Friday, October 22, 2010

The Emperor's New Clothes--New Public Management

I attended a breakfast seminar yesterday morning sponsored by Forskerforbundet--my union. Yes, scientists here are unionized (you don’t have to join a union but it is encouraged and smart to do so for a lot of reasons), and Forskerforbundet is definitely one of the largest unions. It is quite an active group and keeps its members well-informed about what is happening on the scientific, political and economic fronts in this country and internationally. The topic of the seminar—‘Have current government politics led to a better everyday life for employees in academia?’--was the reason I decided to attend. The resounding answer for most of the attendees was no. There were four speakers who had brief presentations and then the floor was open for debate. One of the lectures was entitled—‘Accounting as Politics’; it was very enlightening. It was essentially a presentation of New Public Management (NPM), how this management style is defined, and its impact on the public sector when it is implemented. Afterwards it was interesting to hear university and college employees—scientists, teachers and educational administrators—talk about how bad the current situation has become under NPM. NPM in the public sector is the big topic of discussion these days. I found the seminar interesting because the speakers managed to crystallize, explain and confirm the feelings I have had about the changes in my workplace during the past few years. Things just don’t feel right anymore, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what is wrong either. What I do know is that finances and budgets are the only things that interest upper-level management these days; also that scientists are expected to understand complicated accounting practices and are reprimanded if they do not make an effort to understand them. A few years ago I remember telling an accountant in my workplace who called me about some mistake he thought I had made that if he wanted me to spend a lot of time learning his job, then he needed to come into my lab and learn how to do my job while I was busy learning his, because someone had to fill in the gap. There was silence on the other end of the phone and then a click as he hung up on me. I am certain that he made a note somewhere that ‘this woman is difficult’ or something similar. I am difficult—I question authority. I ask-- ‘who made these (new) rules’. We are expected to drop whatever we are doing on a moment’s notice to focus on some monetary or budget issue that is suddenly of prime importance today, but of course we know that tomorrow it will be something else again. It surprises me that no one in upper management has made the connection that the lack of focus on the actual job that a scientist was hired to do (research) due to constant administrative distractions and paper-pushing leads to a fragmented work approach that in turn leads to loss of productivity and reduced efficiency. This never seems to get discussed.

What is NPM, you may ask. A few years ago none of us knew what it was, let alone its impact on our daily work lives. NPM is a management theory that has already seen its day, as far as I can ascertain from the little I have read about it. It is already considered passĂ© in other countries that fell willingly into its snares and then managed to free themselves from it. But Norway appears to have welcomed it with open arms, putting its unique twist on it as only socialist democrats can do. In theory, its tenet is that optimal management of the public budget results in better economic outcomes and increased efficiency (due to competition). It is rather utopian in its quest for perfect efficiency and a perfectly-balanced budget. We all know that in the real world, and especially in the health care system, perfect efficiency and a perfectly-balanced budget are impossible to achieve as long as patients are involved. But this system treats patients as commodities. And it treats the employees in these systems as commodities as well. It’s a cold management style. You are only as valuable to your workplace as your productivity deems you to be. In other words, you are measured by what you produce. The problem with this way of looking at things in the healthcare system and in academia/education is the following—what are doctors and nurses ‘producing’? Hospitals are not factories. Cancer research institutes are not factories. Colleges and universities are not factories. What are academicians, researchers and educators ‘producing’? Looked at in the NPM way, researchers are producing articles about their work. They are being measured by their output. The production of more articles and the production of more PhD and Masters students means more money for the institution one works for and for the individual researcher. The scientists and academicians who survive and who are rewarded in the current environment are those who are well-funded with large research groups. If you are a small research group, the idea of real competition with a large research group is a joke. How can large and small research groups compete on equal playing ground? They are not well-matched from the start point. But this is what we deal with now. We are told that ‘we are good, but not good enough’, and if we only do so-and-so, that we will suddenly get more money and more students. We are encouraged to ‘compete’ and to live up to our ‘potential’ even though most of us realize that the world is such that only a few people ever reach the top or become the best. Those of us who come from non-socialist systems understand this from the start point. But understanding this does not mean that you cannot do good work and find your niche in the system. Accepting that you are not the best in a particular field does not mean that you cannot work in and do good work in that field. But there is little room for that sort of thinking in NPM.

So what is a ‘good employee’ in an NPM system? As far as I can determine, a good employee is obedient, subservient to the goals of a balanced budget and perfect efficiency, and one that does not combat the system in any way. A good employee does not make waves, does not stick his or her head up, and does not state his or her opinion about particular issues. Conflict resolution and negotiation are key words in how to deal with employee problems if you are a leader, and as far as I can see, it mostly means sweeping those problems under the rug and forgetting about them. The rewards for this obedience are many—promotions to higher administrative positions with emphasis on leadership qualities (that promote the further spread of NPM), an automatic network of NPM supporters, and the feeling that you are part of something much bigger than yourself—that you are promoting change and helping your employees ‘reach their potential’ and become more efficient producers. If it wasn’t that this system has been unreservedly and unabashedly adopted as important to the future of public sector workplaces, I would dismiss it as more ‘new age’ thinking like EST and all those self-help philosophies that made their founders unbelievably wealthy. Don’t get me wrong, I can accept that some of those philosophies have helped some people. But by and large, I tend to be suspicious of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ way of thinking. I don’t hop on the bandwagon just because a million other people are doing so. I like to think for myself and to be able to observe and judge for myself whether something works or not. I am inherently suspicious of anything that promotes utopian thinking. We are imperfect humans. We are not machines or robots. We will never ever manage to achieve perfect efficiency and perfect productivity on this earth. If NPM supporters start by accepting that tenet, we can work from there. It would mean that they would have to reverse their current approaches. That would be best. And then you’ll possibly have me on your side. 

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