#12 Meet the Zombies

Bumps in the road to change? Setbacks can be traumatic experiences. But we should withstand the temptation of simply blaming government officials. Instead, blame the zombie systems that undermine even the best public leaders.

#12 Meet the Zombies

It's easy to say that there will be bumps on the road to positive change. And isn't the ability to overcome setbacks, a feature of the Slow Lane? True. But in this chapter, I want to follow the thread of what these 'bumps' are really made of, what it feels like to experience them. We will return once more to Mark Johnson and his organization User Voice that gives prisoners, and ex-offenders, a say in making prisons safer, and rebuilding their lives (see Story #1). After a drawn out, and traumatic, experience, Mark saw his life's work rejected by the UK Prison & Probation Service in 2013. What was soul-crushing to Mark and the User Voice team, seemed like just another day in the workings of government. And Mark is not alone: According to interviews I have conducted, most Slow Lane movements say that they are struggling to work with governments. But let us withstand the temptation of simply pinning blame on public servants. Instead, my detective work led me to a different discovery. Some bureaucratic systems seem to go rogue, undermining even the best-intentioned public leaders. No one wants this to happen, but it does. I call these zombie systems, and they will need a Slow Lane treatment of their own.


The Very Unlikely Expert

London, summer of 2020. Scheduling a meeting with Mark Johnson was hard. He cancelled twice because his sheep kept jumping the fences of his farm. At last, we found a chance to talk about how close he came to changing the UK's criminal justice system. Before we get there, let me remind you of just how unlikely it was for Mark to become the owner of a farm, and influencer of national criminal justice policy. As a child, Mark survived severe domestic violence, slipping into crime and substance abuse as a teenager. Child protection and support systems didn’t work for him, and as a young adult, he went in and out of prison. Eventually, his addiction led him to become a homeless person in Central London with a $600-a-day heroin habit. Again and again, he slipped out of programs to return him to sobriety, and society. When, at last, he did overcome his addiction, he discovered his entrepreneurial talent. Success in running his landscaping business brought stability. With stability, he was able to come to terms with his trauma. By the time he was 35 years old in 2005, Charles, the Prince of Wales, retold Mark's story at the Young Achiever of the Year Award ceremony to celebrate his achievements.

Mark knew better than anyone that his success was the lucky escape from a dangerous trajectory that could have ended his life early. In his book “Wasted” he shares his story of abuse, addiction, crime, trauma, and recovery in grueling honesty. It is a reminder of how children can get caught up in crime, and how hard it is to help someone trapped between addiction, a dysfunctional family, poverty, and homelessness. Mark learned, that he succeeded whenever his desire to move on coincided with exactly the right support at the right time.

Mark Johnson, source: User Voice

In 2008 Mark started User Voice, a non-profit to improve the criminal justice system (see Story #1). His idea was that when we give ex-offenders a voice in their rehabilitation journey, they would be more likely to succeed. Mark hoped to help people like himself succeed, and break their cycle of returning to crime. The government stood to benefit also if this led to a lower rate of reoffense, repeat crimes committed by ex-offenders. It worked. Independent evaluations of User Voice in prisons and communities across the country, had proven that if you listen to ex-offenders in the right way, you can better respond to their needs along their rehabilitation journey. As a result, prisons were safer, and more people succeeded at rebuilding their lives.

Calling Out the Quick-Fix Nonsense

In 2013, Chris Grayling, the UK Secretary of State for Justice, announced 'Transforming Rehabilitation' a major re-design of the probation and rehabilitation system. The goal was to lower the persistently high rate of reoffending. By this time, Mark had become a renowned and sought after expert, and a widely published advocate to improve the rehabilitation results. With evidence to back his approach, User Voice and its supporters saw an opportunity to help. Without strings attached, Mark offered the government to help build their own version of User Voice, as an independent government function. Using high-quality feedback to better target support services could save 500 million pounds ($670 million) a year. If the government didn't take up his proposal, Mark feared, the reform effort would remain detached from the actual needs of the ex-offenders. Not served right, they would end up reoffending.

The government rejected Mark's proposal without serious consideration, citing a minor budgetary pretext. His worst fears came true, as he watched the disastrous reform unfold. The National Audit Office (NAO) concluded that with 'Transforming Rehabilitation', "the government had set itself up for failure from the start". It called the reform overly simplistic, relying on too little data, and paying no attention to the people using the system. In true Fast Lane fashion, the NAO finds, reform measures were rushed to save money quickly, without prior testing or consultation. By 2017, reoffences had shot up by 22%. In 2019, the costly reform was rolled-back in its entirety. In its course, it had derailed the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders. At a time of severe budget austerity, it wasted billions of pounds of public money that was taken from the kind of community services that prevent crime in the first place. To the government, Mark had never been more than a blip on the bureaucratic radar. To Mark, it was a devastating blow because he knew the struggles of the many people in the probation system. And he was left feeling powerless, and unseen, by the government he tried to help. Society ended up paying dearly, becoming less safe as a result: the crime rate went up by 140% following the reform.

Taking it Like A Person Who Cares

Even seven years after the events, I still hear deep hurt in Mark's voice as he recounts the experience. He suspects, that he was brushed off because his approach, and his life story, were incompatible with a criminal justice bureaucracy that defines itself entirely through a 'tough on crime agenda'. Mark tells me that one reason he turned to permaculture farming, was to overcome his disillusionment. He wants to regain his strength and hope by building a new, better community, quite literally from the ground up.

Social change theories or text-books are strong on success stories, but rarely mention the frequent trauma of setbacks, experienced by people like Mark and his collaborators, who strive to make a difference. Naturally, no one likes setbacks or seeing an opportunity go to waste. But the 'bumps' in the Slow Lane can be psychologically more devastating because they involve so many people at the periphery of our systems, who have lived the problem they are trying to solve.

Changing things also requires institutions to play along. Many have professionalized, signalling that they will do what works to achieve the best outcomes. What that means in practice is that they need solutions that are viable, with evidence to prove their effectiveness in both costs and outcomes. User Voice had readied itself for years to offer a compelling proposition: a solution that is proven to work, that is guaranteed to save costs, supported by a wide community, and not asking for much in return. Anticipating a thorough vetting, they had meticulously carried out independent evaluations, and built their reputation in the field. What happened instead came as a surprise. According to Mark, the very government department in charge of rehabilitating ex-offenders to succeed in society, couldn't look past its prejudice against ideas from people like him. Intentional or not, when no real evaluation or formal hearing took place, Mark took it as a clear signal: we don't hear you.

The Bumps Should Give Us Pause

User Voice are not alone in their trauma. Thousands of Slow Lane movements experience such setbacks on their journeys to change. Setbacks can be a natural, healthy part of the process: nudging us to go back to the drawing board, refine ideas, share power, collect evidence, or build more bridges. But as Mark's story shows, they can also feel arbitrary, contradicting the stated purpose of our institutions. Instead of healing our democracy, they can feed further alienation. When I interviewed Slow Lane movements, people kept telling me about being brushed off by governments, without a fair hearing or evaluation. These stories came in from movements dealing with very different governments and circumstances: from Barcelona to Buenos Aires, London to Lagos, Navajo Nation to New York, and Singapore to Sweden. I feel their pain because I witnessed and experienced so many of these setbacks myself. People like Mark, who step up from the unlikeliest biographies to make things better, shouldn't be left unheard.

As you read this, you may shake your head at the usual suspects: governments, politicians, bureaucrats. But I urge you, to also remember the creative and empathic work by public servants in Sefton (see Story #10); or in my first story, the Governor of Pentonville Prison worked with User Voice to break with 150 years of history to work with prisoners. In my twenty years of working with government officials all over the world, I never really met a cynical public servant. Whenever I followed up to hear the government's side of the story, I found people who care, and who also want to improve things. (I was unable to get a meaningful reaction from the UK Prison & Probation System about their handling of User Voice). Plenty of people in government want to bring about positive change. I have found plenty of examples where Slow Lane movements included government leaders, and officials with decision-making power.

Don't Blame People, Blame the Zombies

If we can't pin blame on officials, who is to blame for these setbacks? I have followed the trail to find out what is going on. Somewhere along the line, our institutions end up producing an entirely unwanted, and arbitrary outcome. Many turn out to be bureaucracies that lack a mission and purpose to guide their actions. What they do, becomes their purpose. I call these the zombie systems, and by understanding them, we can begin to change them. They, too, can become Slow-Laners.


In my next story, we will follow the trail of why a blind resident struggles to cross a street in St Paul, to discover a zombie system buried deep inside a government bureaucracy. And that zombie, it turns out, is at work everywhere. Welcome to the six trillion dollar world of municipal government procurement.