NPL Reflections: The Serco Legacy

It’s been two full months since I left NPL, and it still feels great!

But in quieter moments I have been reflecting on my time at NPL. And in particular, I have been reflecting on how NPL reached its current state, which – as I experienced it – featured a poisonous working environment, abysmal staff morale, and a management detached from reality. From comments on my previous post, my experience is not unique.

Happily the state of NPL is no longer my problem. But even so, I have decided to write about it because, as I experienced it, it was traumatic and tragic. And for years it was impossible to speak openly – NPL’s culture of fear was such that any discussion of NPL’s difficulties would be considered a disciplinary offence.

A recent comment on my previous post by “Bob” asked whether there was any “safe space” at NPL. Or any way to start “a conversation “with management. “Bob” asked how it was that one had to leave NPL in order to be able to discuss the abusive working culture! It’s a good question.

So this article is for “Bob” and his or her colleagues who still have to live with NPL’s poor working culture. It describes some previous attempts to “start a conversation” and what happened. It’s quite likely many people – even those working at NPL – were not aware of these past events.

Some people might think this kind of culture of fear is OK, and perhaps in private companies it might be understandable. But what about in public institutions that are being run on behalf of the Government by a private company? This has been the case at NPL where private companies have established a culture of fear to protect themselves from criticism. Even criticism which raises important issues which should be aired in the public interest since they are mainly spending public money.

What has happened at NPL is not, I think, unusual: it is part of the march of ‘managerialism’ – the belief by ‘managers’ in the special powers of ‘managers’. But that makes it no less regrettable.

In this article I am simply stating what has happened – as I experienced it. I am doing this because the alternative – staying silent now that I no longer have to experience it daily – feels like “letting the bullies win“. Writing this feels like the very minimum that I can do, but it still feels very difficult.

Serco

Looking back, the management company Serco – which ran NPL from 1995 until 2012 – seems to be at the root of many of NPL’s problems. Serco can do some things efficiently, but in retrospect, it was spectacularly ill-suited to running NPL, and – as I discuss below – it created a rift in the organisation between ‘management’ and ‘staff’ – the scientists and engineers who actually embody what NPL is about. As I see it, the poor working culture – the culture of fear that now permeates NPL – stems from this rift.

When I started working at NPL in April 2000, I was 40 years old and Serco had already been running NPL as a management contract for five years. For the first year or two, I came to work each day, went into a laboratory and did scientific experiments – it was great! I had very little to do with Serco and gave them no mind.

From my perspective, the changes at NPL came slowly, but they all came to one thing: a unique (albeit imperfect) working culture with two-way trust between management and scientists was trashed. In its place there has been a progressive glorification of ‘management’ and progressive growth in the institutionalised contempt for science and scientists, engineering and engineers.

How did this come about?

1:   Managers with Serco-vision

Back in 1995, Serco were unused to running scientific establishments and were proud of having won the contract to manage NPL. They saw NPL as a prestigious ‘win’ that added credibility to their expanding ambitions of managing activities on behalf of government. So, for the first few years, they adopted a hands-off management style that was quite well-suited to NPL.

A key step came when ‘management roles’ were made full-time. In retrospect it is surprising this took so long: Serco is a ‘management’ company and their core belief is that organisations are made of ‘managers’ and ‘staff’. Serco see managers as the key to every successful organisation, and ‘staff’ as ‘the problem’: what they – the managers – have to deal with.

Serco see ‘managers’ as embodying the organisation and they see ‘staff’ as being there to follow instructions: this is Serco-vision. Serco’s management challenge was that most people at NPL still thought of NPL as an institution of government that was, for the time-being, being managed on the government’s behalf by Serco. In contrast, Serco wanted to convince staff that NPL was a business; a part of Serco; and that it existed to make a profit.

The move to full-time managers created a management ‘cadre’ who – even if they were not actually paid by Serco – saw NPL through a Serco lens. Key parts of Serco-vision were focused on (paraphrasing) minimally-fulfilling contract specifications, and optimising profits. This vision generated a conflict with NPL working culture which (paraphrasing) sought to do the best possible work, but on a generally prolonged timescale.

Previously, scientists had taken on management tasks to a greater or lesser extent depending on their disposition and the needs of their particular group. ‘Science work’ and ‘management work’ both needed to be done. Having grown through the same system, managers and scientists shared – at least some – cultural assumptions about the value of NPL’s activities.

Serco instituted a policy where managers had to be full-time i.e. scientists had to choose to let go of management responsibilities, or let go of their scientific career. In general, staff who excelled at science chose science: staff who were not so good at science, chose management. This was the seed for a schism that has grown vast in recent years. And thus, the ‘failed’ scientists found themselves in charge!

Over time, managers who had been promoted from within their area of work (and thus had some amount of local expert knowledge and cultural understanding) came to be seen as ‘suspect’ – i.e. loyal to their team rather than to NPL senior management, and slowly managers with no knowledge of the details of the work of a team became the norm.

Really? Oh Yes. Managers with no knowledge of the technically complex areas they managed were preferred over those with knowledge of the area who might be sympathetic to the ‘staff’. In many areas the results were laughable. But managers with no knowledge of what their team were doing became the norm at NPL. And in fact, this is still common.

The managers cope using Serco-vision. They see all work as part of ‘a project’ which is viewed in terms of profit and loss, and capital and staff requirements. The technical aspects of a project (i.e. how it gets done) are seen as mere details that ‘staff’ can deal with.

2     Contempt for Science and Engineering

It had been commented many times that NPL was not really a single institution but a collection of one- or two-person ’boutique’ activities. This meant that there were problems in equitably assessing promotions and adequately rewarding staff.

Serco addressed this by instituting their vision of scientists’ jobs which they described in terms of Role Profiles and a Competency Dictionary. Each ‘role’ within NPL was characterised in extraordinary detail by the extent to which ‘staff’ required certain levels of competency in 15 key areas:

Customer Focus, Building Networks, Strategic Thinking, Commercial Awareness, Planning & Organising, Managing Change , Scientific Awareness, Quality Focus, Conceptual Thinking, Leadership & Team Motivation, Application of Knowledge, Working Together, Understanding Others, Communicating & Influencing, Achievement Drive.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that just one of those 15 key areas had the word ‘science’ in it. But even in this category, scientific or technical excellence was not valued. I won’t bore you with the details but even at the highest level, scientific knowledge was only useful to the extent that it generated business.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise: Serco only sees value in management. So the more like a manager you were – the more valuable you were. Technical skills such as “understanding science“, or “being good at doing experiments” or “understanding Maxwell’s equations“, did not even register.

So one’s career as a scientist depended on fulfilling these competencies and exhibiting particular ‘behaviours’ that demonstrated them. But only one tiny part of one competency referred to actually being professionally excellent at science! Damningly, the words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ did not occur in the entire publication!

Whereas physics and engineering degrees devote perhaps 5% of a course to ‘soft skills’, in the eyes of Serco, 100% of what they valued were non-technical skills. And NPL still has an ongoing legacy of contempt for science and engineering that lives on a fortiori!

Management simply did not care about creating an organisation in which great science and engineering was valued. The entire organisation had been taken over by a cadre of people actively indifferent to science and engineering, and with a Serco-vision focus on profit. This was true back then and, based on my experience, I think it is true to an even higher order now.

3     2007 Grand Meeting

The strains on the organisation were becoming clear and in 2007, the then managing director Steve McQuillan called a couple of meetings of senior scientists with senior managers at (bizarrely) local racecourses: first Kempton Park and then Sandown. I should stress these meetings were not on race days ;-).

At the end of the second almost entirely pointless meeting there was a Q&A and the senior managers sat on stools at the front, ready to answer questions. After a few evasive answers to simple questions, the silence of people NOT asking questions became deafening. At this point Steve McQuillan took the microphone and said (to my great surprise!) “Well, if people feel unable to ask questions in this forum, why don’t they feed them through Michael.” and then he looked at me.

No one contacted me.

I thought about just letting it go, but then I reflected that this stuff mattered, and the next week I emailed all the senior scientists and said I would agree to act as a conduit to Steve McQuillan. I offered to anonymise any comments they had and feed them on. I got 14 responses which I duly anonymised and forwarded.

I was honoured that my colleagues had trusted me, because the culture of fear had already taken root. Even these very senior members of NPL feared the possibility of retribution if they were seen to openly disagree with managers.

I won’t offer the responses here, but they were all very tame. They consisted of the senior scientists respectfully suggesting how to do things better. Reading them, I thought this would be gold dust for managers!

And the response of management was… nothing. Despite having undertaken this task at the specific request of the managing director himself, I did not even receive an acknowledgement.

The reality was becoming clearer still: management did not care in the slightest about scientists’ unhappiness at the changes and did not care about ‘improving things‘. We were ‘staff’: Why should they care?

4     Serco-vision in action

NPL earned its money from government by deploying staff on activities agreed with the relevant government department. Projects would have ‘deliverables’ and when a ‘deliverable’ was complete, NPL would be paid.

Through the years, as managers grew in number and ‘professionalised’, the old habits of NPL began to fade. And new habits arose. Including the habit of needing to meet revenue targets for Serco Head Office.

Using Serco-Vision, managers looked at deliverables differently. The upshot of this was that we transitioned to a culture of marking things complete when they had only minimally been completed. So, for example, if a deliverable specified that “a prototype would be produced“, using Serco-vision, it might not matter whether or not the prototype worked.

When I read about the fraudulent activities that Serco oversaw in other contracts I immediately recognised the scenarios in which people felt their integrity was being challenged by a conflict between their loyalty to an institution, and their loyalty to the company who happened to be running the institution at the moment.

Summary

Looking back now, I reflect that, ten years in to my NPL career, there were several personal achievements.

  • I had been learning a lot of new physics.
  • I had been trusted by my colleagues to reflect their views to management.
  • I had begun the Protons for Breakfast course.
  • I had been awarded a medal by the Queen!
  • And, thanks to the foresight of my colleague Graham Machin, I had become involved in the most complex and challenging task of my career – measuring the Boltzmann constant.

But the general situation of NPL was developing badly. There was a growing schism between managers and scientists, and a culture of fear had been established by management to discourage any questioning of their decisions. And the tempo of work and the focus on profit was building.

I had thought that perhaps in 2012, when Serco lost the contract to manage NPL, we might have had the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had thought we might have taken that opportunity speak about the impact that Serco had had on NPL culture – and it was not all bad – and to think of a new way of working. But instead senior management doubled-down on Serco-vision and have thus driven NPL to its current state.

Of necessity, I have written here in general terms. And this article is already too long. But I do feel obliged to mention that there were, and still are, many kind and talented individuals amongst managers. And most of them are doing their best to cope with the way things are. And not all scientists and engineers are saints and geniuses. But the culture of fear is real, and it stems from the top of the organisation which glorifies ‘managers’ and ‘leaders’ even more than Serco.

Finally, I am aware that all institutions must change – and that this is not an easy process. But in retrospect, Serco simply had no meaningful ideas for running NPL other than making it look like their other contracts. And having worked under the current management for several years, they simply have no meaningful ideas at all – except for more managers!

Despite its problems, some good work is still being carried out at NPL. But as ‘old NPL’ staff have retired, and as replacement staff are employed on short-term contracts, I get the sense that fewer and fewer people believe in the importance of the institution of NPL. And like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, when people stop believing in something, it dies. And, ultimately that is why I am writing this. I feel that something is dying at NPL, and although I am sad about it, I am personally glad to be away from the stench.

Last words

I have set this article aside for a few days, and I have now looked to see if it is worth making public. Is it just me feeling angry or resentful towards NPL?

Well actually I don’t feel angry or resentful. As I mentioned at the start, I feel great!

But I do feel empathy for my ex-colleagues who have to put up with the culture of fear that emanates from senior management and HR. And although this article is not perfect, it does say one or two things that I feel need saying in public. And it tries to look at how things reached this sorry state. On balance I think it is worth publishing.

Note: If any staff at NPL would like to comment – privately or publicly – but are not able create anonymous dummy accounts then please feel free to e-mail me at michael@depodesta.net . If you would like your comment to be public then please let me know and I will anonymise your comments and post them here.

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10 Responses to “NPL Reflections: The Serco Legacy”

  1. uninterestingthings aka Dominic Says:

    I am about the same age as you & also recently ‘retired’ though from a university. I endorse your views of managerialism – that seems to be a national/international trend… sadly.

  2. edhui Says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if you’ve started a revolution?
    My working assumption is always that the reason an organisation makes you feel like poo is always because of stupidity rather than malice. And so it appears for NPL.
    Which is ironic since it’s supposed to be one of the cleverest bits of the country.
    Ed

    From: Protons for Breakfast
    Reply-To: Protons for Breakfast
    Date: Tuesday, 30 June 2020 at 21:13
    To: HuiE | Teddington School
    Subject: [New post] NPL Reflections: The Serco Legacy

    [CAUTION] This email was sent from a user outside of the organisation.
    protonsforbreakfast posted: ” It’s been two full months since I left NPL, and it still feels great! But in quieter moments I have been reflecting on my time at NPL. And in particular, I have been reflecting on how NPL reached its current state, which – as I expe”

  3. Ronald Eldridge Says:

    Wow, I am now retired from the NHS after 43 years and your reflections got me to thinking…….this could so easily be the NHS you are talking about.
    Managers who have no or little idea of the daily clinical challenges faced by front line staff. The culture of fear in speaking out, The off the record advice “just to let you know you had better watch your back” or “do you see a future here” or as out going Trust Chief Executive said to me “the secret of being a successful manager is to move (usually to a higher post or to be seconded to the Dept of Health for a year or two) every five years before ones mistakes are discovered”.
    In two particular NHS Trusts (talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire) in which I was a Director / Executive Board Director, it really was like the night of the long knives ….every day. The policy was that of the “Kings New Clothes”. One didn’t know who would be “gone” the next day, locks changed on offices overnight I kid you not, with errant caring managers silently “let go” silenced with a Compromise Agreement.
    The cognitive dissonance created in that last tenure was such that I suffered a severe clinical depression…for the first time in my life. I left that malignant Trust after six stressful years.
    My new clinical post in comparison was rewarding, despite the clueless managers and inept short sighted management strategies that changed with the wind.
    In my last ten years I was proud to work with some truly caring and profesional clinicians and it is that which I shall take away with me into my retirement.

  4. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Ronald, first of all, please allow me to express my sympathy – and happiness that you have made it to retirement. I hope you can avoid being an NHS ‘customer’ for many years to come 🙂

    Secondly, I agree that the march of managerialism has covered many realms. Your description of the poisonous chaos of NHS management matches accounts from my brothers. At NPL I recall one head of marketing (yes, marketing is very big at NPL now) who appeared one day from nowhere. In conversations they appeared to be colossally and shamefully ignorant about absolutely everything to do with NPL. But they could commandeer staff with a click of their fingers and spent literally millions on NPL’s failed re-launch, and who then disappeared overnight. Other times we were given rosy financial projections and the next week told that we couldn’t spend anything for the rest of the calendar year – it was February!

    I think the shared characteristic in healthcare and science research is that – in general – staff are not ‘the problem’. They are ridiculously well motivated and love doing what they do. It is managers themselves who are the problem which they endlessly try to correct with new managers and processes. As you say turnover becomes so fast that lessons are never learned and there are endless re-organisations.

    IMHO, the fundamental role of management should be to support people doing the actual work of the institution – whatever it is. In this sense, managers should serve staff. But the managerialist world view is that managers somehow make things happen by their ‘leadership skills’ or other magical skills that they must have special management training for. It’s just not true.

    I don’t want to end there because there are many kind, decent and stressed managers who are caught in the middle trying to do their best. This malaise spreads from the top of organisations.

    Every best wish

    Michael

  5. Alex Knight Says:

    I read this article with a strong sense of recognition. I think you have put your finger on the essence of the problems which have beset NPL in recent years. The only thing I would add is that there was another element in the brew; the need to be seen to still be doing “excellent science” which ran in parallel with the managerialism, but often conflicted with it, and included the mathematically illiterate assessment of scientists based on the impact factors of the journals their papers appeared in (rather than the number of citations the papers accrued, for example). On the evils of mangerialism in universities your comments echo those of David Colquhoun on his excellent blog at http://www.dcscience.net/

    I think it’s a symptom of a wider malaise in public life; the idea that everything should be run like a business – even if it is not in any way like a business, whether a charity, a school, or a research institute…

  6. John Gallop Says:

    Comments for Michael

    Thank you for your very clear description of what has been happening to NPL over recent decades. Over the past 25 years of my time at NPL I have experienced much of what you have described. (I’ve been retired for 17 years although still working there more or less full time). In retirement I have kept a low profile, grumbling to my colleagues but avoiding any retribution from senior managers, at least so far. But I have observed with a heavy heart the proliferation of management functions, structures and people – always to the detriment of the science being carried out. Can this process be halted or even reversed? I don’t know, although revolutions do sometimes happen.

    I also want to draw your attention to another feature of NPL management (which I think exists much more widely), amounting to a nearly complete removal of trust in individuals, their motivation and their judgement. It is as if managers are encouraged to assume that everyone is out to exploit the system for their own benefit. This is so completely at odds with my personal knowledge of NPL scientists, who appear to give of their best in nearly all circumstances, in spite of the general and growing air of despondency. I believe this lack of trust is fostered by the attempt to specify and quantify the progress of scientific research, sometimes many years before it is due to be completed. The concept of ‘best efforts’ is ignored in an attempt to specify each step along the way to uncertain goals, characterised by ‘deliverables’ which will be assessed and ticked off by managers who in almost all circumstances understand little or nothing of the science results being reported. Risk registers are compiled, in advance, of all the possible things that can go wrong and percentages assigned to their likelihood. Hypothetical mitigations for hypothetical problems are listed and discussed. Managers do not seem to have heard of Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’, even though scientists are always conscious of them, particularly at the start of some innovative work. With such a deep level of misunderstanding between the parties it is no wonder there is a lack of mutual trust.

    One more thing – of course if you are building the first nuclear weapon, sending humans to the moon or running a giant accelerator on the Swiss/French border – professional project management is crucial in order to deliver the massive complexity of the outcome. But if you are a scientist at NPL working often alone or with one or two colleagues on a speculative research project, the requirement that a professional Project Manager should oversee the progress of the work is entirely superfluous, unnecessarily intrusive, exceptionally inefficient and mind-numbingly annoying. But now every project at NPL must have 10% of its resource committed to Project Management. The existence of the professional project manager requires attendance at very regular meetings, the completion of minutes, action lists and arcane financial and resourcing calculations, all of which can and are held within the head of the scientist leading and planning the research. The scientist’s time worked on the project will bear almost no relation to the original plan, given the impossibility of precise research estimation, but the manager’s aim will be to keep the booked hours in line with the plan. Just another massive hit to efficiency and morale!
    By the way, some of my best friends are project managers….

  7. someone_somewhere Says:

    Thank you Michael for writing this analysis and sharing your story. Reading your experience with NPL is heartbreaking. But i think it is super-cool to put it out there!

    The way NPL treated you is sick and abhorrent. It is shameful that NPL learns nothing and keeps perpetuating this archaic way of running things. It upholds a flawed system and should you take issue with it, management does not hesitate to let you know you are the issue.

    I just recently quit myself and was met with a resounding “Congratulations on getting out of NPL” from scientific peers (HRSs and SRSs only, heaven forbid anyone with a hierarchically superior job title would express this!).

    Quitting has brought out of the woodwork many colleagues that detailed to me their own frustrations with NPL management, as well as their sad and harrowing stories. And much like yours, it is all distressing.

    I left NPL not out of vocation for another profession, but out of necessity. They say a lack of control, humiliation and being stripped of your worth are all causes for depression at work. NPL made me feel all three. I was put down multiple times and was explicitly told i “don’t do enough” by individuals who are not able to say what it is that i do. Management made me run out of a meeting crying after i produced a note from the GP asking for one month of reduced work time due to stress at work (that was a result of having been previously put down). In addition to accepting the note and pointing me towards HR to get it approved, they took the opportunity to put me down again. I am sure i do not need to mention that i was in a fairly catatonic state after this. I reported this behaviour to others in management roles, to HR and even to the perpetrator themselves asking for an apology. I was met with a blind eye from all parties.

    I know what i went through was an isolated incident, but it does highlight the sheer stupidity and lack of professionalism from management.

    I feel sad that there is/was nothing i can/could do to help or protect colleagues from NPL’s bullying behaviour or change the toxic environment they work in.

    Sorry, i do not know if this is the sort of comments you were looking for.. I hope after-NPL life is much kinder to you. You are such a cool physicist and you leaving is truly NPL’s loss. Huge loss!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Dear “Noble Maiden of the Woodlands”, Greetings!

      Your comments distress me because I feel your distress. I don’t know the details of your troubles at NPL, but I do know that in the NPL I joined 20 years ago, things would not have proceeded so. Things then were not perfect – there was no golden age – but there was genuine care for colleagues – and at that time managers considered scientists as colleagues and not ‘staff’.

      I have not been looking for any particular kind of comments. As I mentioned to one anonymous colleague earlier today, I am not writing this blog to express what I feel and think. Rather, by writing this blog I

        discover

      what I feel and think. I am writing this to help me understand what has happened.

      And yes, happily, life after NPL is much kinder and much better – and hope the same is true for you.

      Every best wish

      Michael

  8. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Posted by Michael de Podesta but sent via my e-mail

    ============================

    MdP, I personally thank you for your posts, both when you were inside and now.

    I reckon that some things could be open to interpretation, however, there are facts that are impossible to negate, being one of those that many people, despite being offered the best that NPL can offered, still prefered to leave. This should be enough “smoke” to, at the very least, suspect that there could be a “fire” somewhere.

    The people who know me, probably think I’m a negative person, but I want to believe I’m very optimistic, and the negativity is just a way to get to the positive result at the end. So, as a mental exercise, assuming one of the bad scenarios, for example the one of a culture of “us” versus “them” hinted in the post, does anybody think that breaking the barrier and becoming a single team can improve the situation? And if so, how to make it happen?

    I reckon that in an scenario like the one you presented here, probably most of the talented people will leave, as in that case there is no reward on fighting against, to improve things a little bit, while somewhere else you can use that same energy and obtain much more for you and for the community.

    So if there is a solution, it will have to be easy enough so the ones remaining can implement it. I wonder if something like sharing what everyone does, and how it interconnects to achieve the wonder of science, could aid in this fictitious scenario I was speculating about.

    In the sense, that I might be the one reading a value out of an instrument, or writring down a manuscript, but its the effort of everyone (literally every one) that makes it happen. In this way, maybe people will feel part of it, and maybe it will help solving some of the issues. It could be as easy as organizing activities outside of NPL, like wine tasting, or board games, so people from different roles will meet and get to know each other.

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