I audit, therefore I am

October 18, 1996

If universities have changed enormously in the past quarter century, so too have the ideas that are taught in them. Michael Power ruefully concludes that we all now live in the age of the audit.

It has been called the "age of inspection", the "evaluative state" and the "audit society". Whatever term one prefers there can be little doubt that something systematic has occurred since 1971. In nearly every area of social and economic life there is more formalised checking, assessment, scrutiny, verification and evaluation. In a recent issue of The THES I read that my colleague at the LSE, Paul Preston, would be spending the summer of 1996 wading through the documentation generated by the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, instead of doing the research for which he is so well known. His situation is not untypical. The ever increasing bureaucratic excesses of university life, so wonderfully satirised by Laurie Taylor, ring true with many academics. Something is getting in the way of the job they are good at and were employed to do.

Why has this happened? The situation is certainly not peculiar to higher education. Hospitals, schools, charities and private sector companies have experienced a massive increase in accounting and audit requirements in the past 25 years. As far as the public sector is concerned, the official answer is that fiscal restraint requires greater attention to costs and the efficient management of resources. Certainly there is real financial pressure and public accountability demands are not unreasonable. But no one has costed this "audit explosion" or examined it to see whether services and products really get better. Managing directors are as baffled as vice chancellors. Each corporate failure seems to bring with it a regulatory overreaction. More law, more checking.

The growth of this obsession with evaluation has different elements. Increasing social and economic complexity leads to managerial demands for long distant control through accounting and auditing. Ideological commitment to organisational reform in the public sector has played a role. But something more profound has also happened. British society has lost confidence in itself. When this happens a society tries to tell reaffirming stories, it makes explicit what was implicit and it creates more and more formal accounts which can be checked. An anxious society invests heavily in evaluative practices of self-affirmation and new industries of checkers are created. It is not so much a loss of trust that has occurred but a desperate need to create it through the management of formal appearance. As a former admissions tutor I see that the A level results were the "best ever" this year. What political and institutional pressures force us to tell these stories to each other?

Let me not overstate the case. There are poorly run businesses and bad teachers, there are real environmental and financial risks which need to be managed. There is also undoubtedly scope for reducing waste in many public services. So we should not respond to all this checking by invoking a golden age of trust, implicit high quality service, honest professionalism and so on. But it is hard to believe that the myriad of evaluative mechanisms that we now have in place are the optimal correctives to these real problems. Many people have their own anecdotes of the absurdities of particular forms of checking. Everyone knows the games that go on, the bizarre meetings and the private smirks. And yet these rituals of compliance, the stories of excellence with which we surround ourselves, carry on. They take time and they often have real economic consequences, so that no one can really afford not to play the game.

In 1996 I shall be head of department for the first time in my career. The job has become a serious management post (although not remunerated as such). I wonder to myself whether I shall have the courage to say "enough" to this obsession with evaluation and with the creation of documentary surfaces so that stories of excellence can be told. Things may change if a few institutions decide to act together but one must also understand that all this checking makes a certain style of management possible, one that is now firmly established. The problem is not evaluation and assessment as such, but the belief that with ever more of it, real excellence can be conjured into existence. The opposite is almost certainly the case; increasing evaluation and auditing are symptoms of mediocrity rather than its cure.

Michael Power is professor of accounting, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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