Friday, 28 June 2013

The New Barons

It seems as if almost daily the malign consequences of the New Public Management (NPM) that has informed public sector reform in many countries for the last 30 years are being exposed. In the UK, one recent high profile example is the Francis report into the failings of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust which can be read as an indictment of the kind of ‘tick box’ procedural managerialism inaugurated by NPM. But NPM, with its proceduralism, audits and managerial controls has increasingly morphed into something else, a more post-bureaucratic understanding of public management. Here, the emphasis is less on procedures and audits and more on freeing inspirational leaders to innovate and enact ‘radical change’.

Of course these things are linked. NPM always had several meanings, including the relentless praise of ‘enterprise’ in public services. Post-bureaucracy is a similarly flexible term, and the two fit together in all sorts of ways, as this article by Leslie Budd of the Open University explains. Still, the post-bureaucratic accent of contemporary public management has a certain distinctiveness in part as a reaction to what was, ironically, the explosion of ‘red tape’ associated with the supposedly anti-bureaucratic NPM.

I talk at length about post-bureaucracy  in the book, especially in chapter 4, and a recent case has called to mind one of the points made there. I suggest (p. 86) that the embrace of post-bureaucracy carries with it huge risks because, freed of all those irritating rules and procedures it is just as likely that managers will act with recklessness and little or nothing will curtail them. In fact, I might have gone further, and pointed out that corruption and fraud, as well as recklessness, are made more likely in such situations, as Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang argues.

The case that reminded me of this was that of the head teacher of an ‘academy school’ in the UK who has resigned following multiple accusations of financial impropriety, including allegations about the way she employed family members. The allegations are particularly interesting if we consider how Weberian bureaucracy is in part to do with the avoidance of nepotism, of corruption and, indeed, the links between the two.  This was a head teacher who had been lionized by successive politicians as the epitome of what the new style public servants should be: dynamic, innovative leaders.

Now the allegations are just that – there have been no criminal proceedings – but they fit into a wider sense of a managerial or leadership cadre in both the private and public sectors which is out of control, treating their organizations as their own individual fiefdoms rather than things for which they have a duty of stewardship. I have myself seen such behaviour, for it is as prevalent in universities as anywhere else.

The danger is that such episodes are seen as a series of individual scandals or, if put together, a sign of some inevitable decline in moral standards and the probity of public life feeding what is beginning to be seen as a crisis of trust in leadership. But they are neither: they are systemically linked by a particular approach, or set of approaches, to the management of organizations. It is in part, at least in origin, a consequence of the new capitalism I discuss in the book, of the neo-liberal revolution that has literally or metaphorically marketised so many areas of economic and social life. But it is more complex than that, and is more linked to the ideas about ‘neo-mercantilism’ I talked about in my post of January 9 2013. For what we have is a new managerial class which has little to do with the ‘market’ in any recognizable sense and is closer to a kind of baronial oligarchy in which there is little organizational constraint on how its members may act. In these circumstances, the only constraints become the extra-organizational ones of the law, at which point they become publically known scandals. But their origin is not some mysterious, and still less inevitable, decline in moral virtue. It lies in the dismantling of organizational controls under the chimerical doctrine of post-bureaucratisation.

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