Monday, June 5, 2017

"Most trusted" - except, perhaps, by many of their own people

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 2.)

I recently wrote a column in this space about the St John Ambulance organisation. It was prompted by a Consumer survey of emergency survival kits which rated the one marketed by St John as the worst of those tested. Ironically, it didn’t include a first aid kit.

I wondered how an organisation with St John’s proud history and reputation could have exposed itself to such public embarrassment, and I attempted to answer my own question by speculating that it had been corporatised – and in the process, become disconnected from its roots.

I pointed out that it wouldn’t be the only worthy organisation to have succumbed to the ruinous cult of managerialism, with all the attendant trappings of bloated hierarchical structures, marketing and PR flannel, expense accounts and flatulent corporate jargon.

The column prompted a mixed reaction – one predictable, the other unexpected.  I’ll deal with the predictable one first.

Andrew Boyd, St John’s central region general manager, wrote a defensive letter to the paper pointing out, among other things, that a St John first aid kit was available as an extra to the $200 “Emergency Grab Kit”.

This seemed to confirm the suggestion by a disgruntled St John veteran – one of many who contacted me – that the omission of a first aid kit, thus requiring that it be purchased separately, was a calculated commercial decision.

“Profit first!” as one commenter on the Stuff website put it. “St John are more interested in growing the wealth of the organisation.”

As someone else pointed out, the fact that St John sold first aid kits separately was no excuse for not including one in its emergency kit. This person also said you’d assume the kit would include emergency rations and water – but the bright sparks in the St John marketing department apparently didn’t think of that.

Boyd’s letter went on to say that “All St John products are regularly clinically assessed”. Not very rigorously, obviously, or the emergency kit wouldn’t have got such a shellacking from Consumer.

In fact Boyd went on to reveal the kit had been removed from sale while it was “re-evaluated”. What’s that, if not an admission that it was a crock?

But there’s a much bigger issue here, which brings me to the unexpected reaction.

My column uncorked a bottle of disenchantment, cynicism and distrust among the frontline rank and file who represent, for most New Zealanders, the public face of St John. One insider said I had described the organisation “to a T”.

Both in online comments and emails to me directly, St John volunteers expressed dismay at the way the organisation has changed: at the proliferation of middle managers and the layers of sclerotic bureaucracy that get in the way of good people trying to do something they love for the good of the community. These are all hallmarks of corporatisation.

Even more striking was a very real fear that internal critics of the organisation would face repercussions if they were identified. “St John is very touchy about bad publicity,” said one.

That’s another defining characteristic of corporatisation: an obsession with public image and a desperate desire to prevent negative messages getting out. Journalists dealing with corporate communications flunkies see this every day.

Boyd pointed out in his letter that St John was recently voted New Zealand’s Most Trusted Charity in a Reader’s Digest survey, but this didn’t impress one St John stalwart. “He appears to be basking in the ‘most trusted’ reputation when this is actually provided by those of us who work at the coalface – the people who work in the community who the public see and relate to,” this long-serving volunteer wrote in an email.

I received many other comments in a similar vein. One commenter on Stuff said St John had become top-heavy and added: “The petty attitude towards the coalface staff is what gets me. Management think they ARE St John.”

Either the St John hierarchy doesn’t know about this underbelly of discontent, or chooses to ignore it. Either way, something’s wrong.

Is it unfair to single St John out for criticism? Perhaps. Several people named other not-for-profit organisations that have been transformed by corporatisation, and not in a good way. One commenter suggested the problem lies partly with the demands imposed by charities legislation.

Perhaps St John just had the misfortune to come to public attention because of a spectacularly incompetent marketing exercise. But clearly its bosses have some repair work to do. 

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