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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Public Sector Value Statements as Talismans against evil

I want to thank Peter Gronn, Larry Hirschhorn and John Bottomley for providing comments on early drafts of this paper. Writing values may seem straightforward, especially in public institutions that are generally well connected to the values they espouse. But, as Hoggett (2006) has argued, the public sector is complex because its work is filled with value and because it holds values that may be disowned by the wider society. This paper explores two aspects of writing value statements using local government as a case study and noting the impact of private sector models on public enterprise. Firstly, it argues that writing these statements without consideration of the conflictual nature of values may result in staff cynicism or inertia and secondly that having such value statements may not protect an organization from infiltration by values of the wider society that may be considered contrary to the operation of the organization. The paper is based on my PhD research concerning value in local government and is informed by a systems psychodynamic approach. My research suggests that value statements in the public sector appear to function as talismans against the anxiety of thinking about ourselves, and our world, in all its complexity and the ambiguity of working in a highly conflictual arena.A value statement may hide as much as it reveals, and what is hidden has more potential to cause trouble. Value statements in the private sector may well be a defence against the recognition of greed. Yet public institutions exist to support and protect us. Do these institutions articulate values as a means of protecting them selves from the imposition of undesirable social values or from acknowledging their existence within the enterprise? My research shows that having a set of values formalised in the workplace does not necessarily improve value-based behaviours and that it may in fact form a barrier between leaders and staff, especially if leaders are not seen to enact organizational values.Listing values can be a search for a magical solution to the dilemmas we find ourselves in. The imposition of neoliberal views on the operation of the public sector has led it to use 'magical' talismans such as value statements, not to encourage deep thinking about the task and role of local government, but to protect it from the imposition of other values.