Thursday, October 09, 2014


At one point in the Seventies -- high on new-found knowledge discovered at a UU Leadership School -- I thought organizational design would save the world.  If we could just get properly organized so that everyone had found their niche and had proper communication channels, institutions could rock along doing their jobs and we’d all whistle as we worked.  Wrong.  The usual devious greedheads went right on making all the marbles roll into their corner and the usual brainless blunderers couldn’t remember what they were supposed to do, esp. if it were new.

But now things have gotten bad enough around the world that TED talks are urging us to re-think democracy, health has become a worldwide exercise in relativity with viruses scarier than a-bombs, while Indian tribes and college grads are so far in debt that there seems to be no way forward.  Casinos and advanced degrees were supposed to guarantee success and prosperity.  It’s a bait-and-switch world.  The idea of the greatest good for the greatest number has somehow morphed into “winner take all” and some kind of repetition compulsion.

I’ve been on a jag of WWII movies, right now watching “Winds of War” (Herman Wouk’s series) by streaming, alongside “Enemy at the Door” (BBC) on discs.  Netflix recognizes what I’m doing and feeds me more suggestions, everything from “Foyle’s War” to “Restropo.”  The best of them use war to comment on the larger civilization of the times. (If you can call it civilized to be at war).  Marriage does not come off well.  Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen demonstrate an heroic, high-status man who has enough income to support an ambitious but asinine woman whose most admirable quality is her manicure.  The women in Wouk’s world have no skills, are obsessively attached to men by something mysterious called “love,” and balk, disagree, and go off on a tangent at every difficult moment.  Of course, it’s great dramatic fodder.

“Enemy at the Door”, about the German occupation of the English Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey) shows little flashes of this sort of drama, but it really is about rigid organizational design versus human resourcefulness.  The central hero is Dr. Martel, excitable but dependable and his quite unsexy but resourceful wife.  A recent episode was about the pain-in-the-butt SS officer trying to curry favor by organizing a chess tournament he is sure his superior will win.  Instead, in spite of intimidation, that worthy is defeated -- by a woman!  Luckily, the German is a wise man who plays by the rules of a higher game.  This series is about an informal but coherent society on the islands, based on different assumptions than the regulated society introduced by the occupiers who find their own system difficult to manage.

The problem in many places now is the dynamics of interwoven but not-the-same cultures, often too inventively human to be captured by any bureaucratic assumptions.  I see the TED talk today is about immigrants who send money back to their families on the other side of the planet: their allegiances are double.  But isn’t the welfare of families a universal?  

Valier is a village (300-400 people, depending on who’s counting) that is mostly coherent because of history, since on a few generations ago they came as a group from Belgium.  The same people who were leaders in high school are still prominent business owners and leaders of traditional organizations.  It’s not that they’re against innovation so much as they can’t grasp what that might be, so they do more of what they did last time.  

The rez next door is a sprawl of 8,000 enrolled people plus a lot of other people who refuse to be counted.  Some don’t even want their real names known.  In fact, they will claim the right to change their names as an ancient tribal custom and they would be right.  They also claim sovereignty while sending the bills on to the USA.  Every new scheme, whether generated internally or handed down from on high, is quickly scoured for loopholes and choke points that might yield profit.  They’re like corporate lawyers reading tax codes.  Bone game.  Stick game.

It’s surprising to have two such contrasting systems next to each other.  Managing the interactions between them is problematic.  Drawing on all this WWII stuff, I started thinking about sentry and sentinels.  A definition search yielded the following:

A Sentinel Event is defined as any unanticipated event in a healthcare setting resulting in death or serious physical or psychological injury to a patient or patients, not related to the natural course of the patient's illness. . . Sentinel events are identified to help aid in root cause analysis and to assist in development of preventative measures. 

Medical Definition of SENTINEL. : Being an individual or part of a population potentially susceptible to an infection or infestation that is being monitored for the appearance or recurrence of the causative pathogen or parasite.

Sentry definitions are military, a guard who is armed, but also can be computer programs, for instance,  a program called “Sentry,” whose motto is “Shit happens.  Be on top of it.  Sentry gives you insight into the errors that affect your customers.” 

In a week or so I’ll have to chose a new Medicare plan.  I plan to change.  I let myself be passively assigned to Silverscript, which was then bought by the CVS drugstore chain.  The result was a steady stream of automated phone calls and letters nagging me to take my meds, buy my meds NOW, account for why I wasn’t on the schedule they thought I should be on.  This strategy has backfired.  I will never go in a CVS drugstore again.  But I dread the job of wading through all this junk and fine print, which they reserve the right to change on the spur of the moment anyway. Humana has leapt into the breach, offering personalized guidance by “trained” professionals.  Is this reassuring?  Not at all.  Trained to guide me into Humana, right?

I looked up “bureaucracy” which put a lot of emphasis on the fact that the administration of systems is not elected.  Increasingly, I see that as not being the key problem.  Instead I suggest that the people making decisions -- elected or not -- simply don’t know what they’re administering.  They never go there, never listen to the people whose lives they are controlling, never get rain or sun on their heads, barely get out of their town cars long enough to enter their office buildings.  They look at statistics, design algorithms, and make graphics according to some GPS.  No one has ever convinced them that the map is not the territory.  They have no sentinels.  

So I’m claiming that military sort of role: the sentinel.  I’m watching at town meetings, I’m watching a giant digging machine tear up the next street over, I’m watching old people struggle in and out of their cars at the post office.   I'm watching kids and a few grownups on bikes.   I’m not a canary -- my watching is not based on vulnerability.  

I see that the institutions we used to count on -- churches, libraries, schools, hospitals, newspapers, movie houses, orchestras -- are starving for money and failing to serve the purposes they were originally intended to serve.  Most of them are culture-based, expressions of the humanities.  The big discussion websites, even the high-minded enviros, get hung up on pets, favorite songs and cooking.  If one tries to talk about religion or even spirituality, they're willing, but cliché ridden.  There is no vocabulary for it except what institutions supply, which no longer fit because they are so culture-bound.  So the subject is discarded.  But aren’t these witherings of humanities institutions “sentinel events”?

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