Challenging managerialism

Managerialism, based on slightly out of date private sector models, has been a major feature of public administration since at least the 1990s and literature debating its role in the public sector goes back to the 1950s with Waldo and Simon’s spat about the nature of public administration in relation to the application of ‘scientific management’. Adoption of managerialism is closely associated with a neo-liberal push for efficiency and reduction in the scale of public services but has now become an accepted norm and part of propriety in the operation of public services.

Managerialism has taken the financial accountability of the public bureaucracy and expressed it in targets, performance indicators, auditing regimes and contracts (see also challenging metric power). It has adopted ideas about spread of hierarchy and optimal scale of units that have little clear scientific backing. It has also adopted fads from industry – total quality management, balanced scorecard, business cases and ideas of project management and leadership. These have together created front-end planning and approval processes which have largely replaced the previous emphasis on long term evaluation of policies and programmes and ideas of improvement and learning. The changes have contributed to a sclerotic process of decision-making, increased the degree of control exercised over civil society partners and driven a politics of narrow accountability in place of arguments for creative change and wider values.

There is an alternative strand of management and operational thinking that has long run alongside the controlling and competitive one now adopted. This is concerned with giving greater self-management and trust in place of control. It is about engendering common values and narratives rather than the cascade briefing of the top of the office’s thinking. It is about trial and error and reflexivity rather than the pre-planned route march to the target. It is about working together across functions in heterarchies and networks rather than in structural divisions and hierarchies. Tapping into this other tradition would make a much better fit for a new civic bureaucracy.