The Corruption of System Purpose

As many people have noted, the purpose of a complex adaptive system is what it does (its dynamic process of evolution), not what it says it does (its marketing). Over time, what a system does changes in many ways.

All support and rights systems have two missions:

  • Why the system was created (usually called The Mission).
  • Survival (keeping the “doors open”, if that metaphor still means something during a pandemic).

The evolution of the system over the near-term tracks the evolving relationship between these two forces:

  • In the early part of that evolution, especially in small nonprofits, there is a hard learning curve about why you have to pay attention to money when you become part of the organization because of that attractive advocacy mission. The “shock of funding realities” causes the system to be shy of making financial mistakes and gradually erodes the place of The Mission as the foremost force in system evolution.
  • Ways of buffering the system begin to be developed, largely driven by this anxiety about resources. Resources, that might have been used for mission-critical activities, are used (or invested) in protection of the system from dissolution. For a benign example, the creation of a reserve, to deal with the reality of slow funders and grant based support, is a common way to buffer the system.
  • Because it is the managers of the system who are anxious about being blamed for financial failures, keeping the doors open gradually replaces The Mission as the field within which managers create their plans and cognitive/emotional priorities.
  • Along with this dominance of focus on resources, there is inevitably some external cycle of funding gain and loss which creates pressure to have ongoing administrative controls to preserve funds by reducing the cost of The Mission. The usual rubric for this is “efficiency”. Thus, the expansion of administrative/managerial control over the priorities of The Mission gradually leads to expanding the scope and detail of administrative actions as a proportion of the total activities of the system. In other words, bureaucracy expands over time, and is justified by the highest priority of being “efficient”.  This is interesting moral choice since bureaucracy keeps expanding and costing more as this process evolves. In and of itself, bureaucracy contributes nothing to the direct fulfillment of The Mission. The justification for this expansion is always the protection of The Mission as the outward marketing face of the system’s self- protection.
  • It is important to note that the resources used to preserve the system are taken directly from funds that could have been used for The Mission. This process of removing resources from direct support of The Mission to preservation of the system is an example of the  classic “moral hazard” found as part of economic activity. In this case, the risk taken by the managers is to The Mission. As time goes on, all governance aspects of the system face this moral hazard. Though not universal, it is common for the management and governance processes of the system to stop thinking about the Mission and assume that their decisions are automatically supportive of The Mission.
  • I call this process corrupting. This is not simple criminal or moral corruption, like bribery or embezzlement. The corrupting force is in the head of every person who makes decisions about the use of resources, which is everyone, including employees. How far the corruption evolves is unique to the system dynamic over time, and is fractal.
  • Fractal simply means that all decisions regardless of level in the system support or impede the corruption. Notably, this includes decisions made for political gain.
  • There need not be a high level of corruption for this evolution to profoundly affect the system. My observation of small nonprofits over the last half-century, suggests to me that a level of 5% in corrupt transactions means that all transactions in the system are tainted, even though the 95% are not corrupt, or not done by people who are behaving corruptly. Typically, if both explicit and implicit bureaucracy are included, the minimum of such corruption can be estimated at 15%.
  • Note that there is no simple, easy solution to this corruption process. Instead, reflection on the impact of financial bureaucratization on The Mission must be embraced as the highest priority for governance and management. It almost never is. Even when it is embraced, bureaucracy is tuned to prevent meaningful impact by such reform.

The reality of corruption of Purpose has powerful lessons for the practice of advocacy, as I suspect most readers already know. But there is another layer to this corruption that evolves in large systems of support for people with disabilities and we need to understand how it evolves to truly understand the implications for our advocacy in the face of such corruption.

Next Time: The Dark Triad of System Evolution

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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