Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Max Weber, bureaucracy and PFI

A key theme that runs through the work of Max Weber is the idea that the means to a given end can start off being rational but become irrational when those means become an end in themselves. This was true, for example, in the Protestant Ethic Thesis, which argued that the pursuit of a given end - in this case salvation (or to be more accurate - the need to certificate one's salvation) - gave rise to a peculiar phenomenon, the idea work per se as a virtue. Once disconnected from the end, one is left, he said, with the idea of work as a "calling" which "prowls around in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs". The key point is that this "inner-worldly" and ascetic attitude to work is now completely irrational from the point of individual utility.

The same concept runs through his theory of bureaucracy : this form of administration was more efficient than it's predecessors because it is more "rational" in that tasks are divided in a hierarchal chain of command; access to posts based on legal-rational certification etc. But problems arise when, as with the notion of work as a calling, the means become ends in themselves. The net effect for Weber, is that in the modern industrialists world, we inexorably move towards imprisonment in an "iron cage" of bureaucracy. Weber - gloomy chap that he was - tended to be longer on diagnosis rather than cure but in as far as he offered one, he favoured a society where charismatic individuals are given the liberty to hold back the forces of routinization that all forms of administration tend to succumb to. In the economic sphere, these "charismatics" are entrepreneurs and this is why he favoured free-markets, rather than economic planning because the latter would, in the long-run, simply lead to more bureaucracy.

From this, one could make the obvious point that, in education, we arrived at the point where the pursuit of means (e.g. assessment) has become irrational years ago - and I think anyone working in the public sector would probably agree. Rather, what I've been thinking lately is that while Weber was probably right about the Soviet model, he was wrong about free-markets because he couldn't have seen the way in which the marketization of our public services has succeeded in creating more bureaucracy. I would argue that this isn't the product of incompetence or poor planning but is instead the inevitable result of creating a market where none existed.

While there is obviously disagreement about the role of the state amongst economists, practically all agree that there is a need for state-intervention in cases of "market failure". This concept holds that there are certain public goods that would never arise out of the interaction of rational, self-interested individuals in the market place. I won't bore you with examples; suffice to say Thatcher's favourite Scottish economist Adam Smith considered mass education to fall into that category. Now, it's not that Mrs. Thatcher and her successors didn't accept this exactly - but they seem to think that these "public goods" benefit from the bracing winds of market competition. I think this - apart from its other effects - does not enhance "efficiency" but does, in fact, actually create more bureaucracy for the following reasons. Outscoring services, such as catering, maintenance, building, etc. means competition - which is supposed to drive down costs, thereby producing more efficiency, right? Except it's wrong. Anyone who surveys the paperwork they have at home will notice that probably at least 90% of this has to do with economic transactions; bank statements, P60s, insurance documents, registration documents for cars to prove you own it etc. The same principles apply to institutions : all these contracts that have risen out creating a market where there wasn't one produces a whole extra layer of paperwork - and paperwork that has to be managed. In this way, I'm arguing, marketization becomes self-defeating by the very same criterion by which it is advocated.

And it doesn't stop there because we all know that, in the name of "accountability", everyone in employment - as well as doing the job - has to fill in numerous forms in which, basically, you have to say what you're going to do, do it, and then write down what you've just done. If the institution you work for is really sad, at some point you'll have filled in a box entitled "what did you learn?", to which you might be tempted to respond : "something to do with the futility of my existence", or something. And then all this paperwork has to be managed and monitored by some hapless line manager.

In summary : Max Weber - smart guy but didn't reckon on vapid, low-grade management-speak taking over the world, did he?

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