university has been able to secure from external sources, including the competitive grants mentioned earlier
  • how many of the university’s postgraduate research students have completed their degrees; and
  • the quality of research the university has produced

The first two parts are assessed each year using formulas. The third part makes up the majority of funding and is a large-scale assessment conducted every six years through a peer-review and examination process. The next six-yearly assessment is due in 2018 and will determine how much money the university gets each year for the next six years. Preparations are already in full swing – it’s an exercise that involves over a thousand people and is worth many millions of dollars. I am of course not responsible in any meaningful way for the quality of the university’s research, but I am directly responsible for what we tell the government about it. And, indirectly, for ensuring that we tell the best version of events that we are in a position to tell.

So, to return to my original point, I have been brought into the job because of the changes it’s felt I can facilitate to how well we do at this exercise. And also, later, the changes I can facilitate to the way research information is collected, used and supported through our technology systems.

How does that kind of change happen? There is a wide body of theory and technique that sets out to answer this, variously referred to as change management. ‘Management’ is a soothing word, designed to provide assurance. It suggests a kind of planned continuity, with the avoidance of catastrophe. The core faith of those who believe in Management is that the world becomes a better place when it is managed better. Organisations – the word itself gestures towards this faith – are accordingly an attempt to overlay a rational structure over the day-to-day chaos of human endeavours (start with Max Weber on bureaucracy or Frederick Taylor on 'scientific management' if you want to see where these ideas get their modern flavour). Anyone who has worked in such an alleged ‘organisation’ will be in a position to comment on the effectiveness of this. This is not actually a criticism of organisation theory, management, or the management of change, which are all valuable and have their uses. It’s simply an observation that organisations are ultimately social phenomena – that is, they involve people – and anything that involves people is bound to be complicated, frequently unpredictable and often disrespectful of the supposed laws of rationality. This is in fact what makes it fun.

These days, we live in an utterly managed world (the Frankfurt School folk would've called it a 'totally administered society'). I’m not sure that it’s a better place as a result. In the HBO political comedy Veep, the characters’ faith in the ideal of the managed world is put under immense strain, for our entertainment. This culminates in Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan - ‘Continuity With Change’ – condensing a bookshelf of cultural critique into a perfect satirical moment and sheeting it home with the irony of a Three Word Slogan. The life-imitating-art moment that saw Malcolm Turnbull later repurpose this on the real-life campaign trail only adds spice to the critique.

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What is the heart of this critique, epitomised by ’continuity with change’? I think it’s that those who preach faith in a managed world have missed something important about the world they seek to tame – the endless capacity of the world and the people in it to surprise.

Surprise can be beautiful, or tragic, or an occasion for hundreds of other responses. But surprise in all its forms brings out in us our most human capacities. Life isn’t a managed space, and by treating surprise as a risk to be mitigated, we in effect approach the world armed with a well-intentioned category error, attempting to mute our most human capacities in an effort to make the world a more predictable place. The real tragedy is that so often, we succeed.

Is it any wonder so many people in the world are crying out for meaning? It is no accident that last year saw a reboot of Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld, reimagined in the new HBO series as a philosophical meditation on the difference between robots who seem human and humans who seem robotic. Westworld’s story takes place in an utterly managed space, and explores how people respond when something happens that shouldn’t. The show takes as its central theme the category error we’ve discussed – nominating the capacity for surprise as our most human characteristic, and referring to it wryly throughout as a ‘mistake’. Armed with this viewpoint, it asks how change happens.

If I’m writing about these things today, it’s because I’m reflecting on how my life is changing, and how that change happens. After all, the occasion for this journal is keeping a record of my move to New Zealand, but at some point I will go from being an Australian moving to New Zealand to someone living in New Zealand who is from Australia. Indeed, I think this change took place since last I wrote. How did that happen?

The short answer is – by surprise.

The experience of being here has been a kind of warming of the soul – finding new attachments and coming to life after a period of hibernation. Not that I wasn’t alive before, but in many ways I wasn’t really living. I wasn’t expecting to make this discovery, as I was quite happy with my life as it was. But then one of the major signs of not really living is not noticing that you aren't. Things are fine, and they tick away. Life is ‘sorted’, things are ‘under control’ or going 'according to plan', or other organisational metaphors. If life is a song, then living this way can be like slowly collapsing a theme into a single beat, or reducing harmony to mere unison.

Then something unexpected happens. There’s a moment of discord, possibly. Or you hear a new refrain. Suddenly you’re improvising in your new circumstances, and if you’re lucky, you and your new situation might strike a chord, or take up a new style.

Whether it’s the new job, the new home, the new environment, something else or all of the above, I’ve found a new rhythm here. I’m feeling more playful, more relaxed and more creative. I feel more like my old self, and even more like a new self I’m just getting to know. And I’m just getting started.

I don't mean to be mysterious, and I'll have more to say about the specifics another time. Today I just wanted to reflect on the feeling of change, where it comes from and why it matters.

Sometimes, all it takes for real and lasting change to happen is making the right mistake.