Thursday, 16 June 2011

Generalists, managers and the cult of venality

"Dispatches" a few months back exposed Britain's University Vice-Chancellors as a particularly avaricious canker on the face of society.  Not content with salaries that wouldn't disgrace a successful, profitable private-sector company, grace-and-favour homes for 'corporate entertaining' paid for out of academic budgets, they are now embarking on culls of academic staff to pay for vanity projects and the over-extension of their institutions in the halcyon Blairite days of education as a substitute for social and intellectual progress.  As usual, the cretinous managerial class forgets that the reason for its existence is that there are professional, qualified people further down the food chain who justify their existence.

It's paradoxical that as Britain has become a service-driven, non-productive economy that the term "manager" has acquired a combination of semi-mystical status and an aspiration for virility.  Most jobs don't actually involve management in the classic sense - but it's important to include it in the job description as it seems to attract a few more points in the grading systems that determine what people get paid.  So it gets elevated to a discipline, with its own standards, mantras and half-witted prolect that makes you fear for the intellectual and linguistic health of the poor saps who use it.

Vice-Chancellors are up there with the NHS, education and local government as exemplars of how the public sector has lost touch with its function - preferring instead to parody the real risk-taking economy with "reward packages" that are signed off by cohorts of similarly-placed parasites muttering and dribbling about "competitiveness and comparability", or if pushed, "the need to attract and retain talent".  These are, not to put too fine a point on it, specious rubbish and do not bear up to intelligent scrutiny.

You need competent, financially-literate people running public services.  But their employment and reward is not the end-point against which the success or failure of organisations should be judged - as the simple clue remains that these are services for the public, not a playground for second-rate theories of organisational design.  It's about teaching, curing or providing the basic facets of a civilised, collective society that are the reward, not some form of grotesque empire protected by a rodomontade of quality-assured, detached organisations whose function is designed to ensure that the users of these services (not "customers", dear God) have no clear way of finding out as to who should be held accountable for their services.

The self-deluding myth that "management" in itself is the answer to problems is used as a further justification for moving accountability away from politicians and citizens to these new secular priests.  They're up there with regulators as cautionary tales.  And for every £300k Vice-Chancellor, the store of human knowledge probably regresses rather than advances.

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