The curse of managerialism

By Lorenzo

The ideology of managerialism (that societies are equivalent to the sum of the transactions made by the managements of organisations) must be just about the only case of an ideology whose key figure was an Australian. As Prof. James Hoopes tells it:

But the main genesis of managerialism lay in the human relations movement that took root at the Harvard Business School in the 1920s and 1930s under the guiding hand of Professor Elton Mayo. Mayo, an immigrant from Australia, saw democracy as divisive and lacking in community spirit. He looked to corporate managers to restore the social harmony that he believed the uprooting experiences of immigration and industrialization had destroyed and that democracy was incapable of repairing.

It is not all that surprising that an Australian expatriate might have such a view during the interwar period. This was, after all, the period that also produced F.W. Eggleston’s minor classic State Socialism in Victoria (1932), an analysis of the use of statutory authorities to deliver a wide range of services.

State utilities

According to Murray Horn’s analysis, this was a rational political response to unstable governments — creating a statutory authority provided a stream of benefits to constituents that would outlast any particular (and likely temporary) parliamentary majority. It is notable that the string of long-serving Governments in Victoria in recent decades has seen the abolition of many of these statutory authorities and their absorption into public service departments under direct Ministerial control.

Not always an improvement for public policy — one would well argue that water and transport were both better managed under the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works than they have been subsequently. For example, if the 1969 Transport Plan had been followed, Melbourne would be significantly better supplied with both road and rail transport, rather than playing endless “catch up” due to the long infrastructure construction drought from the Hamer Government‘s retreat from the Doncaster rail line (under resident pressure) in 1976 to the Kennett Government‘s approval of CityLink in 1994. Similarly, the water infrastructure construction drought after the completion of the Thomson Dam (1976-83) did not stand Melbourne in good stead when actual drought hit.

The public servants in charge of such bodies do often seem to have had a genuine notion of custodianship, of performing a service for the citizens. That they were long-serving officials running organisations set up to have longer time horizons perhaps helped with that.

Utilitarian state 

The other reason why an Australian might foster managerialism is the pervasive utilitarianism of Australian political culture — what Hugh Collins called Australia’s Benthamite political culture. Australia being, in effect, the country where the Chartists won. [Incoming Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson’s recent speech to the Liberal Democratic Party conference touches on this.]

Earlier, historian Sir Keith Hancock had referred to the Australian view of the state as:

a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

And such utilities have to be managed. Happiness and the public good becomes a management problem.

One doesn’t have to completely endorse John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire Bastards thesis (nicely discussed here) to see a problem here. Though Saul’s contrast of leadership with management is spot on. Leadership is about inspiring people, management is about people as objects of input-output processes.

Soft managerialism

Hence we come to “soft” managerialism — the belief that people, organisations and institutions are input-output problems, so the more they are managed, the better the output-for-input results. In many ways, we live in an age of managerialism. Corporations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and the public sector are all rife with such managerialism.

There are countervailing factors — bankruptcy being the obvious one for corporations. Enron was a particularly egregious example of feral managerialism.  Institutions and organisations are the more vulnerable to managerialism the less the accountability constraints on them.

Which has made Australian universities particularly prone to the managerialist curse. As I explained years ago to a then colleague who wondered aloud why university administrations were so bad — they have all the unfortunate incentives of the public service with almost none of the accountability constraints.

Which, since neither factor has changed significantly since, means that universities have become more overrun with managerialism rather than less. A friend tells me that it has been seriously proposed at the University of Melbourne to put academics in open plan offices — a proposal that is so silly at so many levels, it is hard to know where to start. As my friend points out, no academic is going to bring their personal library into an open plan office. Nor will they be able to have private discussions with students, or shut out the world and quietly think and research. It is managerialism at its most overblown and most inane. Such managers “see” the input-output problem; they don’t understand what matters, still less the human interactions which are the ultimate point.

The missing custodians

In the aforementioned interview, Saul states that:

when you have power, the most important responsibility is not to do damage to the thing you are in charge of.

And, talking further of Thomas Jefferson‘s approach to political responsibility and leadership,

a non-solution oriented approach … a doubt approach.

But managerialism feeds the managerial ego — that they, the so-needed managers, are the problem solvers. Conversely, if and when people act otherwise than as managerially convenient, such people are not-acceping-management-problems to which more management (i.e. more of the heroic problem-solving managers and more of their problem-solving managerial power) is the solution.

Even worse, such managers are not custodians of anything except their own egos. History doesn’t count because legacy is not a solution to input-output problems. If your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail; and if your only role is to “manage”, everything starts looking like your sort of management problem.

Now, having an intelligentsia in love with the idea of their own subversiveness leaves one open to such un-anchored-in-anything-but-ego “problem-solving”. Not least because being “subversive” has to be good because our legacies are clearly a mass of problems. All connected to the disastrous notion of modernism — that the new is always better. The cult of subversion and the cult of managerialism feed off each other nicely.

While it is true that oppression, privilege, power and exploitation are part of the selection processes of history, it also true that learning what works is part of the selection processes of history — and what works with actual people, not pawns in input-output problems. So, while there is a rich irony in universities being such hothouses for the managerialist disease, it is not one for complacent satisfaction. Universities matter.

It has also not been helpful that the academics main direct experience of “economic reform” has been such managerialism. It provides a quite distorted perspective of the wider phenomenon of economic liberalisation. Which no doubt helped the academic success of Michael Pusey’s fairly asinine book on “economic rationalism”. The notion that the glue of the economic reform policy alliance was to create a sustainable welfare state just passes the analysis, and those who buy into it, by.

But the problems of managerialism extend much wider than distorting the perspectives of academics on a wave of global policy reform. The input-output language of “clients”, “customers”, etc has invaded the realm of education (and public service generally) without actually providing a service anywhere up to the pretensions of its managers.

So, there needs to be more calling out of managerialism for what it is — a distortion of understanding of people, organisations and institutions which serves the managerialist ego, income and empire-building but not the institutions upon which it is inflicted nor the wider societies, whose legacies are being corrupted and, in the end, profoundly mis-managed.

ADDENDA Managerialism is not only a problem at Australian universities, it also infects US higher education:

Over the last 25 years the number of administrative employees at U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled, according to a joint study by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting and the American Institutes for Research. The ratio of nonacademic positions to faculty positions doubled at both public and private institutions. Overall, the industry has added an average of 87 administrative positions per day, a rate has scarcely slowed since the economic downturn, despite tuition increases.


  1. conrad
    Posted February 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I agree, and the history is fascinating. It’s also interesting to see just how pervasive it has become in many areas in which it seems to do large amounts of damage, like education and science, and the type of post-hoc rationalisations used for its consequences (or just the deliberate sweeping under the carpet of them).

  2. Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Ta and yes. I have had some very strong private endorsements of what I have to say in the post.

  3. Dion Giles
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Managerialism is an ancient disease which,. like bubonic plague, flares up when conditions tear a hole in the social fabric. One such occasion was World War I and another is the current global neoliberal revolution. The fruit of the first was the Soviet Central Political Bureaucracy masquerading as a proletarian revolution, and the universities serve as a microcosm of the managerialist takeover of the public sector in the second. Someone much better at the right kind of research than I am could make his or her name with a book accurately tracing the change in the amount allocated in any major university budget (cents per total budget dollar) to teaching and research in the 1960s and today. The disastrous effect of this change (and craven surrender by academic staff) has been ably described by neuroscientist Dr Donald Meyers in his book on the decline in Australian universities, downloadable free at

  4. Graham Bell
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    True enough – but how do we escape from managerialism before it ruins us forever?

  5. Graham Bell
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    By the way – and completely off-topic – I actually came over here hoping to find an informed but unbiased comment on the current situation in Kiyev and elsewhere. Couldn’t find an off-page contact so I’m writing here. Cheers 🙂

  6. Adrien
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I liked the thesis of Saul’s book the only shame is that he wrote it. Very sloppy I thought.

    It’s a shame that ‘managerialism’ isn’t more of an issue in political discourse. Perhaps the reasons have to do with the fact that so many among the political classes endorse it explicitly or unwitttingly for their own reasons. The illusion of omniscient competence amongst bureaucracies is perhaps the descendant of the over-confidence of intellectuals from the 19th century on the supreme faith in the capacity to engineer perfection; the ‘misuse of the intellect which springs from overlooking its limitations and conditions’ as Röpke had it or the disregard of any knowledge that can’t be reduced to formula. It’s been many years since I’ve worked in any large organization but in my distant experience of such I recall managers as (mostly) being competent only in the manipulation and exploitation of administrative structures and pretty much useless at doing or even comprehending anything else. This holds true for the private sector as well.

    Leaders must take responsibility for failure. Managers are people who know how to find someone else to blame.

  7. Graham Bell
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Adrien: I do like your concluding sentence – surely it is an integral part of the Australian Constitution, isn’t it?

    Cheer up. Lorenzo, Conrad, Dion Giles, you and me are thinking about the curse of managerialism – so too are those lurking here for more than a moment. It is already part of OUR political discourse.

    Alright, our 5+ isn’t quite a thundering herd …. yet …. but it’s a start. As the Chinese proverb goes “Wan shi qi tou nan” (Everything is bloody hard when you start off).

  8. Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Economic liberalisation is an opportunity rather than a cause.

    [email protected] Labelling is a good start. Identifying the problem is the first step in dealing with it.

    [email protected] I hope I rose to your challenge in later posts.

    [email protected] Nicely put.

    [email protected] ditto 🙂

  9. Melanie George
    Posted July 11, 2015 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Dear Lorenzo

    I am writing an article for publication in ‘Clinical Psychology Forum’. It relates to the impact of managerialism on staff morale within the NHS. I should like to quote you please. With this in mind, would you be so kind as to let me know your last name and initial please?

  10. Posted July 12, 2015 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I am flattered, and will email you.

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