How to manage in times of cuts

I was talking with a group of managers in the public service  about what it means to lead in situations where resources become very tight which seems to bring out the worst in senior managers and politicians.  There may be an expectation that  everyone will be asked to ‘do more’  for the money they are being paid. Managers may be asked to manage across additional services in ways which begin to compromise the safety of the people for whom the services are being provided. Reflective, thoughtful discussion in which there is an attempt to try out different scenarios in an atmosphere of trust with colleagues is not always possible.

The strong economic theme of contemporary management often comes to the fore in times of crisis, when senior managers concentrate on what is countable or quantifiable, evaluating whether things are ‘efficient and effective’ and cutting things that are deemed not to be. Focusing on countable things seem to invest decision-making with some kind of hard certainty in situations which are actually uncertain. The obvious is not always the most wise. Making cuts (as we can see in the way that the UK political parties are vying with each other to be the most brutal in their plans for cutting public services) looks like a courageous and decisive thing to do because we can ascribe a quantity to it, although it is more difficult to quantify what will happen as a result of making them. Framing the discussion about countable things and implying that to do so is somehow hard-headed glosses over all the other activities of practitioners and managers which can only ever be describable, and are therefore seen to be ‘soft’. One might make a contrary argument that since we can only describe them rather than reduce them to simple metrics, actually these are the hard things to take into account. There is often a strong whiff of testosterone and aggression when managers are trying to make ‘tough choices’.

Another thing that is likely to happen is that the working environment becomes even more politicised: senior managers begin to activate alliances with old friends they have known for a long time and whom they trust. It is possible that cliques will form. Questions relating to the broader interests of the service are likely to be sacrificed in the factionalism that can occur as people manoeuvre to protect their own patch, or the patches of their allies in reciprocal alliances. Although much will be made that what the senior managers are doing is making savings across the service as a whole for the benefit of all rationally according to the ‘data’, what actually transpires will be as a result of the political process that takes place around the table between people who know each other in shifting tides of alliances and deals. Obviously this is affected by the relationships of these individuals to other managers and processes outside the meeting, but in the end each meeting participant will constrain and enable the other in the decision-making meeting. There will be a struggle over what GH Mead called ‘the life process of the group’.

How might public sector managers operate in this kind of political and fast moving environment? The first thing to recognise is that there is no opting out of the game, although there are no guarantees that one will get what one wants by playing. Nonetheless, this is recognition that the daily process of working together is intensely political, by which I mean that it involves struggles over power. One way of becoming marginalised is not playing the game in meetings of managers, not lobbying, not influencing, not sufficiently affecting the way the service is being described and perceived. Not adequately joining in the discussions that are going on in departments allows others to have the licence of describing your service as they see fit which potentially gives them the advantage of disposing of it. The second thing is to act as others are acting, with confidence, but with the knowledge that you are always working with uncertainty. Things may or may not turn out as you want them to, but this is no-one’s ‘fault’ because what transpires does so as a result of the interweaving of many people’s actions and intentions.

The third thing is to continue to reflect with others in the process of struggle about the ethics of what is happening. In a complicated and fast moving situation where it is hard to make sense of what is best for all of the services being provided, one cannot unilaterally sacrifice one’s own service in an act of martyrdom, but neither can one just sit and hope that the axe falls elsewhere. Trying to work with and surface the ethical implications as they arise is a powerful form of intervention in a group struggling to make difficult decisions and could work against cabals tying things up to their advantage. This will mean being open to detaching oneself from one’s own position too.

In the attempt to act for the good in times of economic crisis there is no avoiding the politics.

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