Throughout history empires have collapsed for many reasons – political instability, military over-reach, natural disaster and over-extraction (taking too much out of what they are parasitic upon) among them. It is this last factor which will lead to the eventual downfall of Scotland’s public sector management empire. I hope.
Let me precede everything that follows with an important distinction; I am trying really hard here to draw a dividing line between the public sector and its managers. The public sector itself is crucial; it is this which keeps a modern western society running. Public servants heal you, build you roads, solve your social problems, empty your bins, investigate crimes.
But they are nurses, doctors, engineers, social workers, refuse collectors and police. Give or take, they are all in decline (can’t find data on public engineers and data on refuse collectors does’t seem to be counted nationally making shortages local news, but there are fewer nurses, doctors, police and social workers now than ten years ago).
That is what you must bear in mind when you read that there has been a 60 per cent increase in wages bills in the Scottish government sucking up £600 million. It does’t mean frontline staff, it means managers. This measure is a measure of a very specific phenomenon – this is the Rise of the Professional Managerial Class (the PMC from here on).
First I will explain what the PMC is, then I will show you why and how it is growing so rapidly, then I’ll explain the consequences of this for the rest of us and finally offer a short solution to the problem.
The concept of the PMC was first devised back in 1977 by sociologists Barbara and John Ehrenreich – which is slightly prescient because it was actually the 1980s when the PMC really started its relentless assent to its current ‘rulers of all we survey’ status.
Essentially the PMC exists to ‘manage things’. That’s what they do, they ‘manage things’. They don’t need any expertise in the things they manage, making the PMC endlessly adaptable. They can manage a commercial lottery, move to the NHS, segue off into an environmental quango and then head off back into he financial sector to round off a successful career, employing the same limited skillset throughout.
They train at university to manage, or they study something else and decide public management is more lucrative and do that instead. They all operate to much the same belief system about their place in the world, their importance, their centrality and how you are meant to go about managing.
Their meteoric rise was turbo-charged by Thatcherism. If the economy was to be deskilled and weaned off pesky old-school productive manufacturing then there had to be something for people to do. And since a ‘business is always right’ ethos pervaded everything, it was business-style management that was ideal for creating these (what David Graeber accurately calls) ‘bullshit jobs’.
Back in the real world the actual impact of this is that people who can actually do useful things and actually understand what is going on in the public service can’t fix them because they’re all through the back filling in the utterly endless amount of paperwork
But, I hear you ask, if these managers don’t know anything about the thing they’re managing, how do they go about managing it? Aha – in a wonderful feedback loop the PMC created business studies as a university degree (which I can promise you is the real Mickey Mouse degree in higher education).
This discipline enables any of its disciples to manage anything at all through a simple set of transferrable techniques. These can all be summarised roughly as ‘management information’ and ‘information management systems’. With access to enough information, anyone can manage anything – goes the theory.
Let me translate that for you; if you don’t know what you’re doing but happen to be the boss, ask for performance indicators. These take complex processes and even more complicated outcomes and reduces them to simple numbers. You don’t need to manage the complex processes or deal with the event more complicated outcomes, you just manage the numbers.
And if things go wrong, fear not – you bring in ‘consultants’. These are another sub-tribe of the PMC who are either people who can actually do things but decided there was more money into selling specialist management expertise to people who can’t, or they are PMC people who have bribed some actual experts to back-fill their lack of expertise. Often they’re just former public sector managers cashing in.
Consultants then deal with the complexities involved in the failures, but are required to produce solutions that are manageable by the PMC. That usually means a lot more management information. That is a very big part of the modern public sector. And it is getting bigger.
Meanwhile back in the real world the actual impact of this is that people who can actually do useful things and actually understand what is going on in the public service can’t fix them because they’re all through the back filling in the utterly endless amount of paperwork which provide the managers with performance indicators.
And if the performance indicators ‘tell’ the managers that (say) cutting the number of hospital beds is ‘efficient and won’t harm performance’, the doctors and nurses who are saying that it absolutely will harm performance don’t really matter because they aren’t in decision-making positions.
Of course, if you’ve got an empire you need the credit card to match – and that is why it’s not just the public sector pay bill which is groaning under the weight of the PMC, it is the public sector credit card. If ‘the fate of the entire NHS rests on my head’ (as Emir of the PMC tells him or herself) ‘then I’m sure as hell not waiting in the pleb section of the airport or flagging down my own taxi!’.
Either the ideologies of the PMC are fundamentally flawed and none of the system they’ve devised actually works the way they claim it does, or they’re all useless and are really bad at their jobs
The other great thing about being a senior member of the PMC is that you are in that enviable position of basically setting your own pay, holding yourself accountable and choosing your own governance. Some of this is outsourced, but always to other members of the PMC. You set my pay and governance conditions and I’ll set yours. It works brilliantly.
Well, it does unless you look at the actual outcomes. Scotland’s public sector is overwhelmingly run by the PMC, so when you say that Scotland’s public services are getting worse then one of three things is happening. Either the frontline staff are getting worse, or the system is being starved of money, or the managers are making a mess of it.
It’s the last two. Yes money is tight anyway, but it is the capacity for the PMC to cannibalise the funding they’re supposed to be managing that makes it worse. Every failure, more paperwork. More paperwork, more low-grade PMCers to process it. More staff to manage, yet more managers.
But with all this superlative management, public services clearly can’t be getting worse. That means that the ‘performance indicator of performance indicators’ is showing remarkable improvements across the board? Except it’s not. The ‘PI of PIs’ is the National Performance Framework, and you’ll find that those which ‘can’t be measured, are staying the same or getting worse’ outnumber the improvements by three-to-one.
And remember, this is the PMC’s own data, produced and tweaked by the PMC to make the PMC look good – for example like Public Health Scotland and it’s repeated provision of misinformation which made the government look less bad than it was (like the time it claimed that putting people in care homes with Covid didn’t cause Covid deaths in care homes and then corrected that to note that it did – and tried to hide the whole thing).
That is the summary of the Sturgeon era – investment in public services rose by 58 per cent over that period (£31 million to £48 million), well above the rate of inflation. The PMC rose by much more than that over the period and so did overheads for almost everything in the public sector relative to the amount being spent on the front line – and things generally got worse, even by their own measurement standards.
It is this that I hope brings some reality to the situation. I’ve come to the conclusion that either the ideologies of the PMC are fundamentally flawed and none of the system they’ve devised actually works the way they claim it does, or they’re all useless and are really bad at their jobs. It’s the former.
So the decline of the PMC Empire is much needed in Scotland and I’m hoping ‘over-extraction’ is what does it. I’ve left no real room for how to bring this about, but here are two fast suggestions. First, just don’t do it. A council in England replaced 18 pages of risk assessment form for social work interventions with one sentence; “don’t break the law, don’t blow the budget, do no harm”.
It is possible to run services without unnecessary paperwork. Just don’t do it. Stop inventing performance indicators and measure broad outcomes (that isn’t done by the frontline staff – create a Scottish Statistics Agency and resource the Auditor General more generously). Then let the staff manage themselves.
You might think self management is a crazy idea, but it isn’t. The way it works is that members of a team are judged individually according to the overall performance of the team. This means that everyone in the team is incentivised to ensure everyone else in the team is performing at their best and that the team only does the right things.
This is used in the Dutch health service and I spoke to a person who worked with Dutch health teams in a refugee camp. He described it as remarkable – they were incredibly responsive, fast to adapt, really good at problem-solving, moved quickly and got things done. Amen to that.
Do I hate members of the PMC? Not at all. Lots of them are well-meaning and doing their best, honestly and as they have been trained. Many themselves know this system isn’t working. So let’s not punish them, let’s help them retrain as something useful. Like a nurse, doctor, engineer, social worker, bin collector or police officer.
Then we can spend the money on actual public services, not pointless bureaucracy.