On the means and ends of management

One topic of discussion in the international aid domain is the extent to which current management practice, the management of development, works against the expressed aims of international development organisations. Put simply, if the aim of international aid organisations, INGOs, is to help others to help themselves in ways that, according to the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, ‘they have reason to value’, then what place do ways of working have which are predicated on control, and some would argue, coercion? In the thicket of visions, strategies, grids, frameworks, and targets which INGOs set themselves, to what degree are the voices of the disenfranchised audible? Or are they rather, drowned out by the aspirations of INGOs which in appearance and actions seem more closely to resemble private sector corporations? Have means become disconnected from ends?

In this and a series of subsequent posts I will be arguing that means and ends are inseparable: they are constitutive of each other. If the means of INGOs appear to be contradicting the ends they espouse publicly, then this is because other ends have come to dominate. Although this discussion is specifically about INGOs it may have relevance by analogy to other discussions about the means and ends of management in, say, the public sector, for example the management of schools and hospitals, or the management of companies which aspire to being innovative or creative. To what degree is the way they are managed consistent with what they want to achieve?

As one would expect in any debate, there are a variety of recommendations for the management of development depending on different commentators’ understanding of the problem. There are people who consider themselves reformists, who argue that there is hodge podge of management methods in use, which in their more extreme managerial forms, should be toned down, but in general are unique to the sector because they are oriented to the good. To sustain this position implies a certain degree of confusing intention with outcome. At the other extreme there are rejectionists from both the left http://tiny.cc/bn6qw and the right, such as William Easterly http://tiny.cc/rgz38 (although he would present himself as a ‘sceptic’), who argue either that managerialism is a new form of colonialism, or, after Hayek, that ‘planners’ using systematic management methods will never produce more creative outcomes than markets in which entrepreneurial poor people following their own interests. The implicit conclusion from the rejectionist perspective is that the management of development in its current form is bound to fail.

In this post I will be arguing that the management practice of most INGOs is clearly managerialist; it is the main game in town. And by managerialist I mean a belief that ascribes to a cadre of professional managers particular and unique abilities to organize activities in any organization irrespective of the context in which they are working, and by using an accepted and ‘stable’ body of management concepts. In future posts I will be discussing the extent to which I consider the body of knowledge to be stable and useful. However, except in cases where a particularly extreme and heroic form of managerialism is being exercised, here I am using the term descriptively, rather than pejoratively, although I would argue that managerialism is widely taken up in a taken-for-granted way and has particular consequences. That is to say, not only is it the main game in town, but it is a very hard game to call into question. In most INGOs, not having a vision or a five year strategy, or not setting targets would be thought highly eccentric, not to say unprofessional. Additionally, in becoming more explicitly managerialist there has been a shift in INGOs in the configuration of power away from ‘development professionals’ and towards management professionals, which is reflected in their status and reward. Senior managers and leaders in INGOs receive rewards which 10-15 years ago would have been unimaginable in the sector.

If we accept that the management practice in most INGOs is managerialist, rather than taking this as and end point which closes down discussion, it could instead provoke further exploration, which in turn may call out a different discussion, and perhaps subversion and resistance. It may produce alternatives, but from within a detailed understanding of what it is we encounter in every day practice. In adopting neither a reformist nor a rejectionist position I am arguing that it is important to understand the characteristics of managerialism, how it is taken up as a form of coercive persuasion, what it allows and disallows, what it enables and constrains and some of its contradictions. In this post I am also concerned to discuss how it is that managerialism has come to dominate in INGOs, which is no surprise if we consider that INGOs are not separated from the societies of which produced them.

One might think of INGOs as the institutionalization of conscience, a particular organizational form of an explicit social and moral commitment to mobilizing groups of people in support of other, more marginalized groups. The practical form that this exercise of conscience takes, what we consider to be ‘good development’ and the way that this is supported and guided, is bound to change over time and to be affected by broader societal changes. As institutions embodying this practical moral commitment, INGOs take a particular form which is evolving dynamically, not just in reaction to the context in which ‘development’ takes place, but more directly in response to social changes that are happening in the societies from which the organisations emerge. In this sense I am arguing that the changes in the management of INGOs have come about as a result of social processes which no-one, and no group of people has planned. However, this is not the same as saying that these changes are inevitable, or that it is impossible to act differently within the constraints of broader social processes. Rather, that we are all caught up in a game which is not just of our own making, and nor is it in the gift of whole domains of activity, such as international development, which involves thousands of organisations and billions of dollars of spend, to decide how things ‘should’ be organised. What interests me here is what is, as much as what should be. I am also interested in pointing to and discussing some of the mutually amplifying processes which sometimes make a trends in societies irresistible, ones which make a rejectionist position untenable.

One significant change in the whole of society in the West to a greater or lesser extent since the early eighties is that all organisations, be they private, public or third sector, have been formed by, and have continued to form, a particular and ascendant manifestation of liberal economic capitalism which privileges market exchange and economic rationality. For example, there has been a high degree of continuity between both Thatcher and Blair governments in the UK in their acceptance of the dominance of the market in social affairs (although there were clear differences in emphasis between the two colours of government) and the importance of ‘sound management’. The last 30 years have seen waves of organizational and managerial ‘reforms’ which have affected all sectors of the economy, which have made all organisations more permeable to market exchange, and one might argue, more like each other. In opening themselves up to market ‘reform’, with its promise of greater flexibility, they have also come to resemble each other. These have been processes of both standardization and diversity at the same time: the claim of bringing about hybrid and different forms of organization has developed from a convergence of thinking.

An accompanying aspect of this change has been the way that business schools have both responded to, and helped create an environment where having a qualification in management has become a prerequisite for access to the burgeoning ranks of managers and consultants who attend to what is considered necessary to make all organisations more ‘business like’. There is a high convergence in what many business schools teach in the way of management thinking, which is partly brought about by similar standardising pressures that are brought to bear on universities, and partly from an aspiration amongst academic ands practitioners for a stable body of knowledge which constitutes ‘management science’. For example, any business school wishing to accredit its MBA programme with the Association of Masters of Business Administration (AMBA), will be obliged to standardize its curriculum: to a degree students on an MBA course can expect to learn similar things in similar ways.

In contemporary INGOs one is highly likely to encounter managers in the upper echelons who have a development background and who have subsequently trained in management on one of the courses which I have discussed above, or who have migrated from the private sector to take up a job in an INGO as an alternative career. There are a number of chief executives of leading INGOs who have no background at all in international development, but this is in no way thought to disqualify them from the prominent position which they occupy. As INGOs have grown and diversified, and have taken up their place in an increasingly competitive market place for aid, so they have taken on different functions, such as marketing and public relations, which are new to them, but ones which we might argue are necessary for success in the emerging environment. In developing these new functions they have called on the experience of professional marketeers and communicators who may or may not have a background in development. These employees are of course changed by the experience of working in INGOs, and they in turn, change the organisations of which they have become part. It is not unusual in development organisations to take part in discussions about ‘branding’, about the organisation’s ‘market offer’, about a particular initiative’s ‘unique selling point’ or ‘added value’, terms which would have been unthinkable before the 2000s.

The process of becoming ‘more business-like’, more market oriented, covers over as much as it reveals, as I will be exploring in subsequent posts: firstly it introduces new vocabulary, and hence new ways of thinking into the international development domain. For example, if we were to take as standard the idea that development interventions should principally be ‘effective and efficient’, which are undoubtedly two important criteria in any organization which makes things for profit, then this potentially silences a discussion of whether the intervention is just, or ethical, and whom it benefits. Technical discussions may interrupt, or at least alter, discussions about the good and the right. It is clearly very difficult to argue in short order against effectiveness and efficiency, as though one would be in favour of being inefficient and ineffective, although there is a strong case to be made, which I will do latterly, in arguing that a certain level of redundancy is a perquisite for creativity and innovation.

In the next post I will address questions of ends and means. In the international development sector in the UK there are a handful of INGOs which are very large indeed followed by a second tier of medium-sized INGOs which are large by many companies’ standards. The large INGOs have a big influence on all the others who aspire to be like them, and whose employees watch and emulate initiatives that they undertake. All organisations are faced with the problem of co-ordinating the activities of sometimes large numbers of people in a way which broadly fulfills the organisation’s mission. To what extent, then, do the ways that dominant forms of organizing, which I have claimed in this post are informed by managerialism, compromise the explicit moral mission that INGOs claim? What are the contradictions that development workers and managers are dealing with, where on the one hand they are obliged to fulfill their organizational objectives and on the other are supposed to be working to support others to live the lives they have reason to value, which may not always be one and the same thing? In what ways are the particularities of INGOs in the development domain helpful for understanding the needs of other sectors, which are both similar and different at the same time?

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