91 – Phenomenology, cautery and augury. What relevance do they have for local government?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          500 words

bats flying

Phenomenology is the study of ‘that which appears’. It attempts to create ‘objective conditions for the study topics usually regarded as subjective’ (thanks Wikipedia). You can read quite a lot about it if you are interested. I came across the term listening to a comedian who said that his joke wasn’t in poor taste; it only became poor taste if you attached that meaning to it in your own mind. You create the offence to yourself. Yes, it did my head in a bit too. I guess he wasn’t intending to offend, just to confuse.

I am pretty sure that he was referring to the branch of phenomenology known as ‘intentionality’, which says that our ‘consciousness is always conscious of something’.   The object of our consciousness doesn’t have to be real – it can be a fantasy or memory. Apparently, it is a medieval idea. That somehow seems fitting. In the 1100’s the ‘scholastics’ used it to defend dogma.

You are probably wondering about the connection with local government today. I guess it is the way that meaning is attached to things that are said about local government based on memory, or what I will call ‘popular fantasy’. It is a really big image or branding problem. Instead of just accepting it, maybe we should try to do something about it – and I don’t mean more spin or highlighting the things that we happen to get right. Flukes won’t cut it. We need a more systematic way to determine community value expectations, deliver on them, and measure and report on outcomes.

On to cautery. Bloodletting featured in medicine at the turn of the first millennium (as I was reliably informed by my latest read, ‘The Year 1000’) and continues today in organisational change processes. Then, as now, it is a senseless waste that only weakened the body. It’s accompanying treatment to ‘balance the humours’ was cautery – the ‘application of red hot pokers to different parts of the anatomy in an excruciatingly painful version of acupuncture’.

Wow. I can’t say I would be a big fan of it if I felt unwell. However, as an organisational change methodology, I think that carefully applying some heat to the right places could improve performance faster and more sustainably than corporate bloodletting.

Lastly, we have augury. It is a traditional, if long unused, guide to societal decision making. The Roman consuls relied on augury when making key decisions. Officials, known as augurs, were asked to interpret the flight of birds to discover the divine will in regard to the right course of action on a matter. Why not? In local government the way forward is often not clear. In the absence of any better guide to action the type of bird, direction of flight or number of birds flying together could be as useful an indicator as anything else. At least we can all see it.

Perhaps there is a place for augury today when facing those ‘wicked’ problems with several ‘right’ answers and no obvious way to choose one. Your resident twitcher could become much more useful.