Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The managerialist curse

The ideology of managerialism (that societies are equivalent to the sum of the transactions made by the managements of organisations) must be just about the only case of an ideology whose key figure was an Australian. As Prof. James Hoopes tells it:
But the main genesis of managerialism lay in the human relations movement that took root at the Harvard Business School in the 1920s and 1930s under the guiding hand of Professor Elton Mayo. Mayo, an immigrant from Australia, saw democracy as divisive and lacking in community spirit. He looked to corporate managers to restore the social harmony that he believed the uprooting experiences of immigration and industrialization had destroyed and that democracy was incapable of repairing.
It is not all that surprising that an Australian expatriate might have such a view during the interwar period. This was, after all, the period that also produced F.W. Eggleston's minor classic State Socialism in Victoria (1932), an analysis of the use of statutory authorities to deliver a wide range of services.

State utilities
According to Murray Horn's analysis, this was a rational political response to unstable governments -- creating a statutory authority provided a stream of benefits to constituents that would outlast any particular (and likely temporary) parliamentary majority. It is notable that the string of long-serving Governments in Victoria in recent decades has seen the abolition of many of these statutory authorities and their absorption into public service departments under direct Ministerial control.

Not always an improvement for public policy -- one would well argue that water and transport were both better managed under the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works than they have been subsequently. For example, if the 1969 Transport Plan had been followed, Melbourne would be significantly better supplied with both road and rail transport, rather than playing endless "catch up" due to the long infrastructure construction drought from the Hamer Government's retreat from the Doncaster rail line (under resident pressure) in 1976 to the Kennett Government's approval of CityLink in 1994. Similarly, the water infrastructure construction drought after the completion of the Thomson Dam (1976-83) did not stand Melbourne in good stead when actual drought hit.

The public servants in charge of such bodies do often seem to have had a genuine notion of custodianship, of performing a service for the citizens. That they were long-serving officials running organisations set up to have longer time horizons perhaps helped with that.

Utilitarian state 
The other reason why an Australian might foster managerialism is the pervasive utilitarianism of Australian political culture -- what Hugh Collins called Australia's Benthamite political culture. Australia being, in effect, the country where the Chartists won. [Incoming Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson's recent speech to the Liberal Democratic Party conference touches on this.]

Earlier, historian Sir Keith Hancock had referred to the Australian view of the state as:
a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
And such utilities have to be managed. Happiness and the public good becomes a management problem.

One doesn't have to completely endorse John Ralston Saul's Voltaire Bastards thesis (nicely discussed here) to see a problem here. Though Saul's contrast of leadership with management is spot on. Leadership is about inspiring people, management is about people as objects of input-output processes.

Soft managerialism
Hence we come to "soft" managerialism -- the belief that people, organisations and institutions are input-output problems, so the more they are managed, the better the output-for-input results. In many ways, we live in an age of managerialism. Corporations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and the public sector are all rife with such managerialism.

There are countervailing factors -- bankruptcy being the obvious one for corporations. Enron was a particularly egregious example of feral managerialism.  Institutions and organisations are the more vulnerable to managerialism the less the accountability constraints on them.

Which has made Australian universities particularly prone to the managerialist curse. As I explained years ago to a then colleague who wondered aloud why university administrations were so bad -- they have all the unfortunate incentives of the public service with almost none of the accountability constraints.

Which, since neither factor has changed significantly since, means that universities have become more overrun with managerialism rather than less. A friend tells me that it has been seriously proposed at the University of Melbourne to put academics in open plan offices -- a proposal that is so silly at so many levels, it is hard to know where to start. As my friend points out, no academic is going to bring their personal library into an open plan office. Nor will they be able to have private discussions with students, or shut out the world and quietly think and research. It is managerialism at its most overblown and most inane. Such managers "see" the input-output problem; they don't understand what matters, still less the human interactions which are the ultimate point.

The missing custodians
In the aforementioned interview, Saul states that:
when you have power, the most important responsibility is not to do damage to the thing you are in charge of.
And, talking further of Thomas Jefferson's approach to political responsibility and leadership,
a non-solution oriented approach … a doubt approach.
But managerialism feeds the managerial ego -- that they, the so-needed managers, are the problem solvers. Conversely, if and when people act otherwise than as managerially convenient, such people are not-acceping-management-problems to which more management (i.e. more of the heroic problem-solving managers and more of their problem-solving managerial power) is the solution.

Even worse, such managers are not custodians of anything except their own egos. History doesn't count because legacy is not a solution to input-output problems. If your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail; and if your only role is to "manage", everything starts looking like your sort of management problem.

Now, having an intelligentsia in love with the idea of their own subversiveness leaves one open to such un-anchored-in-anything-but-ego "problem-solving". Not least because being "subversive" has to be good because our legacies are clearly a mass of problems. All connected to the disastrous notion of modernism -- that the new is always better. The cult of subversion and the cult of managerialism feed off each other nicely.

While it is true that oppression, privilege, power and exploitation are part of the selection processes of history, it also true that learning what works is part of the selection processes of history -- and what works with actual people, not pawns in input-output problems. So, while there is a rich irony in universities being such hothouses for the managerialist disease, it is not one for complacent satisfaction. Universities matter.

It has also not been helpful that the academics main direct experience of "economic reform" has been such managerialism. It provides a quite distorted perspective of the wider phenomenon of economic liberalisation. Which no doubt helped the academic success of Michael Pusey's fairly asinine book on "economic rationalism". The notion that the glue of the economic reform policy alliance was to create a sustainable welfare state just passes the analysis, and those who buy into it, by.

But the problems of managerialism extend much wider than distorting the perspectives of academics on a wave global policy reform. The input-output language of "clients", "customers", etc has invaded the realm of education (and public service generally) without actually providing a service anywhere up to the pretensions of its managers.

So, there needs to be more calling out of managerialism for what it is -- a distortion of understanding of people, organisations and institutions which serves the managerialist ego, income and empire-building but not the institutions upon which it is inflicted nor the wider societies, whose legacies are being corrupted and, in the end, profoundly mis-managed.

ADDENDA Managerialism is not only a problem at Australian universities, it also infects US higher education:
Over the last 25 years the number of administrative employees at U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled, according to a joint study by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting and the American Institutes for Research. The ratio of nonacademic positions to faculty positions doubled at both public and private institutions. Overall, the industry has added an average of 87 administrative positions per day, a rate has scarcely slowed since the economic downturn, despite tuition increases.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.] 

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