A Left Alternative to “New Public Management”

A remade New Public Management for the left should focus on co-operative, open planning through democratic worker control of management technologies. Part of openDemocracy's "Left governmentality" mini-series.

Sahil Dutta Richard Lane
15 May 2019, 11.37am
Northamptonshire County Council HQ - financially troubled and recently criticised by inspectors
Hazel Nicholson/Flickr, CC 2.0

New Public Management (NPM) made a simple promise: to run inefficient public services like they were efficient private businesses. Where privatisation was not possible, the idea was to implement market-like processes: league tables, audits, quantitative evaluation, outsourcing, and dividing the public sector into ‘purchasers’ and ‘providers’. Imposing market discipline would supposedly drive standards up and costs down by transforming the state into a ‘firm’ and citizens into ‘consumers’.

Yet NPM – as a hard-edged programme of marketisation – never existed.

When LSE academic Christopher Hood popularised the term NPM in the early 1990s, he used it to describe the Thatcherite revolution in the way the British government debated, designed, implemented and evaluated public service provision. But by treating NPM as a coherent restructuring of public bureaucracies in the image of the market, he and others since have frequently positioned it simply as another feature of the neoliberal revolution.

NPM never operated according to a neoliberal ideal. There was no straightforward marketisation. Far from market-driven agility, actually existing NPM required an audit culture to constrain doctors and nurses overprescribing their treatments, teachers overinflating their costs, and citizens overstating their needs. Under NPM, taxpayers money was never left to something as mercurial as the market.

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While the progressive left has focused intensively on ownership, nationalisation doesn’t negate managerialism. And arguably, there could be a danger that ownership reform under a future progressive government could strengthen the grip of managerial control. Labour’s Inclusive Ownership Fund may highlight this danger.

The proposal involves transferring ownership of up to a 10% stake in British firms with over 250 employees into a collectively held and administered pool of shares. But without addressing the impact of contemporary management practices, there is a chance that workers could be positioned as neoliberal subjects, materially invested in voting for management programmes that make their working conditions worse. Employee representation on boards will not simply translate into a form of worker control. At the same time the state would be fiscally incentivized not to intervene due to the proposed ‘social dividend’ transfer.

Alongside any nationalisation and ownership reform there must be a programme of alternative management tools: of planning, implementation and public-service evaluation. This programme will by necessity come from the redevelopment and redeployment of existing planning and management architecture in different domains. In the same way that any progressive socialist future will be necessarily post-capitalist, democratic control will be necessarily post-managerial, with revolutionary change being undertaken one step at a time.

The importance of this is made clear by the current popularity of Green New Deal ideas. Take one aspect of this: food production. Feeding growing populations while reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, biodiversity loss and agricultural economic precarity requires wholesale restructuring of current intensive production methods. A recent study focused on Europe showed how the adoption of small-scale agroecological and dietary changes could provide healthy food for all while reducing GHG emissions by 40% and allowing the regeneration of biodiversity.

But how would a sprawling network of co-operative and community owned food producers be coordinated and managed at scale without slipping back towards a system of NPM? One possibility is already embodied in Tamar Grow Local (TGL) – a Community Interest Company on the Devon/Cornwall border.

TGL implemented a governing infrastructure comprised of a nested ecosystem of community food initiatives, each designed to be self-sustaining but also mutually supporting. By anticipating the failure and dissolution of lower-tier initiatives, TGL allows both physical assets and human knowledge and capacities to be retained at higher-level tiers. It fosters community owned and controlled food production without either market wastefulness or top-down central planning.

Another potential tool employed as part of a progressive management project could involve the Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY) metric already used by NICE. Within the NHS, QALYs act as a common denominator enabling evaluations between alternative healthcare interventions such as surgical treatments, pharmaceutical approaches and health promotion. Building on already existing attempts to incorporate non-clinical welfare considerations, QALYs could be developed to include factors oriented around equity and non-economic prosperity.

Ultimately, this tool could be used as part of participatory budgeting and procurement decision making in other areas of the public sector such as education and the environment.

This is not to license a kind of left managerial accelerationism. An approach to quantifying welfare through cost-utility analyses is ultimately rooted within a utilitarian framework and cannot be repurposed in a straightforward fashion. Indeed, this would require the careful and transparent eliciting of public welfare judgements.

Similarly, contemporary algorithmic, data-driven and quantification-based management tools cannot be unproblematically relocated from centralised management to bottom-up, worker controlled hubs. For example, it doesn’t matter much whether student evaluations of teacher performance are run by university managers or by semi-autonomous departmental groups when we know that student evaluations routinely discriminate against women and People of Colour (POC).

But what this does mean is that both the management processes as well as the objects they produce – the orderings, rankings, cost and welfare evaluations, pathways and scenarios – are made transparent and brought into explicit consideration. Existing managerial techniques can be the starting point for provoking these political considerations.

The fact that women and POCs routinely receive poor student evaluations in comparison to white male peers exposes the effects of structural misogyny and racism, and forces us to consider ways of incorporating conscious reflection into Higher Education evaluation. The transparent availability of QALY indicators enables the public consideration of the silent ways in which some lives and some bodies are currently valued less than others, and a platform for managing public provision in better, fairer and more sustainable ways.

A left alternative to NPM should focus on co-operative planning through democratic worker control of management technologies. At the same time, it would necessarily force the outputs of these technologies into the open and subject to scrutiny.

This article forms part of openDemocracy's "Left governmentality" mini-series.

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