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Managing public services: finding a way forward

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Public services can be considered in terms of a number of principles. Public services such as healthcare and education are a fundamental good, that is, they are the necessities of life and not optional commodities.

As they are about the necessities of life, public services must offer universal access, they must become ever more responsive, fairer and more comprehensive, fulfilling a greater range of needs, and above all, they must be of high quality because they are too important a good not to be good.

The test of public services according to these principles can be viewed in terms of their management. From this perspective, there are no underperforming public services, only under-managed or mismanaged ones. Ironically, the rise of managerialism in the public sector has not made the management of public services more effective but instead has added a costly administrative burden that is undermining the morale, motivation and goodwill of public sector professionals. It is destroying accomplishment, satisfaction and motivation, and in the end, is destroying performance.

Provision of public services

Although the human ability to manage – that is to organize for the betterment of humankind by, for example, reducing chaos and making lives coherent – is as old as antiquity, the increasing rationalization of society has resulted in management becoming an abstract construction, glorifying hierarchy, technology and the role of manager in the modern world. This taken-for-granted abstract construction makes everything appear manageable.

Whereas in the past, hospitals were managed by doctors, schools by educators, railways by “railwaymen”, and so on, these are now labelled as organizations, producing the great expansion almost everywhere, of management. The manager boom in the public sector has externalized management tasks and responsibilities which were previously embedded in what public sector professionals did and has placed them in the hands of a growing number of management-rank positions. This has changed the organizing logic of public services in a fundamental way with inevitable, if unintended, consequences for performance.

This can be illustrated by comparing and contrasting two different organizing logics through a trifocal model, which considers the provision of public sector along three dimensions:

  1. professional;
  2. bureaucratic; and
  3. managerial.

The professional dimension in this trifocal model encompasses the core values and principles that guide action and meaning. The bureaucratic dimension is concerned with invoking a logic of appropriateness that protects such core values and principles together with the standards that support and maintain them, whilst the managerial dimension emphasizes the wise allocation of short-term resources, both at times of scarcity and plenty, to achieve long-term, sustained performance, with efficiency being a virtue, not a limit.

When the dimensions of this trifocal model are considered to be internally related, each dimension will be constituted in its relation to the other such that the existence of one dimension is bound up with the existence of the others. Recognition of this suggests that public services should be organized following a logic that gives public sector professionals the autonomy and authority to judge and plan the process of provision.

Although the process of provision is not controlled by anybody except the professional, there is a social control of the professional exercised by colleagues and through the bureaucratic dimension, operating both within and beyond the confines of the profession, to ensure not only the professional core values and principles are upheld and maintained but also the rights of those the professional serves are protected. From this perspective, the provision of public services together with its management is a moral endeavour that uses professional values and principles not only to judge, plan and organize but also to deal with moral dilemmas when they arise.

Opportunities for innovation: rethinking and reconstructing masculinity

Those who have promoted and reinforced managerialism appear to have ignored the deeper changes that have taken place. Managerialism has created social norms, social behaviour and social institutions whose effects cannot be controlled. In this connection, there are at least two policy issues that need to be considered. First, as public services deal with people, a performance ethos is possible only in the moral sphere and not in the amoral managerialism that undermines the core values of public sector professionals and thereby their legitimacy. Second, without shifting the focus from conformance to performance, that is, shifting the focus from what public sector professionals cannot do to what they can do, there is no context for public services. The task is therefore to end managerialism. What is needed, however, is not a way back, but a way forward.

In finding a way forward, it is important to acknowledge that conflict between the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions is unavoidable, and that the provision of public services requires all three. Such a conflict, which is inherent in the provision of public services, means that each dimension has a hidden bias, that is, its own agenda, which is not bad or good in itself but which, like ideas and other cultural replicators, is connected to its own survival and a struggle for domination.

A power of balance between the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions is necessary for the viability of public services.”

This struggle is best highlighted through a process of masculinization in which every domination expresses itself and functions though masculinity, and every masculinity needs domination because a power relation necessarily involves a structure of superordination and subordination which is sustained by means of enforcement. From this perspective, masculinization can be viewed as a political strategy, emphasizing “competition, instrumentality and individuality” in an antagonistic relationship in which individual courage and the institutional drive to succeed are treated as virtues, conflict is seen as a competition with eventual winner and loser, violence is accepted as a necessary outcome to conflict whilst peace is treated as the absence of violence due to hierarchical domination.

In this way, qualities considered in the traditional construction of masculinity as a seductive ontology emphasizes emotional strength to the degree that people do not submit because to submit is to be weak, individually successful to the degree that they focus instrumentally on achievement, and competitive to the degree that they win or prevail, become the characteristics of the context and come into existence as people act. Any dimension, be it professional, bureaucratic or managerial, however, by dominating other dimensions, plants the seed for its own demise by allowing its weaknesses to outweigh its strengths. This is because each dimension can be considered in terms of its strengths and what it will achieve or its weaknesses or what it will fail to achieve, that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing, and that the domination of one dimension involves neglecting the others by playing down their strengths. In other words, the weaknesses of each dimension can be found in the strengths of the other dimensions.

The challenge is therefore to determine how, in a competitive environment that encourages individualism, to make the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions work in partnership, that is, relational and connected, reflecting a perspective of co-operative equals. These qualities, however, are diametrically opposed to the dominance, conquest and competitive qualities of masculinist ontology. In resolving this dilemma, the concept of the power of balance provides a useful starting point.

A power of balance between the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions is necessary for the viability of public services. This requires recognizing that not all masculine qualities are bad in themselves, and that while masculinity may be a cause for domination, it also holds the potential for transformation. This is because the very qualities that are associated with the traditional construction of masculinity, such as the drive for achievement and courage, are indeed necessary for realizing the power of balance. The key is therefore not to reject or abolish masculinity per se but to rethink and reconstruct it.

In rethinking and reconstructing masculinity, there are at least two major considerations. First, although the term masculinity is used inconsistently and often in ways that imply a simplified static notion of identity through a primary focus on dichotomous inter-gender relationships, multiple masculinities exist and even various forms of a particular masculinity such as “hegemonic” masculinity vary across time and context. Second, and following on from the first, locating the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions on their strengths through the power of balance is always a task that is never complete. Indeed such a task can never end. Like perfection, it comes from striving through active engagement, and its maintenance requires thinking of masculinity as a dynamic construct. This means appreciating the complexities of masculinity: it is never ending, non-linear, never fixed, fluid and without end. It is always able to change in order to allow the professional, bureaucratic and managerial dimensions to exercise their strengths, both individually and in concert, as and when the context demands, whilst keeping them away from their weaknesses.

October 2007.


This is a shortened version of “Provision of public services in an age of managerialism: looking better but feeling worse”, which originally appeared in Equal Opportunities International, Volume 26 Number 4, 2007.
                                                                                       
The author is Kazem Chaharbaghi.