Peeling back the mandarins

December 29, 1995

David Walker talks to Sue Richards, a professor of management who prescribes therapy for the public sector.

There can be few organisations anywhere within the public sector which have not in recent years had a brush with management consultants. Sometimes these rationalisers have appeared like angels of death; besuited spectres equipped with finely printed reports and slick presentation skills to pronounce a sentence of "downsizing", or a rigorous course of "culture change". Universities, funding councils, Whitehall departments, local authorities, health trusts; they have all met these dark visitors. Only those institutions which need change the most, the House of Commons, say, or the minister's private office, are spared the consultancy.

Behind the consultants there has of course lain financial reality, the desire to secure more for less, in reponse to a perceived mood switch on the part of a more individualist and tax-averse electorate. But for all their apparent influence, consultants have been oddly invisible within the wider culture. They have not spawned soap operas. Children do not usually tell their primary schoolteachers that what they want to grow up to be is a management consultant. They have, like the accountancy firms which shelter many of them, been famously grey.

That is not much of an introduction to Sue Richards, who is a consultant, a very successful consultant moreover, who recently moved to a high profile position as professor of public management at the burgeoning school of public policy at Birmingham University. A grey woman? Well no, yet someone whose style is very much that of the organisation's psychotherapist who seems to know what the employees and the executives obviously do not, cannot know about the pathologies of their council, health trust, broadcasting corporation ...

For consultancy is a form of talk therapy, and therefore its best practitioners are masters of timbre, nuance, tone and volume. One of the first things you notice about Richards is her voice, pitched low and in its softness able to stitch disparate positions together, to move people apparently on opposite tracks back on the main line, to get discussion going. A female skill, I wondered, this "listening without competing" as she calls it?

Sue Richards is more than a listener. She is a career civil servant, an entrepreneur and, in such books as Improving Public Management, a theorist. It is, in considerable measure, thanks to her that the course of organisational changes in the public sector has a name, the "new public management". This embraces the doctrine of devolving managerial discretion down the line, "empowering" lower level staff to take more responsibility, writing all encompassing "mission statements", attending rigorously to costs and hiving off non-essential functions to contracted out agencies. It is manifest in Whitehall, in the National Health Service and in local authorities.

Never a Thatcherite, coming indeed from a left-of-centre background, Sue Richards was an early advocate and a prophet of the new managerialism. Now, while still an enthusiast for the reform of decision-taking, culture and practice in public sector organisations, she is also its critic. As she settles into Birmingham she is thinking hard how any of these changes - Thatcherite in much of their inspiration - will survive the transition to a new, possibly Labour government. And what now of the argument that management change may have gone too far in substituting a can-do, business-orientated culture in public bodies where the public interest may demand caution, procedure and an innate sense of responsibility? Sir Richard Scott's report into British arms sales to Iraq has come to symbolise the danger of a deficient moral and constitutional sense among public officials, elected and appointed. How much needs to be recuperated of an older, even Victorian notion of public service that orients itself not just towards the "top of the office" - the minister's suite or the vice chancellor's office - but to a wider conception of the public and its interest in good government?

"I think the Scott inquiry does show that there has been a decline in professional standards in the civil service, but I do not believe that this has been caused by managerialism. I see no reason why you should not have effective management for high public purpose. But public values have to be asserted and defended and that has not happened.

"I don't align myself with the view that markets are better but I do think the health reforms have moved the NHS forward in all sorts of positive ways. In the civil service, management even became more humanistic as notions of organisational culture, and winning the support of staff to achieve a vision and purpose took hold."

But now Richards is about to embark on an Economic and Social Research Council-sponsored study of the effects of "market testing" in central government - the programme by which public bodies are required to identify blocks of their work that could be performed by external contractors. The name of the game for her, now, is to seek to provide the intellectual framework for thinking about the new public management as political and financial circumstances change.

For this theorist of change, her own trajectory has been - socially speaking - upwards, carried by the logic of education and employment out of working-class Bradford. The changing etiquette of culture and employment makes class identification ever more fraught but how else other than working-class do you describe a father who ran a cobbling business until he went blind then worked in a department store's petrol station and a mother who made and decorated wedding cakes, in between raising six children?

"There are two ways of handling the ladder of mobility. One is to detach yourself, leave it all behind. For me, strong family roots keep me going back there. My life is now very different, as part of the affluent middle class in the south-east. I was lucky in having a warm supportive family who cared a lot for me, did not always understand where I was going, but none the less believed that anything I did was right as far as they were concerned. I see a very different world through the eyes of my mother and the rest of my family. That replenishes my anger if I am inclined to be too forgiving."

What she did, after studying politics at Liverpool University and doing graduate work first at Essex then at Birmingham Universities, was teach at Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic, where began her intellectual engagement with organisational life. Then to London, with a partner who is now a local authority museums officer, to teach middle-level civil servants about the political context of their work. This was at the Civil Service College, Whitehall's in-house training school. It is an odd incomplete institution, part of whose job is to defend the faith that there is such a thing as a unified, professional civil service rather than a group of departmental baronies loosely watched by a weak central authority in the Cabinet Office and Treasury.

Sue Richards fell among a group of people, "genuine academics" she calls them, who were trying to make sense of and explain what was happening empirically to public administration as Margaret Thatcher consolidated her power in the early and mid-1980s. Among them were Les Metcalfe, now at the European Institute of Public Administration, Robert Walker, now at Loughborough University, and Helen Wallace, now at the University of Sussex.

"The culture of that little group was important in encouraging me to take myself seriously as an academic commentator on the Thatcher reforms then under way. As a teenager I moved every day between my home culture and the culture of my direct grant grammar school. This taught me early about cultural difference. There is, perhaps, a gender aspect to all this; intuition is not a magical property. If you stand outside the dominant culture you have to learn how to read it."

The mid-1980s were an exciting time. Improving Public Management, written with Les Metcalfe, seemed to many to capture and explain the phenomenon for the first time, to make what was happening apace in health, local government and Whitehall acquire more coherence - more coherence, she now acknowledges, than perhaps it actually possessed. Critical research on public management within Whitehall was counter-cultural, easily killed at the flick of a mandarin's memo.

Sue Richards became an advocate for the new managerialism and the criticism it contained of the mandarin class. "Not a Thatcherite critique I but something in my background chimed with the impatience with the civil service's skill at the civilised management of decline. I felt a sense of outrage at the collapse of the manufacturing economies of cities like Bradford. I felt the smooth world of the mandarinate was part of the problem. What we badly needed was to modernise our government institutions so that we would be better equipped to solve social and economic problems."

And she became, in a good Thatcherite transition, an entrepreneur. With Laurie McMahon and Greg Parston from the King's Fund College she founded a management consultancy, the Office for Public Management, risking the family home, working all the hours 1980s-doers did. But OPM was intended to be different: it sought to achieve organisational reform for the sake of social purpose - to go into Labour councils, for example, with sympathy for their aims, seeking to help them realise their objectives.

We had two aims, she recollects. One was to take the chaos out of the practitioners' world - the director of housing, the health chair, the agency executive - by reforming and reconceptualising their reality so that they could see cause and effect at play in their world and so handle it. "We wanted to help them to understand and manage better."

It did not feel very risky, she says. "We were confident of our skills. Apart from having an office base and a few computers huge capital investment is not required." OPM grew. It now employs 50 people, a third support staff, the rest professional consultants. So is she rich?

"We did not intend to take a profit. All the surplus has gone into developing the office, and to funding some action research work." It is a theme she comes back to, how hard it is to keep the process of reflecting and concept development alive in the driven, competitive world of consultancy. OPM, she concedes, has done less thinking than she had hoped. And that fact goes some way to explain her move to Birmingham. Because, she believes, in a university devoted to learning and enlightenment there will be strong support for the development of public management ideas which can influence practice.

What made her aspire to succeed in the world? "I was turning 30, no longer a pretty young thing, and realising that I could sink into the invisibility of middle age as a woman unless I worked out what my particular contribution to the world would be. When I had my daughter, there was the additional spur of wanting to set her an example, to encourage her achievement."

Has the world welcomed her, as a woman? "Chief executives and directors of public service organisations are mostly male. Competitiveness seems to be built into the male of the species. Being different, complementary rather than competitive, allows access to issues which may be closed off to men - you are able to hold up that mirror even though it may contain distressing flaws, when you are not the gender competititor.

"The most powerful people in the organisation bear most responsibility for the state of their cultures and facing them with the often negative consequences of their own behaviour requires both delicacy and courage."

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