The post bureaucratic age? Tell me another!

My initial reaction when I saw the title of this year’s Guardian Public Services Summit was rather unkind.

Are we entering a post bureucratic age?  Bwahahahahahahahaha! That’s a good ‘un.

Then I decided, instead of just heaping derision on the idea, to do a bit of research and see what was behind it.

The term post-bureaucratic has been around for a while but, in the context of Britain’s public services, its currency seems to go back to utterances by David Cameron, or rather his policy wonks, in a series of speeches over the last year or so.

It refers to the replacement of centrally controlled public services with those managed and delivered locally, by a variety of providers, tailored to local needs and accountable to local people. The whole thing would be enabled by technology which would improve communication and access to information. People would therefore be empowered and able to take control of their own lives. It would be not top-down but bottom-up.

Or something like that.

Convinced? No, neither am I.

The trouble is, bureaucracy comes in many shapes. Just because something is decentralised doesn’t necessarily mean that it will become less bureaucratic.

Take the NHS for example. In 1990, the old centralised health authorities which used to run hospitals were replaced by NHS trusts. In 2002, the model was extended to primary care. The creation of NHS trusts was meant to make the provision of healthcare more responsive to local needs.

So here’s a test. Do you know how many NHS trusts there are in your area? Do you know what they all do? Do you even know what your primary care trust is called? Have you any idea who sits on the trust boards and how they are chosen? If you wanted to influence the provision of healthcare in your local area, would you know how to go about it?

Anyone who has answered ‘yes’ to all those questions probably works for the NHS or for a public sector body that is in close contact with it. Most people wouldn’t have a clue.

As one senior NHS executive said to me a few years ago:

NHS trust boards are made up of Aunt Ediths, Colonel Bufton-Tuftons and red-card holders appointed by the local councils.

OK, perhaps my friend was being a little unfair but, on the whole, NHS trusts are run by people who have the time money and connections to get themselves appointed. That’s not to say that some of them don’t do a good job but there is no evidence that the trust model has delivered more locally responsive services.

What it most certainly did, though, is add in an extra layer of management. The old health authorities didn’t go away. They were simply re-badged as Strategic Health Authorities. There may be fewer of them but they are still there.

This creates more of that ambiguity and lack of clear accountability that I posted about a couple of weeks ago. As one NHS Trust Chief Executive explained to me, the trust and its CEO is accountable both to the Trust Chairman and to the SHA. The NHS effectively has at least two parallel structures. It is a centralised organisation trying to add in a veneer of local accountability.

As they look at the harsh realities of implementing their post-bureaucratic vision, the potential for adding ambiguity and therefore cost to public service delivery seems to have dawned on some of the Tories too. Last summer, RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor spilled the beans about a Shadow Cabinet Away Day

Interesting feedback from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet Away Day on the ‘post-bureaucratic’ state.  The appeal of David Cameron’s new Conservative brand is that it combines social ambition with scepticism about the state.  In a sense, this is Cameron’s own ‘third way’ between Labour’s traditional combination of social ambition and faith in the state on the one hand, and a neo-liberal indifference to social outcomes on the other.

However, my informant (who shall remain nameless on the basis of Chatham House rules) tells me that the more the Conservatives discussed how they would devolve power to the community and increase the capacity of civil society, the more they ended up feeling that they were creating more public sector jobs and functions. 

You don’t say?

Devolving power costs money because you need to set up various local bodies to run things. Unless you want to be accused of allowing ‘postcode lotteries’ you still need a national infrastructure to co-ordinate things. Add in the control and distribution of centralised funding and ‘bingo’ you have created at least one extra level of public sector jobs and a lot of costly ambiguity into the bargain. To make matters worse, you probably haven’t improved local accountability or given people greater control either.

Royal Holloway’s Professor Brendan McSweeney has found that successive public sector reforms over the past twenty years, far from moving public service to a post-bureaucratic model, have actually had the opposite effect:

Instead of post-bureaucratisation within the UK Civil Service, we have observed ongoing programmes of bureaucratic intensification.

The trend towards centralisation and “management by numbers” found in above account of the UK Civil Service is apparent across the entire public sector.

[T]his intensification was even more apparent in the regulation of local government and the outer reaches of the public sector than that found in core government departments.

There is no reason to suppose that the next government’s attempts to usher in the post-bureaucratic age will be any more successful. If the experience of the NHS is anything to go by, localisation requires more state employees to deliver what are pretty much the same services. It also needs more people in Whitehall to keep tabs on them, more people to liaise and co-ordinate the various activities and more people to carry out the ‘stakeholder management’ – shorthand for managing the resulting confusion.

The post-bureaucratic age, whichever party introduces it and claims it as their own, is unlikely to lead to more responsive public services or more empowered citizens. Localism has its own administrative overheads and, therefore, comes at a price. The post bureaucratic age will not, as some Tories seem to hope, require fewer state-funded workers. They will just be different sorts of state-funded workers. 

The post-bureaucratic age could turn out to be even more expensive than good old fashioned bureaucracy.

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4 Responses to The post bureaucratic age? Tell me another!

  1. Jo says:

    I am pretty keen on seeing how works. Maybe we need more transparency first?

  2. tbrrob says:


    Not sure I agree with you on this. This post-bureaucratic age you talk of sounds more like state backed localism.

    True localism cannot occurr until you remove political power from the centre. It’s not really got much to do with how state services are run.

  3. Jez says:

    This isn’t any different from the private sector: I’ve now worked in three companies which have devolved power (sorry, I meant accountability) to their operating companies. In each case the subsidiaries set up their own duplicative management infrastructures, creating many times the bureaucracy. In each case, as the subsidiaries took on a life of their own, so the centre had to set up more new bureaucracies to manage them. The initial enthusiasm for local empowerment gets overpowered by the need to control. Each of these companies has now re-centralised its operations.

    My guess is that the post-bureacratic age will, indeed, be more bureacratic than before.

    Now all three companies

  4. Rick says:

    Rob – this was David Cameron’s definition not mine. If you remove power from the centre, doesn’t that mean localising the state? Even if you did that, the local state would still create its own forms of bureaucracy.

    Jez – I agree that this is not just a public sector problem but I didn’t have space to start writing about how this might apply in the private sector. I too have seen private sector bureaucracies swing wildly between local and central control. Anecdotally, I’d say there is usually a 3-5 year gap between decentralisations and recentralisations.

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