On Managerialism


“Managerialism” is a usually derogatory term used to describe a range of theories and techniques developed and implemented in large organisations by management across the Anglo-American world over the last 20 years.

The basic concept of managerialism is that structurally all organisations are essentially the same and that therefore there can be one overarching theory of management that can be applied to all organisations. The development of these theories at the Harvard Business School and the resulting spread of the ubiquitous MBA has led to the development of a form of technical language and theory that excludes those not part of the educated elite. This has allowed for the emergence of a new type of career manger whose knowledge is not specific to any industry or activity and who can theoretically move between unrelated organisations and industries.

In previous ages management was more often seen as a support organisation for the core activity of the organisation and managers needed to be educated in the particular activity of the organisation. But today managerialists claim that all organisations are essentially the same and it is the efficient manipulation of these common underlying structures that will lead to the success of the organisation. Conveniently for managers this makes them central to the success of the organisation, rather than those who deliver the actual services, and justifies the relative explosion in income of corporate managers in the last 20 years.

This logic inevitably leads to diminution in status of  the specific skills of particular professions or industries and often leads managers to perceive all non-management staff as interchangeable production staff, as human resources to be exploited by the organisation (private or public), making no distinction between professional practitioners and other forms of support or production staff. Like the previous state bureaucracies, that managerialism so scarily resembles ( i.e. the British Imperial civil service, or the Soviet apparatchik system), under a managerialist ethos values such as hierarchal power, obedience and organisational efficiency come to trump all other values.

To it’s detractors the undesirable characteristics of managerialism include the faith managers place in bureaucratic processes and the narrowly defined form of organisational efficiency that focuses on quantitative numerical targets. The shift of power, influence and status from actual professional practitioners to professional managers is also quite reasonably resented.

Professional practitioners” here refers to the people who actually carry out the core activities of the organisation. For example in schools these would be teachers; in hospitals doctors and nurses; in universities lecturers; in TV programme makers etc, etc.

Many of those who oppose managerialism fear that in the drive for a narrowly defined organisational efficiency the managerialist approach loses sight of the primary objectives of organisations.

A TV producer told me recently that, “At the BBC today you get the impression that the management would be much happier if they didn’t have to make these blessed TV programmes; life would be so much simpler and neater if they could get rid of all these volatile creative types and just manage each other.” At any time in the last 15 years this could have been said by a teacher, doctor or university lecturer about their own organisations.

Managerialism has also combined with the post-Thatcher dominance of market-based organisational models that promote the idea that the job of an organisation is to give users what they want. Thus in the NHS patients become customers or service users and in Higher Education some managers assume that most students want to get a First Class degree for the least amount of effort and that therefore more students will be attracted to study at universities where they stand a better chance of getting a First Class degree.

This has led some HE institutions to encourage, or even direct, lecturers to issue as many First Class degrees as possible. The high number of First Class degrees is then publicised to potential students with the obvious implication that it is easier to get a First from this university, thus, the logic runs, more students will want to come to that institution.

Under a system of short-term managerial values this is a perfectly rational strategy, the fact that ultimately it undermines the self-esteem, autonomy and integrity of teachers and results in a pernicious grade inflation that undermines the wider status of the institution and thus the value of the education the student is buying is apparently not taken into consideration or is discounted against the perceived short-term benefits of the policy.

By contrast a more traditional professional model of service delivery asserts that the job of the organisation, especially public service organisations, is to give users what they need; that part of a doctors or a university lecturers job is to tell the patient or student unpleasant truths – including the truth that First Class degrees should be reserved for only the very best students and that unfortunately most of us don’t fit in that category and indeed the value of a First Class degree lies in it’s rarity!

It is not that professionals resist all change, but it is the nature of specific proposed changes that professionals resist. Professional practitioners (and indeed support & technical staff), are often more enlightened about the implications and impacts of proposed changes than the remote professional managers who make the proposals. To resist change that will undermine the core objectives of a public service is not irrational it is a duty.

Before the dominance of managerialism, the knowledge and experience of professional practitioners was where the authority and power of an organisation often resided, and indeed for customers/users/clients they inevitably still are; If I am ill I do not want an appointment with a hospital manager, I want to see a doctor, and I want that doctor to be able to suggest treatment based on the widest medical knowledge and experience; not on the basis of a bureaucratic target-based directive from a non-medical manager.

Perhaps the key issue for many who fear managerialism is whether managers are there to facilitate the core activities of the organisation? Or is the organisation there to provide an opportunity for professional career managers to demonstrate their ability to manage efficiently – before moving on to bigger and better things?

Conversely, professional managers often regard themselves as “carrying a great deal of responsibility”, and having to “take difficult decisions”. Such managers often regard recalcitrant professional practitioners as a reactionary force to be defeated and overcome – “to be dragged screaming & kicking into the future”.

But often the resistance of professional practitioners to managerialist change is not irrational or Luddite, it simply represents a competing set of values. Codes of professional practice often highly value concepts such as public service, integrity, honesty, authenticity and professional autonomy: and they regard these more highly than narrow managerialist concepts of efficiency.

University teachers who resist the pressure to issue what they perceive as undeserved First Class degrees are not “refusing to recognise a changing world” or “failing to move with the times”, they are trying to defend values of educational excellence that they believe are more honest and of more long-term value to their own sense of integrity, to the student, to the HE institution they work for and to society at large.

Similarly, let’s take the controversial case of open plan offices for university lecturers. In many HE institutions proposed new buildings are increasingly designed to provide only open-plan office space for teaching staff. Teaching staff and Unions are strongly resisting this.

The managerialist rationale for open-plan offices is essentially one of efficiency. Managers claim that academics are actually in their offices for only a small proportion of the working week, that for most of the time the offices sit empty. Therefore, the considerable space on campus that academic’s offices occupy is wasted space. A far more efficient use of space, they argue, is to give academic staff a minimal desk space for the small amount of time they have to use it and then provide bookable private meeting spaces for f2f meetings with students and seminars, etc.

This is of course a perfectly rational approach, however, many teaching staff are outraged by this suggestion. Why? Well, primarily because academics quite rightly see this as a downgrading of their professional status. Open plan offices are the domain of call-centre staff, administrative staff and accountancy clerks; academics quite reasonably regard this as an inappropriate professional environment for them to work in.

Managers try to present this resistance as somehow self-centred and elitist but for an academic to try to protect the professional status of a role they love and passionately believe is central to the experience of students and to the long-term health and development of our culture and society, is not elitist or self-centred; it is a perfectly rational and indeed a principled response to an attack on a legitimate and principled hierarchy of values that places educational and social benefits above a simplistic notion of the efficient use of space.

Just before I went up to Hull University as an under graduate in 1976, a new English block had been opened. The building was designed to provide each member of the teaching staff with a light and airy office large enough to hold the lecturers private collection of books and research material and for them to comfortably hold seminars for up to a dozen students. To me as a student this building appeared not only efficiently suitable for it’s purpose but also a clear statement by the university of how highly they regarded their academic staff and by implication me as a student. Open-plan offices give a very different message to students, they suggest that teaching staff and by implication students, are not worthy of having precious financial and geographical resources wasted on them.

What the managerialists fail to recognise is that If academics are undermined in the eyes of students and the public at large the very idea of paying to be educated at the institutions they manage is called into question; If a university lecturer has no more status than a call-centre operator why should a student pay thousands of pounds to be educated by them? What students and their parents want is for their children to be taught by highly esteemed members of the academy; not underpaid, submissive yes-men, who simply do as they are told by professional managers.

The rise to dominance of managerialist thinking has led to a diminution across the public & private sectors of the status and relative earning of all professionals compared with the corresponding explosion in the status professional managers – and the value of their financial remuneration packages. Today, even middle managers in the public sector are receiving wages, benefits and pensions that are almost unimaginable to the professional practitioners who actually carry out the core activities of the organisations the managers manage.

In the 21st century it is not innovative, risk-taking, capitalist entrepreneurs that have become the new rich, it is time-serving corporate apparatchiks who have never risked anything in their lives and who are often handsomely rewarded even if the organisations they manage spectacularly and publicly fail.

Professionals across the public and private sector oppose managerialism because they think that professional practitioners like doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, writers, social workers, lawyers, architects, engineers and designers, are more innovative, talented and ultimately more important and valuable to our organisations and to our society than corporate managers and that managerialism has led to an unjustified and destructive shift of power from those who do to those who have meetings. Many of us believe that to resist such a shift in power is not Luddite or reactionary but is a perfectly rational response to a destructive, irrational and misguided approach to organisational leadership.

So the next time you are accused of “living in the past” remember – Resistance is Rational.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

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