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Module 1: Technocracy and Managerialism

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Managerialism: Claims, Problems and Failures

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Political Ideologies Context, Ideas, and Practices Professor Arvind Sivaramakrishnan Department of Humanities and Social Sciences Indian Institute of Technology Madras Lec 37 Wk 10 Topic 10 Tech and Man Lec 2/3 45:47 Managerialism: Self-Conception Claims to Expertise, Problems and Failures
Well, hello again everyone. We’re starting our second topic. Our second subject, second theme in the topic of Technocracy and Managerialism. That is the tenth subject we do in our ideologies course 2020 for the NPTEL programme. We’ve done Technocracy, we’re moving on to Managerialism. And this raises its own very serious questions, just as technocracy does.
Well, in, in general, we may have a range of reasons for not doubting technical experts’ knowledge. It’s usually supported by training, certification, licensing within particular professions, which professions you know, professionals may also have the power to cancel licenses to practice and so on. So in general we may have a range of reasons for not doubting technical experts’ knowledge, but managerialism raises serious questions about its own scope and ambitions, and about its own claims to being a body of knowledge at all.
So with technocracy very often the question is about the political and social, moral assumptions behind what the technocrats decide or technocrat decides. It’s about, questions arise about their location in the commercial, the political, the legislative sphere, and occasionally about the weight and authority of their knowledge, but there are ways in which we can examine those, bring them to light, and see whether the judgments and decisions offered by, made by technocrats are supported by their, by the technical knowledge they have.
Managerialism raises quite different kinds of claims. That is, about its own scope and ambitions, and about whether or not it is a body of knowledge at all. It raises those questions, as we shall see. Now the first thing we need to note is that managerialism, the first thing we need to note is that managerialism is significantly different from public-sector or public-service bureaucracy even though managerialism and public service bureaucracies often show similarities.
They are still very different; public institutions, yes, they show similarities to, to managerialist practices, and many public institutions, especially in the Anglophone world, have adopted managerialist methods, almost always, as I shall show, with disastrous consequences. There’s a very substantial body of research work already on that, including some of my own published work, and my doctoral thesis.
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Now, the difference between managerialism and public bureaucracy in democratic systems is this. No matter how well or badly public bureaucracies work, their work is given to them by lawmakers on behalf of the electorate. It makes no difference that the legislation often leaves the specifics to the bureaucracies. Often, not always, there are times when the legislation itself is very specific about procedures, and even specifies, for example, state-benefit payment levels, right, these are in the Acts of Parliament themselves.
But it makes no difference that the legislation often leaves the specifics to the bureaucracies in a great deal of work, we’re very familiar with that. Senior civil servants and even not so senior ones often have to be left to make the decisions on their own and use their good judgment and do so because they are in principle and by definition, publicly accountable.
That is the key difference between managerialism and public bureaucracies anywhere in any democratic system. In principle, public authorities are publicly accountable, even if that accountability is, as it is very often, perverted and corrupted by political processes, or obstructed by the wealthy and the powerful, or closed down by the wealthy and the powerful, or by officials and even by the public themselves. So no matter how well or, no matter how well or badly public bureaucracies answer to the public, they are still in principle publicly answerable in any democracy; it is central, it is intrinsic to the very idea of democracy, that they are publicly answerable.
Managerialism, as we shall see, is radically different. For its very existence and survival, it has to claim a special kind of knowledge, which puts it beyond accountability, except as defined by itself. Managerialism, in many forms, even puts those definitions of accountability beyond public evaluation. The central idea of managerialism is the idea that, as I have mentioned earlier, as I mentioned earlier, anyone can be trained to manage anything; that’s a central principle in managerialism.
It has even happened that someone who had run a bus company was - a private bus company - was put in charge of a British National Health Service General Hospital. The consequences for the whole hospital have been well documented by doctors who worked there at the time. I draw this point from a work by a doctor named Riddington Young, who wrote a book about this in 2008 - a capable determined doctor, and he has detailed what happened when managers were brought in who had no experience whatsoever of medicine, had no medical knowledge or
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experience, certainly not of the kind of weight and authority needed, and had never worked in the public services.
Now managerialist ideas themselves are not new. They have got quite a long history. The French philosopher Auguste Comte, 1798 to 1857, was for a time secretary to Henri de SaintSimon, whom we have already met in relation to technocracy. So Auguste Comte is one secretary to Henri de Saint-Simon, quote himself, “Quite an intellectual.”
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, 1858 to 1917, well, they were both, Auguste Comte and Durkheim, were so impressed by the success of what they took to be the methods of the natural sciences that they proposed similar methods for the social sciences. According to them, empirical observation would reveal law-like patterns in society in the way the sciences were discovering in nature.
The sciences were discovering, the sciences were discovering law-like patterns in nature and Comte and Durkheim thought that scientific observation, or what they thought was scientific observation, would reveal the same kinds of law-like patterns in society. Now, these law-like generalizations or law-like patterns could then be used for the positive improvement of society and it would replace what they consider to be the old and largely negative critical philosophies.
In effect Comte-Durkheim invented the modern term positivism. It has taken on different connotations in late nineteenth and twentieth-century logic, but it has is, has its sources in Comte and Durkheim’s work. Now, that kind of thinking was not confined to a small number of academics or other scholars. For example, Karl Marx took the work of Saint-Simon very seriously. Saint-Simon was himself a philosopher and political economist.
Now Marx, partly drawing on Saint-Simon, noted that as the new industrial economies expanded during the Industrial Revolution, fewer and fewer of them came to be owned and run by single people or single families. Instead, joint-stock companies were rapidly becoming, as Marx sees by 1850 or so, the standard form, and the stockholders or shareholders left the actual running of the businesses to an emerging class of managers.
Very few among this managerial class were rich enough to own either factories or large volumes of shares in factories. So in strict terms, they were as much members of the proletariat as the factory hands and labourers, but they occupied an intermediate position between the labourers
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and the owners. And Marx revised his earlier analysis to include managers as a distinct class within capitalism.
In the twentieth century, several attempts were made to develop a science of managerialism, or at least the science of something that looked like a body of managerial knowledge. In the United States, Frederick W. Taylor almost single-handedly invented time-and-motion studies. He observed workers on building sites and in, and in factories (that), those were his raw observations or his empirical observations.
In the 1930s, Frank Gilbreth took Taylor’s thinking even further and attempted to apply methods, such methods, to every human action. In 1941, no less than a very former, very eminent figure in the Communist League of America, James Burnham, he worked, he was not only in the Communist League of America but he was in a successor body called the Socialist Workers Party. James Burnham, in 1941, published a book called The Managerial Revolution. His argument was that in industrial societies, when large groups of people do similar things, like buying burgers at big sporting events, I think that’s Burnham's own example, when large groups of people do similar things, the regularities involved can be predicted in law-like ways.
In the 1950s, the sociologist Daniel Bell argued in his book The End of Ideology, that is the title, The End of Ideology. Daniel Bell argued that as societies became more industrialized, the ideological differences between them would diminish to the point of insignificance because the issues would have to do with how best to manage these increasingly similar systems. Well, what are the main features or characteristics of managerialism? We’ve listed them earlier in the PowerPoint slide that accompanies this lecture, we’ll go through them in more detail now.
The first one we’ll look at is the role of efficiency as a central idea in managerialism. Managerialist theory sets great store by efficiency. How do we identify that? For example, one of managerialism’s concerns, managerialism’s concerns is maximal output from minimal input in the least possible time. In practice, this usually means, excuse me, efficiency is expressed in economic or financial terms.
The methods used usually involve purportedly neutral observation, and according to managerialist theories this kind of observation enables us to identify patterns and regularities; we can then identify the causal relations involved. And therefore we can predict the outcome of any particular managerial intervention. Finally, we can replicate these outcomes by making similar interventions in other systems and situations.
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Well, that then amounts to a claim to a body of knowledge. And over the last 120 years or so, managerialism has developed a substantial, a very substantial, body of literature. Various forms of managerial education and certification have emerged around the world. Many famous universities have world-renowned business schools. The underlying theory is that such schools transmit a body of managerial knowledge which enables anyone trained in it to manage any organization or activity.
Now, this claimed or assumed body of knowledge also generates a form of class consciousness among those who are certified as possessing it. Now, this claimed or assumed body of knowledge also generates a form of class consciousness among those who are certified as possessing it. And we’ve already noted Marx's recognition of the emergence and importance of a managerial class.
This managerial class has to maintain a distance, which sometimes amounts to total separation, from the practitioners of the activity which they are managing. The financial rewards can be very substantial indeed. And in the upper ranks of private-sector management they often, the rewards often include shares in the businesses concerned or share options.
But there are problems. The idea is that anyone can be trained to manage anything. The manager is not a practitioner of the substantive activity concerned. And they form, as Marx recognizes, a distinct class in the, in the class structure. But there are problems and they fall into two broad categories, the conceptual and the empirical. We’ll look at the conceptual failures first and then go on to the empirical. The conceptual failures, let’s look at those. Targets - managerialism almost invariably expresses its own effectiveness and the quality of the work managed, in terms of targets to be attained.
Now this results from managerialism’s own self-definition, that is, its self-definition as a body of knowledge, separate from and superior to, the knowledge possessed by practitioners of the activity which is being managed. Otherwise the managers would have to engage with the practitioners’ own judgment and experience and they would lose their claim, their managerial claim, to a special body of knowledge.
Therefore, managerialism requires, it has to have, its own index or indices of effectiveness. And most commonly, the index of effectiveness is a single figure in the form of an output or sales target or earnings, or examination pass rates, and so on. This though, reduces often very complex activities to single indicators or indices; it is thoroughly reductivist. In addition, it has to
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be imposed on the practitioners concerned and it reduces their knowledge, the practitioner’s knowledge, and their judgment, to an irrelevance.
Furthermore, expressing managerialism in economic or financial terms alone relies on the assumption that these are the only ways to evaluate any activity. So, that is one problem with targets, and anyone who has worked in target-driven systems will be well aware of those.
Well, what about neutral observations and descriptions? These are central to the very concept of managerial or managerialist knowledge. And in order to be universalizable, managerialism needs to claim, has to claim, that its body of knowledge or expertise is independent of any context or contexts. In other words, it can be applied here, there, and possibly everywhere. Now, what does this mean? It means that according to managerial theory, any regularities or patterns we identify in activities or organizations, any regularities are unaffected by the fact that we observe people as they do their work in the process, or as they do whatever is being observed.
In addition, in order to be universalizable, managerialism needs to claim that its body of knowledge or expertise is independent of context or contexts. This requires two further assumptions. The first is that any regularities or patterns we identify in activities or in organizations, any regularities are unaffected by the observer. We identify them, but our observation doesn’t affect them.
The second assumption is that we can describe people's activities in neutral terms. This immediately raises a problem. Because when we know we’re being watched, we tend to act differently. And yet, if a manager or anyone else observes us, observes us systematically and probably for long periods without our knowing we’re being watched, all kinds of moral problems arise.
Some countries have recognized this in their laws, and have put restrictions on the observation of people whether at work or in certain other contexts, even if, as we know, the extent of electronic surveillance by official bodies and by commercial bodies today remains largely unaddressed. There are attempts in progress to start addressing this, but many countries have put, have stated in employment law, restrictions on observation, excessive monitoring, and so on, whether at work or in other contexts.
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Now there’s a second issue arising from the idea of neutral observation. It’s derived from certain understandings of the natural sciences, or rather from ideas various social scientists have had of the natural sciences and their methods. Max Weber, for example, Max Weber described workers who were lining up to be paid as a line of people assembling to receive pieces of metal. But this makes no sense without the idea of contracts for paid work. And it makes no sense of the idea of institutions and practices such as contract and the relevant laws. It makes no sense without the, without our understanding, without, oh, I beg your pardon - it makes no sense without the understanding the workers and the employers themselves have of what contracts of employment mean.
Weber himself did come to realize this, and he concluded that social-scientific explanations had to provide descriptions, as well as an understanding of the observed actions or other social phenomena. That’s noted in the work of Weber. But it means we need explanations. We still need the so-called, the supposedly neutral factual-type observations, and we then need to bring, to provide an understanding of what was of the conduct or behavior we were observing.
Yet - managerialism by its own self-definition cannot accommodate agents or practitioners’ own accounts of what they’re doing. If it does that, it loses its own claim to superior status. The problem is that without the agent’s own ideas, any account we give of their actions, the agent’s actions, is unintelligible. We cannot explain, say, for example, a monk’s life without an account of the religious ideas involved, and the monk’s own account of how those ideas informed the monk’s life.
And that would include an account of their relations with others, such as laypeople outside, outside the priesthood or, or whatever, outside the religious order and so on. This does not mean the monk has sole or unchallengeable authority over an account of what they’re doing. By the way, I draw, I draw the example from Peter Winch's very well-known book published in 1958, The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. Winch provides the example of a monk and it just happens to be particularly suitable for, for this kind of argument, for the argument I am putting forward.
We must include we can’t give an account, we simply can’t explain a monk’s life without an account of the religious ideas involved in a monk’s own account of how those ideas informed their lives and so on. But that does not mean the monk has sole authority or unchallengeable authority over an account of what they are doing.
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And we’re all familiar with situations in which people interpret what we say and do in ways which surprise or even shock us, but which we sometimes have to recognize are accurate interpretations. We might say, ‘Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, but now I can see’, ‘Yes, I gave that impression, I didn’t mean to, no, no that’s not what I meant.’, and of course, worse consequences may follow; our actions may be so badly misunderstood that people act upon them, act on their reading or misreading of our actions and serious consequences can and do follow -frequently do.
So this kind of issue is, is very widely noted in artistic or aesthetic creation. And you know, a writer or director might well, respond with something like, ‘I hadn’t thought of that but now I can see that my work implies x or y.’, ‘No, I hadn’t seen that, thank you for telling me’, or, ‘Is that what you really thought I was saying’, and so on. I draw that example from Stanley Cavell in a noted paper, on intention in, in aesthetic evaluation.
But the point here, is that any account of action which excludes the agent’s own ideas of what they are doing is unintelligible. It is only an account of movements and not of action. It follows, it also follows that under managerialist theories we cannot tell the difference between accidental and intentional achievement. If someone who knows nothing about computer programmes, computers or programming, happens to sleepwalk to a terminal and write a functioning programme, or even happens to write one while tapping randomly at a keyboard, well, they have not achieved anything by intention. Indeed, it is not clear what the term achievement would even mean here. I draw that example from Alasdair MacIntyre, a paper published in 1962. If we achieve something without intending it, what kind of an achievement is that? The sleepwalker may have met a managerial target; oh, that’s just what we needed. And we keep you know, we the sleepwalkers, keep quiet about the fact that we just, we were asleep, we just happened to produce the thing. And that was just what we needed.
We’ve met the target and we’ve got one happy manager. For managerialism, that target is all that matters, not how it is achieved. An accidental achievement is still an achievement, according to managerialism, and that is in Bryan Fay’s book on the philosophy of the social sciences. Now, what happens then, if we say, well, we can replicate the conditions in which somebody achieves something, or if we, if somebody did something in the expectation that, you know, the people we watched, would replicate the activities involved?
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Let’ look at an example. On the 30th of January 1968, the day of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year or Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Viet Cong launched a completely unexpected military offensive In January 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong launched a completely unexpected military offensive against United States bases in South Vietnam. The offensive was a military disaster. The Vietcong suffered terrible losses.
But the attack had a shock value far beyond its military context and results. This was the enemy purportedly based in another country attacking huge American bases, where they thought they would never see enemy forces, outside which they never thought they would see enemy forces. So the shock value went, I mean, was completely incommensurable with the military context and the actual results, the huge Vietcong losses, but dozens of research institutes around the world then spent years trying to simulate the conditions in which the Tet offensive had been launched.
And they tried these simulations with a view to predicting when and where military commanders or governments would do such a thing again. Some researchers may still be engaged on that task. The point is that failures of prediction in complex human situations are not technical failures. They can result from any number of accidental factors such as unexpectedly severe weather, or political [or] social events, which have unexpected effects, or radical conceptual innovations, or very significant discoveries.
I draw all those arguments from Alasdair MacIntyre, from his book After Virtue. But above all, failures of managerialism occur because people's conduct is simply not predictable in formulaic ways. And the reason for that is that we’re intentional beings. Now therefore, this means that the incoherence of managerialism’s, managerialism’s purported body of knowledge, theory or knowledge cannot be used as a predictive instrument.
Attempts to apply this purported body of knowledge result in, result in decisions whose outcomes cannot be predicted and which is therefore arbitrary. If managerial knowledge is not the kind of replicable, applicable thing it claims to be, then the results and people simply are not as predictable as managerialism requires them to be, then the results can’t be predicted. The results managerial interventions cannot be predicted. They’re arbitrary.
In practice, and this has been documented in managerialist literature, in managerial literature, the decisions seem to depend as much on the personality of individual managers, as on any supposedly rational training or anybody of managerial theory. That is from a paper by Simkins.
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Just as dangerously, the incoherence of the theory means that managerialism has no criteria for relevance. Anything however trivial in the lives of those being managed can be used as evidence to evaluate their performance. This has clear parallels with fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. The fact that a handful of very large private corporations are starting to abandon annual performance appraisals does not change the character of the process. Now what about the empirical failures of managerialism? We’ve done the conceptual failures.
They’ve been written about in great detail elsewhere. I’ve covered them in my, in my doctoral thesis, together with examples. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about them in various of his works. But the, the failures of managerialism in practice are of course, only the ones which have become public knowledge. The conceptual failures are well analysed, there’s plenty of literature on them. But the failures we know about are only the ones which have become public knowledge.
We shall probably never know how many others have been covered up or lied about, or the victims of which have never been listened to, or received payments or settlements under gagging clauses. For our purposes here, a small number of examples will serve, including some which show how managerialism affects even the most everyday details of our lives.
Let’s take an example from the British National Health Service. This has had a very demanding range of managerialist targets imposed on it over a period of several years and it provides many such examples. One particular monitoring system required accident and emergency, A&E - or casualty departments as they used to be known - in hospitals to, to, to attend to all new patients within a set time.
The target time was almost the sole index of performance. And it became so important that some A&E departments started keeping ambulances waiting outside, because the waiting time was measured from the moment patients came in through the door. So keep them waiting outside until you’ve got enough time to see them within the set target time until you’ve got enough of a breather to see them within the set, see within the set target time, otherwise keep them waiting in the ambulance outside. That was actually done and documented and it made it to the media.
Other responses to this target regime involve sending patients to other departments, such as diagnostics, so that they did not diagnostics, appear in A&E department records. In other words,
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put them under another heading, whether they get treated or not - that does not appear in the records as long as we meet the targets.
Here’s another British example. In 2008, the Surrey police, that is, the constabulary for the County of Surrey, the administrative County of Surrey decided to concentrate on everyday practical policing instead of meeting managerially imposed conviction targets. The pressure to meet the targets had been so great that officers had started charging children with criminal offenses for marking chalk lines on payments for their games.
The senior officer who announced the decision said the force had realized that ordinary people who called the police wanted ordinary practical solutions to the problems involved. Because public confidence in the police to deal with every day, relevant everyday matters was more important than achieving misleading targets. I have cited the items in the book; the Daily Telegraph, 2008, the Surrey police themselves, 2008, made a public statement on this. What has it got to, what have things got to when, if we’re police officers, we’re charging children with criminal offenses for marking, putting chalk marks on pavements for their games so that we meet, we get easy convictions, and we meet our conviction targets for the particular month or quarter or whatever.
Managerialism has its toxic effects elsewhere, elsewhere too. On major, for example, on (nation) major national policies. And it has those toxic effects even if the managerialist terms in which these effects are expressed are not necessarily used with, with that intention. But managerialist language enables failures to be concealed when the use of plain language would have enabled far more accurate and thorough evaluation of policy. For example, in India, the Raghuram Rajan Committee reported to the central government in 2013 on the allocation of central government funds to the states, and this committee put some of its main proposals in exclusively managerialist terms. The report attempted to include factors such as education, female literacy, household amenities and the like, in the way it calculated the proposed allocations. The report attempted to include factors such as education, female literacy, household amenities, and the like, in the way it calculated the allocations, but it concluded with a thoroughly managerialist formula based on the concepts of absorption capacity and performance.
What do those mean? I draw this example from an article, if I am not mistaken published in the Hindu by Asim Prakash and Yugank Goyal in 2013. Absorption capacity, that means, the
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capacity of states to use the funds allocated. That is often a serious problem in Indian public policy. I’ve have noted this in a book on Indian public policy and managerialism. Absorption capacity means whether states can use the funds allocated or not.
Performance here, in turn, means the aggregate outcomes of the policies which are funded by the allocations? One index might be, say, health figures in terms of morbidity, or changes in the, in incidence of illness. But that would fail to show for example, how many people - say, I think this is, this is actually given in, in Prakash and Goyal’s article, how many Dalits or Muslims visit local health centres. Or even if groups, disadvantage groups had any health centres within reach.
In addition, the report, the Raghuram Rajan Committee report puts performance in terms of economic growth, aggregate economic growth. So as Prakash and Goyal point out, the report assumes an input-output logic of precisely the inductive kind which makes the establishment of causality impossible. Can we say that the same input next time will have the same output, next, on the next occasion?
Well, there’s a second problem, this input-output logic in the report omits the crucial fact that performance involves process and outcome. And the indices in the report cannot accommodate, for example, the way powerful or dominant groups - most often in India, caste groups that is