A CROWNING moment of a lifetime’s professional work would in the past have been a handing over to one’s younger, competent successor confident that while times inevitably move on values and principles would be carefully preserved and institutional integrity nurtured. The new generation would, of course, face new challenges and need to adapt – especially in the area of technology.

Such was my expectation when I took on new responsibilities early in my career. In each case my predecessor was someone to be respected and broadly emulated. By the time I had reached the lofty heights of late career those sorts of expectation had flown out of the window. Over fifteen years I exited three jobs. One is now but a pale bureaucratic shadow of its former self. The others no longer exist, broken up in self-serving restructuring exercises, the result either of ideology or personal ambition. Looking back, on bad days I wonder why I had bothered and not reserved my considerable energies for activities that would have given me a long-lasting sense of achievement and satisfaction. I suspect that many professional people now retire not with feelings of a career well spent, but regret, frustration and maybe even bitterness.

It does not require much insight to conclude that this does not augur well for institutions essential to society’s well-being. The concepts of custodianship, corporate memory and legacy have been consigned to the bonfire of discarded administrative values. So, indeed, has the whole idea of administration. We now inhabit a world of managers who, if given half a chance add a meaningless adjective like process or executive to their titles. They come with very expensive salaries attached.

The most significant change in the workplace in the last half century has not been computerisation, but the decline of the professional. The reasons for this go back several decades to the dismal 1980s when the concept of managerialism first began to stalk the workplace in a serious way and spread like cancer. It was a revolution scarcely recognised at the time. That is the way of dramatic change, which tends to creep up unannounced rather than crash noisily into our lives. It was based on the Thatcherite premise that working life is essentially two-dimensional: the carrot and the stick; reward and discipline. It discounted, and often treated with profound contempt, the idea that work is a creative need based on a whole range of human strengths and virtues – imagination, commitment, principle, good judgement and initiative among them – that benefit institutions and society alike.

Finance, procurement and human resources departments abandoned their honourable service roles and became policy makers, running institutions at the expense of the professionally trained. The latter largely had themselves to blame for this: a double failure to act with collective determination and resolve; and recognise the value and importance of quality administration. Too few professionals took on administrative roles because they were not accorded sufficient status.

The managers moved in. Totally unsuitable people rapidly rose into the ranks of management; those whose characters and personal agendas were suited to carrot and stick tactics. They were often selected on the grounds not of collegiality and constructive intent, but aggressive inclination. The aim was to suppress professional independence and create a docile labour force. Mindless bureaucracy, and endless restructuring, took root. Decisions often instinctive to the well-trained, well-educated and intelligent now took aeons to resolve and nurtured a culture of incompetence that, naturally enough, attracted and recruited further legions of the unsuitable. Local autonomy and answerability were major casualties: centralism was the refuge of the inadequate and a means of wielding and retaining power.

Paul Hoffman of Accountability Now recently drew attention to the integrity and trust deficit in public life. He was writing in particular of the State capture inquiry and the dismal prospects of recovering the loot. But his observation is reflected in so many individual institutions where professional values have disappeared to be replaced by the activities of cynical operators.

Short-termism is part of the problem: the current fashion to appoint at senior levels on fixed-term contracts (usually no more than five years) rather than with the long view. This put paid to the concept of custodianship in both public and private sectors. Managers come and go in primary pursuit of their own careers behaving like wrecking balls as they seek to prove how much ‘change’ they can achieve regardless of whether or not it is needed, or leads to any material improvement. What does matter is their next step up the career (and wealth) ladder. The old idea that it is the duty of those in senior positions to place an institution and its users and staff ahead of personal consideration has long since died. The world of the selfish and self-centred has always existed. Now it has society’s affirmation.

No young person has ever asked my advice, but were one to do so I would advocate staying away from institutions. Sooner, or later if you are lucky, they destroy your hopes and try to erase your values. Rather find a niche that allows self-employment or working collectively with colleagues of like mind you can trust. That is one way to keep the wreckers at bay. But the long-term consequences for society are hardly encouraging. Indeed, the very meaning of society disintegrates in such conditions.