The managerial imperative: Fifty years’ change in UK public administration

Date01 October 2013
Published date01 October 2013
AuthorPeter Barberis
Subject MatterArticles
Public Policy and Administration
28(4) 327–345
! The Author(s) 2012
The managerial
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imperative: Fifty years’
DOI: 10.1177/0952076712458789
change in UK public
Peter Barberis
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
For at least fifty years and from uncertain beginnings, management has steadily advanced
to become a dominant feature across the public sector. Management is necessary and,
when purposefully and judiciously applied, can be efficacious. But it lacks the constitu-
tional bearings of the traditional public administration that it has in large measure
displaced. And, in the absence of the ‘‘sudden death’’ market discipline of the private
sector, from which many of its practices have been imported, management has often
become the self-serving entity described in this article as managerialism. Specified here
in ‘‘ideal type’’ terms, managerialism is not so much the product of a conspiracy, rather
that of a conjunction of factors, often lending plausibility to the need for more man-
agement. This article identifies some of these factors and their ill effects on the public
Management, managerialism, public administration, public sector
Good administration and good management are essential to the proper functioning
of the public sector at all levels, from the top downwards. Both have their place.
The contention of this article is that there has been a long-term and steady increase
in the emphasis placed upon management; and that from it has emerged a phe-
nomenon best described as ‘‘managerialism’’. Managerialism is an outgrowth of
management – over-management or hyper-management. It arises when manage-
ment, as a form and as a process, becomes an end in itself, a self-serving entity.
It has by no means come to full f‌lower in all quarters of the public sector.
Corresponding author:
Peter Barberis, Manchester Metropolitan University, Rosamond Street West, Manchester M41 5DE, UK.

Public Policy and Administration 28(4)
But wherever and to whatever extent it has achieved dominion, it has often been
damaging to the wider interests of public service. It can be and has been seen,
especially in the U.S., as the deliberate product of a class of managers, propagated
through management schools, inspired by neoclassical economics (Locke and
Spender, 2011). The argument in this article is that managerialism has emerged
as the product of more complex factors. There has been no conscious conspiracy,
though managers at all levels and of all stripes have seized the bounty that circum-
stances have placed at their behest.
This article takes no cheap shot at bureaucracy, bureaucrats or bureaucratisa-
tion. Indeed the notion of public bureaucracy can be and has been defended
(Goodsell, 1994; Du Gay, 2000). Rather, the distinction is made between
Weberian bureaucracy and the phenomenon described here as managerialism.
Put simply, the article deals with four issues – what; how; why; and whereto. It
begins by explaining what is meant by managerialism, specifying the essential char-
acteristics in ‘‘ideal type’’ terms. Second, it charts how it has emerged – the rise of
management in the public sector. This involves a survey of some of the changes
over the last f‌ifty years. Third, there is an identif‌ication of some of the wider factors
that explain why there has developed a managerial imperative – why it has become
in some ways apparently irresistible. Fourthly, the article considers the question
whereto – the consequences, or hazards, of managerialism in the public sector.
A brief concluding section will draw together threads from the earlier discussion,
of‌fering a few general observations.
Character of managerialism
Frederick Engels (1987: 247) famously endorsed St Simon’s view that a future
socialist republic would bring the ‘conversion of political rule over men into an
administration of things’. Two observations may be made. First, administration
has an apparently permeable quality. It is a tool in the hands of the prevailing
milieu – one which under capitalism, so far as Engels was concerned, inferred that
the state bureaucracy is an instrument of exploitation. Second, even when the state
has withered away under socialism, administration remains indispensible. While
rejecting the Marx-Engels dialectic, Max Weber’s writings on bureaucracy share at
least these two premises about administration. Weber provided the touchstone for
bureaucracy within a context. A facile recounting of his ideal type expressed as a
multi-point shopping list obscures the fact that he placed (state) bureaucracy within
a political framework (Barberis, 2011). His ‘‘model’’ bureaucracy was a feature of
liberal democracy. Weber did not assume that state bureaucracy would always or
inevitably conform to his ideal type. On the contrary, he was by no means sanguine
about that or about the prospects for liberal democracy itself. But to the extent that
state bureaucracy did conform to his ideal type it would facilitate the better work-
ing of representative and accountable government.
One way or another, Weberian principles of bureaucracy within such political
context were woven into the constitutional fabric of most western liberal

democracies during the twentieth century. The process was rarely a conscious one.
Nowhere was there ever a precise f‌it; wide variations prevailed. Perhaps more than
in most countries, Britain fashioned its own, peculiar arrangements for adapting
governmental institutions to what Halevy (1961) called the ‘rule of democracy’. It
loosely conformed to Weberian principles but largely eschewed the American and
classical continental philosophies of administration (Thomas, 1978). But it did
reconcile state bureaucracy with the principles of representative and accountable
government. There emerged a constitutional bureaucracy (Parris, 1969). Senior
civil servants were to be politically neutral, while remaining sensitive to the
winds of political change on behalf of their elected masters; they were to be repo-
sitories of accumulated wisdom and know-how, though at all times cognisant that
the f‌inal word lay with the politician; and they were to operate anonymously –
‘slaves of the lamp working within the bowels of Whitehall’, as Winston Churchill
put it. From there they could nevertheless exert substantial inf‌luence. Such inf‌lu-
ence was usually judged to have been benign, often benef‌icial to the nation because
they knew their place constitutionally and because they possessed a strong public
service ethos. The same might have been said about public servants at all levels,
though in local government there was a dif‌ferent trajectory. Here the senior of‌f‌icers
were traditionally technical specialists; they were often more readily visible to the
public. Either way, in Whitehall or in the town hall they were non-political f‌igures
who operated in a political environment. That is why the subject public adminis-
tration has traditionally been taught as a branch of politics, with lacings of law,
philosophy, economics and sociology.
Management is dif‌ferent. Like administration, it means little in the abstract
unless engaged with some purpose – to administer or manage what? (Elcock,
1995: 36–38). But whereas the constitutional principles alluded to above give
public administration its bearings, management is usually presented as a set of
abstract maxims. Without any wider values or constitutional grounding it becomes
prey to what sociologists call goal displacement; it can easily become an end in
itself. Traditional public administration is by no means immune. At all levels and in
all sectors of the public service, practitioners have at times been judged to have
exceeded themselves. But this implies that there is a recognised framework within
which administration and administrators operate; there are parameters, ‘‘guiding
spirits’’, however imprecise. Management – as a concept and as a process – has no
such parameters, no guiding spirits. It is there to be appropriated. It is much easier
(though by no means inevitable) for sensible, well-focused management to become
self-serving managerialism. The public sector is perhaps more susceptible, there
being nothing quite to compare with the potential sudden death discipline of the
competitive market.
What, then, are the characteristics of managerialism? Five main factors may be
1. Change. Managerialism thrives upon change. It is predicated upon an almost
Whiggish assumption that there is an unbroken path of progress, that what

Public Policy and Administration 28(4)
is proposed is better than that which exists. Change is a force for good. To the
doubters there is the killer riposte ‘no change is no option’. Things must be made
to happen. There must be a prescribed programme of change, indeed constant
reconf‌iguration. There are constant re-brandings of organisations, functions,
processes and personnel. Change must be directed and driven through, be it a
new organisational structure, new processes, protocols, codes of practice, oper-
ational targets or other rules of engagement. Managers, in the very broadest
sense, are chief‌ly the begetters and agents of change. Other things will be neces-
sary, too.
2. Control. Direction from the centre is often a primary requirement, activated with
the help of enforcers. Strong central apparatus with supporting personnel and
other advisory functionaries are necessary to maintain...

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