The Cult Of the Manager: Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Cant, Become Managers.

Listener: 26 February, 2000.

Keywords: Governance;

In the past the Victoria of University of Wellington produced a useful one cardboard page calender, which set out clearly by colour coding the year’s teaching and nonteaching days, which is at the heart of the university year. The 2000 calendar is larger – so it does not fit over the archaeological layers of old calendars on the pinboard above the desk. Yet it contains less useful information. In particular the teaching/non-teaching split is not evident. Someone in management decided the old calendar was not sufficiently attractive, and got in a designer to revise it. One assumes they did not consult any academics, and isolated there in management they had no sense of what is important in a university. (The fashion for non-functional calendars seems widespread. Even Creative New Zealand succumbed.)

Perhaps they illustrate the transformation which is going on in so many of our public organizations. Once upon a time the organization had a purpose, and the function of a management was to assist with that purpose. Nowadays, those on the sharp end – the teachers, the researchers, the health and other professionals, the suppliers of services – increasingly feel that their task is to generate funds to support an enlarging and isolated management structure which seems to have objectives of its own, independent of the apparent purpose of the institution.

I do not think the shift can be explained exclusively on the policies of the last fifteen years. The growth of the cult of the manager seems to be worldwide, although it is perhaps more powerful here. With the economy performing badly and without the resources to provide the services the public demanded, some “genius” decided – without any evidence – that there would be big productivity gains from managing the public service “properly”.

They have not appeared. There are plenty of anecdotes about occasional gains, but most would have happened anyway, and were happening before the new managers stepped in. The failure of the New Zealand economy to produce significant increases in productivity growth – if anything there has been a slowdown since the reforms – is one of the great puzzles of recent economic development. In the case of the public sector it may be that the new management styles are inimical to improved performance. The tendency to increase the management layer at the expense of front line delivery seems be widespread. Among the reasons may be:
– new managers require high quality (and expensive) working environments. (Recall those $1000 chairs that the HFA needed, while in the hospital clinics they were meant to be funding, waiting patients sit on run-down chairs.)
– remuneration rates for the new managers are high, at levels which often seem out of line with what the sharp end is being paid. Apparently a prerogative of management is they must be paid more than those they manage.
– generic managers know little about the services their institutions provide, so they insulate themselves and reorganize instead. As one local authority employee, having been subject to three restructuring within a year, said “why dont they do something about the roads, the parks, and the libraries instead?”
– “re-disorganizations” not only divert the institution from its real purpose, but disrupt productivity and are costly in redundancy packages. (Who can understand the need for such redundancies in WINZ, which has only just been created?)
– the new management style requires greater controls in the name of “accountability”, abandoned the principle of personal responsibility. This requires more administrators and more processing. While no doubt some took personal advantages in the old system, the costs of their abuse may be less than the cost of the controls to prevent it. In the name of free markets we strengthened bureaucracy.
– the surge in demand for managers means many are simply not experienced or competent.

Even more managers have to be appointed to cover for their deficiencies of others. To misquote Bernard Shaw “those who can do: those who cant, become managers.”

A recent government review reported hospital managers were doing well. Their main problem was their health professionals treating the patients would not conform to the managers’ requirements. The view was offered without any sense of irony. After all, the presenters were managers. But the public wants managers who have emblazoned on their heart (not to mention in their personal development files) “my job is to assist the health professionals to help their patients.” Apparently for modern management practice it is not.

I have not been asked to go on strike at my university yet. My professional responsibility – an old fashioned notion I know, but I truly believe in it – is that I will not compromise my students, nor my research. My industrial action will be to withdraw cooperation in the corporate planning process. That should bring the registry to a grinding halt, while benefiting students and research.

In the interim I keep a copy of the new calendar above my desk, above the functional one I use. It is to remind me who is in charge, and who I am there to serve.