Managerialism in the public sector

My purpose here is twofold. First, to discuss managerialism in the Scottish public sector whilst making an argument that managerialism is linked to the political project we know as neo-liberalism. Second, to discuss key features of what constitutes managerialism.

Managerialism, sometimes referred to as ‘new public management’, has become a successful organisational strategy for controlling politicians and public servants, and for implementing neo-liberalism. Whitfield provides a good working definition of neo-liberalism. Taken from his In Place of Austerity (2012), neo-liberalism ‘is based on reducing state intervention in the economy, opening up new markets in public services and deepening business involvement in the public policy making process’.

The neo-liberalisation of the public sector involves the state becoming a purchaser but not always a direct provider of services. This process involves privatisation, creating new markets via procurement where profit can be made, and where it can’t, contracting services out to a closely monitored third sector whose grants have been replaced by contracts and service level agreements.

The nature of ‘work’ in the Scottish public sector is also being transformed. For example, public sector employees are increasingly expected to behave and act like they work in the private sector.

The state is attempting to do two things at once. The first involves increasing the productivity of the worker; the second, an annual commitment to reducing expenditure. ‘Increased productivity’ is achieved through a rigorous culture of managerialism; key features of the system include appraisals, performance related pay, regular monitoring and surveillance by a computerised bureaucracy, work plans with quantifiable outcomes, regular target setting, performance indicators and inspections. When you marry these developments with the financial instability already mentioned, the result is a permanent culture of fear and insecurity.

Managerialism is also a discursive project; citizens are constructed as customers or clients, whilst workers are routinised into talking a language of ‘targets’, ‘outcomes’, ‘outputs’, ‘evaluating impacts’, ‘quality assurance’ and so on. Managerial language depoliticises the realm of the political. For example, austerity is absent from the discourse. Instead, cuts to public expenditure are presented as ‘efficiency savings’, or ‘trimming the fat’; I‘ve even heard some senior managers talk of ‘bend the spend’, or being ‘BOLD’, which in managerial jargon stands for ‘better objectives, leaner delivery’.

Managerialism involves devolving budgets to middle managers, and whilst arguments exist that devolving budgetary control is based upon devolution or democratising bureaucracies, these arguments ignore the extent to which the ‘devolution of budgets’ has been accompanied by greater strategic control from the centre. Moreover, and this is a critical point in relation to the implementation of neo-liberalism, the devolution of budgets encourages junior managers to think of the budget as their own, in effect creating a ‘fiscal consciousness’ which makes it easier to devolve responsibility for cuts down the way, sucking many managers into a neo-liberal way of thinking.

Defenders of the system usually argue that performance management is based on accountability, or following the public pound, arguments I do not intrinsically oppose. However, these arguments fail to acknowledge two things. First, the relationship between managerialism and neo-liberalism discussed here, and second, the extent to which performance management actually takes workers away from doing their job. For example, social workers, sometimes better understood as ‘care managers’ in the current context, note spending less time devoted to clients, and more time allocated to routine paperwork, often leaving the frontline work to lesser qualified staff. Teachers discuss ‘teaching to the test’. One UK wide study of 11,000 teachers by the National Union of Teachers in 2012 revealed many teachers resented ‘undermining duties’ such as ‘low level administrative tasks and the paperwork for inspections’, with ‘bureaucracy/paperwork’ identified as two of the top three pressures facing the profession. When teachers were asked to comment on how they felt about performance management, some recorded feelings such as ‘losing confidence, feeling inadequate, de-professionalisation, increased workplace stress and anxiety’.

One of the more troubling features of managerialism is the extent to which its practices continue to dominate the public sector regardless of who is in office in Holyrood. Despite the overblown rhetoric of a ‘politics of difference’, when it comes to the Scottish public sector, both Labour and now SNP are wedded to a neo-liberal agenda. With the SNP, the increasing managerialisation of the public sector under its watch, coupled with greater strategic control from the centre, highlights a gap between official SNP hype and SNP practices.

Gary Fraser is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Edinburgh; his research explores the impact of managerialism on the field of community education in local government.