Eroding the power from within: activist communication (1)

Get a load of this: in the Netherlands, a police officer isn’t allowed to choose the partner with whom he is teamed up in the police car. He has no say in the choice of partner who might or might not save his life, in a life or death situation. Or this: a detective in Amsterdam sits around twiddling his thumbs for one and a half years, because the criminal cases that need investigating don’t fit into the ‘format’ his managers have decided a case should have.

I love my job, but… How often doesn’t one hear a professional sighing: ‘I love my job, but the organisation I work for…’ Police people, nurses, teachers and many other professionals are constantly prevented from doing their work properly by all kinds of rules, regulations and interference from managers and other staff, based on an inherent distrust of the healthy judgement of professionals. With all the dire consequences for society. Fortunately, in many organisations, professionals are standing up and forming movements to reclaim their own professionalism, judgement and space to do their work properly.

Emancipation of the professional That was the origin of a movement within the Dutch National Police, in which I took part between 2013 and 2016. Not as a police woman, but as a ‘communication activist’. In this movement, that was initiated by the police workers representative board and designed by DeLimes, a network of ‘organisation activists’, the police men and women rediscovered how to have a say in their own work and in what they think is good policing. During our work at the police we started calling it the ‘emancipation of the professional’, because it has many similarities with the emancipation of women or minorities. Also, we discovered this emancipation process requires a different form of communication than the regular corporate communication. We call it: activist communication. On October 28, I will give a workshop at the Berlin Change Days about activist communication and my experience at – among others – the Dutch National Police.

   Many police men and women were very very unhappy    

10.000 pages The context of the movement, that in Dutch was called De Hark Voorbij (literally: Beyond the Rake. A reference to the common organisation chart of a topdown organisation) was a huge reorganisation of the Dutch police. From 2011 onwards (official start 2013, expected finish 2018), the 26 regional police forces were merged into one Dutch National Police. A huge operation that had been drawn out extremely precisely on paper (more than 10.000 pages describing the process and the new police force), but unfortunately it had been drawn far from reality. In 2013 when our movement started many police men and women were very, very unhappy. They were ‘matched’ with jobs in other regions, with either completely different job descriptions, lower salaries, colleagues and managers they didn’t know or a combination of these things. A police force far outside its comfort zone.

Expeditions The core of our movement was the ‘expeditions’: visits to other companies and organisations that had different ways of organising. Companies and organisations that were horizontally organised or in the form of networks and where the professionals worked autonomously. Where the organisation was there to support the professional and not the other way around. Or, as we also say, where professionals are human beings, not human resources. A famous Dutch example for instance is Buurtzorg, a nursing organisation with autonomous nursing teams and very few managers and staff.

Follow your curiosity Our movement was structured in one year learning cycles. It started with a kick off (later we turned it into a ‘scare off’, because we wanted the participants to be particularly motivated). Followed by a wonderful event in which the participants learned to follow their own curiosity (which in very hierarchical organisations professionals sometimes have lost the hang of). Then, after three months of expeditions the participants took part in a ‘yes and-session’, in which they shared their insights with people from across society. These people would be invited to be curious and help the participants along in their insights. After another three months of exhibitions, there was the final event, inspired by Burning Man festival, in which the groups presented their insights and ideas to the rest of the police force, in the form of an experience. The idea was not to write another report that would disappear in a drawer, but to make the message ‘sticky’ by creating an experience. One team, for instance, built a kitchen with a giant blow up elephant in the corner, inviting colleagues for kitchen table conversations in which they could freely speak their mind.

‘Die Harke im Kopf’ As time passed, however, we discovered: emancipation takes time. At the start of the movement, the idea was that the participants would quickly come up with great ideas for new ways of organising within the police. But, to come up with great ideas you have to have to be free in your mind. And for many of the participants that meant a substantial mind shift. They felt things weren’t right in the current police culture, that is why they joined the movement. But then they realised, that to change the police force and to change their colleagues they had to change themselves. And change requires discomfort, and they didn’t always fancy too much having to go through this. Quite often it also took them a while to realise what the movement was really about. It was a process of discovery, doubts and more discoveries. And freeing themselves bit by bit from their tight place in the hierarchy. It’s an emancipation process, stupid! We started calling the fase before emancipation: ‘Die Harke im Kopf’, a variation on a Berlin phrase ‘Die Mauer im Kopf’, for people who after the fall of the wall still behaved unfree.

As time passed, we discovered: emancipation takes time

Hostile colleagues Also, it wasn’t easy taking part in the movement. Many police men and women were the only ones in their team taking part. Or they took part with just with one or two other team mates. Colleagues in their team would sometimes react hostile: ‘What nonsense is that?! Do your real work! Why are you going to such an event again?!’ Their colleagues might not want to give the participants the space to become more emancipated and more outspoken. The participants got the stereotypical ‘Get back in your corner’-reaction. Or even in less hostile teams, the participants might come back after an event or meeting, with loads of inspiration and beautiful stories, but their colleagues just didn’t understand what they were going on about. And then, there was also your boss you had to deal with, who might not want you to take another shift ‘off’ to take part in the movement or might not like the movement in itself. And although everybody within the police had the go-ahead from the highest chief to take part in ‘Beyond the Rake’, some managers wouldn’t have any of it. In the meantime, the events and meetings of our movement, were a great place for the participants to come. They felt like a safe haven (‘I’m not crazy’, they are…’), a place to share experiences and lessons learned with like-minded. Like spaceship Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix.

No rules team At the end of the second year an interesting shift took place. One of the initiators of our movement challenged all police teams: ‘Come and start a “regelvrij team” (literally: a team without rules, an autonomous team). We will help you.’ Although this was partly bluff and he nor the other initiators had any idea how to help the potential ‘no rules teams’, it caused a new, cool dynamic. In a years time 22 teams volunteered. And for many police people the movement became a lot more interesting suddenly, because it took place on the work floor, in the everyday practice of policing. While, before that, our movement for some had felt a bit theoretical or abstract.

You have to live it, to get it In these ‘no rule teams’ there was a lot of innovation. Such as ‘zelfroosteren’ (literally: self scheduling. Before, this was done by a staff far away, who didn’t even know the people they were actually scheduling into day or night shifts). Also, teams started hiring their own manager, asked for their own budget, started organising their own SGBO’s (staf grootschalig en bijzonder optreden, big organised police actions) and many things more. The ‘Beyond the Rake’ safe haven, however, and our discoveries and philosophy solidly remained in place and proved very helpful to the police men and women in these teams. Such as the discovery that you can’t copy and paste innovations such as the selfscheduling, without the necessary emancipation process. You have to live it to understand hierarchy, how to deal with it and how to come up with alternatives.

Fight dance In the beginning our movement was quite anti-hierarchical, against managers, although there were even managers taking part. But in time, we understood that hierarchy would never disappear (well at least, not for the next decades). Apart from the fact that you need a certain amount of hierarchy within the police (line of command), we understood that we would have to play with hierarchy. Just like a capoeira, the fight dance. You show alternatives, you negotiate (using sharp arguments), you compromise, give and take. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes theirs. But you need to do it. You need to balance power and strive for a new, more humanist approach, be it in policing, health care, education or what ever. You need to erode the power from within.

In my next blog post that I will publish in a day or two I will argue why the emancipation of professionals needs a different kind of communication.

My workshop on activist communication will take place on October 28 at the Berlin Change Days. See the whole programme of the BCD. You can still join!

Note: I feel obliged to say the context of the ‘Beyond the Rake’ movement has changed. One of the initiators of the movement has been accused of embezzlement and has been sacked. The chief of the police who presided during the period I describe above, has also been under investigation and sadly died this summer of a heart attack. Needless to say, events have not been kind for the movement. Nevertheless, I believe (and many others from the movement with me) that the movement was based on beautiful principles and that it served the interest of the police men and women and society in general. Happily, many of the ‘no rules teams’ continue pioneering, eroding the power and innovating the Dutch National Police from within.