An endless measuring of red tape

The New Bureaucracy
August 3, 2007

The New Bureaucracy: Quality Assurance and its Critics is an enjoyable read based on interviews with inspectors, quality assurance managers and auditors, as well as professionals struggling with red tape in the eternal striving for "continuous improvement". In particular, it assesses how bureaucracy is experienced as an unpleasant but necessary and unavoidable part of our working lives, how far measures favoured by government can assess the quality of public sector work, and the differences in perspective between managers and professionals.

The book starts by describing how quality assurance (QA) originated in America in an effort to prevent the US from falling further behind Japanese industry. This is followed by an account of how QA spread to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Max Travers points out that although we often use terms such as "benchmarking", "continuous improvement" and "customer feedback", compared to the almost evangelical zeal associated with QA in the US, what we get here is "perhaps best described as bureaucratic regulation".

Travers looks at QA in the police force, the National Health Service and the law as well as in higher education. He argues that the reason why Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency have been so successful in expanding their activities is that the inspection system has become institutionalised. He suggests that "there is much potentially to be lost, and little to be gained, through challenging this system of regulation".

He then goes on to argue that the "problem with audit and inspection is that they are based on the assumption that the performance of an organisation can be measured and that improvement can be demonstrated over time". He also rightly argues that league tables are part of the problem.

Three case studies are used to illustrate how QA is experienced on the ground. They show how many staff are experiencing QA as "something that slows down the organisation through creating burdensome and unnecessary work". To provide a balanced view, there is also an extract from a professional who accepts QA processes as a routine part of working life.

The author concludes that "quality assurance is likely to continue to grow as an occupation" and that "perhaps the critics must learn to live with this form of regulation along with other disagreeable features of the modern world".

The book uses a number of different theoretical lenses (sociology, neoliberalism, Marxism, new public management), as well as critiques by Foucault, Habermas and Luhrmann. The author also draws on Norman Fairclough's model of critical discourse analysis when examining the language used by new Labour, highlighting how the language of the "audit society" (Michael Power) has been adopted in the crusade to improve public services.

The author rightly suggests that the critiques of Power and Onora O'Neill have been the most influential in reaching a wider audience, although they have so far had little impact on British public policy. The final part of the book includes a useful review of how government has accepted the need to cut red tape although, as Travers suggests, "one gets the impression that as one tentacle of the octopus of red tape is removed, another grows elsewhere". This is certainly the sector's view.

This is a good introduction to the development of quality assurance in the public sector. The likely audience would perhaps be postgraduates on courses in public policy and administration, but it would also be of interest to anyone wishing to gain an insight into the tensions between professionals, managers and the Government that have been caused by QA. These will continue for a while yet.

Roger Brown is vice-chancellor and professor of higher education policy, Southampton Solent University. Lilian Winkvist-Noble is research fellow at the same institution.

The New Bureaucracy: Quality Assurance and its Critics

Author - Max Travers
Publisher - Policy Press
Pages - 208
Price - £65.00 and £24.99
ISBN - 9781861349286 and 499

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