The distorting pursuit of managerialism

The idea of New Public Management which was adopted almost worldwide from the 1990s – and which still casts its shadow today – saw the problem of public administration as one of efficiency and long-term affordability. If only services could be provided more cheaply and quicker, then all would be well.

For the right, the focus was on lower taxes for the same services and/or more services moved into the private sector. For the center left, it meant sustaining public appreciation of services, particularly among the growing middle class, to assure their willingness to continue to pay for them through taxes rather than opting out.

Marketisation and performance management were the tools which would deliver this new modern efficiency: it was just a question of determining the products to be provided and setting the management or financial incentives and targets to be met. For New Labour in the UK from 1997 to 2010, this was the main mission: to save the welfare state by making it perform so efficiently that it was beyond ‘consumer’ criticism.

So, what went wrong?

What the managerialist approach served to reinforce above all else was a top-down approach to delivery. This was service provided according to mechanical, planned parameters, either through contracting out or through performance management systems. It did not leave space for creativity, the human touch, the flexibility to respond to circumstances or fostering personal engagement – things which might engage the public as both citizens and consumers. Instead, it bred a new cadre of managers (or ‘leaders’) who might ensure this new delivery. This re-emphasized some of the earliest ideas of bureaucracy – Max Weber’s description of mechanical, dispassionate economic efficiency combined with charismatic leadership – over subtler ideas of the public sector as civil society partner and enabler.

Managerialism also had the effect of replacing the moral element of public service – the binding together of society through the practical expression of shared values of democratic life: of citizenship itself rather than consumerism. Even heralded successes in extending the provision of e-government services can strengthen a sense of the public sector as remote and faceless and favor those people best able to access those services over others.

New civic bureaucracy considers the personal, reflexive, enabling role of public service as being at its heart. It wants staff who can offer personal, not mechanical, support and are clear about what values, rather than what metrics, they are pursuing. This is about fostering equal citizenship, listening and giving voice, not offering a finished product to be consumed, nor a contract to be tightly managed.

Matthew Quinn

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