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The Legacy of Thatcherism - Public Sector Reform

Peter Dorey
p. 33-60


In this paper our focus is on the reform of Britain’s public services since the 1980s, particularly education and health (the National Health Service - NHS), and the manner in which the reforms initiated by the 1979-90 Thatcher Governments have been maintained, consolidated and extended by subsequent governments, not least by New Labour. That post-1990 governments enacted similar reforms of the public sector/services ensured that the legacy of Thatcherism in this major sphere of public policy has endured, and continues today.
Rather than adopt a chronological approach identifying each reform as it was enacted in sequence, this paper will offer a more thematic account of public sector/service reform since the 1980s. In so doing, we will highlight five specific aspects, these being: a) the Thatcherite critique of the public sector, and why this was viewed as inherently inefficient; b) the process of ’marketisation’; c) the parallel imposition of a ’managerialist’ regime in Britain’s public services; d) the increased role of audits, inspections and other monitoring exercises to measure the performance of public services and their staff; e) the ’discourse’ which has accompanied public sector reform, in order to legitimise it, and reinforce the principles of ’marketisation’ and ’managerialism’.

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1The 1979-90 Thatcher Governments were committed to dismantling the post-1945 political settlement in Britain, which had provided the ideological paradigm for most economic and social polices until the 1970s. Prior to 1979, Britain’s two main political parties - the Conservatives and Labour - had broadly accepted a mixed economy (in which some industries and services were managed by the State, and funded out of taxation), high rates of taxation on the rich (to facilitate wealth redistribution to the poor), an overall reduction in inequality, partnership with trade unions of a mildly corporatist nature, free university education (with entrance to university based solely on academic ability, not ability to pay) and a comprehensive welfare state which provided social security ’from cradle to grave’.

2However, the economic crisis which affected Britain during the mid-1970s - symbolised by high inflation, rising unemployment, ’excessive’ wage claims by trade unions (often pursued by industrial action in the guise of strikes) and the humiliating recourse to a loan from the IMF - prompted an increasingly confident ideological counter-attack against this political framework, and the policies it had produced. Whereas the Left, particularly Marxist scholars, depicted the economic problems of the 1970s as a crisis of late Capitalism, an emerging New Right strongly argued Britain was actually suffering from the cumulative failure of three decades of Keynesianism, social democracy and welfarism.

3Whereas the Left pointed to ’market failure’, the (New) Right claimed that what had actually failed in Britain was a regime of ever-increasing State control, a ’bloated’ and inefficient public sector and, underpinning both of these phenomena, an anti-business, anti-enterprise culture which was hostile to competition, profit-making and wealth creation. Unless this paradigm was abandoned, then Britain would continue to travel along what Friedrich Hayek (1944) called ’the road to serfdom’, until it resembled the (pre-1989) Soviet Union.

4Within the Conservative Party, this critique was expressed with increasing confidence by those who subsequently became associated with ’Thatcherism’, the mode of Conservatism personally associated with Margaret Thatcher, who had been elected leader in 1975. Thatcher was contemptuous of the conciliatory and consensual ’One Nation’ type of Conservatism which many senior Conservatives had pursued since 1945. She accused these Conservatives of having allowed the Left to set the political agenda, which the Conservative Party then broadly adhered to due to fear of short-term unpopularity, or because they maintained that Conservatism was a non-ideological philosophy rooted in empiricism and pragmatism, not abstract theories or intellectual doctrines. By contrast, Thatcher believed that the Conservative Party urgently needed to become ideological in order to attack the alleged dominance of Left-wing ideas in Britain.

5The mode of Conservatism which Thatcher and her supporters propagated from the mid-1970s onwards was akin to that identified, by Norton and Aughey (1981: 79–82) as ’combative Conservatism’, which sought ’to reverse social trends deemed uncongenial to national well-being.’ In this respect, ‘combative Conservatives’ consider themselves to be ‘the true radicals’ by virtue of being strongly ‘disposed towards a massive reduction in State power and a resurrection of...personal initiative.’ In effect, they wish to turn back the clock several decades, to a perceived or imagined ‘Golden Age’ which had apparently been eviscerated by subsequent political developments based on an ‘alien’ ideology. Thus did Thatcher insist, shortly after being elected Conservative leader in 1975, that: ‘We must have an ideology. The other side have got an ideology…we must have one too’ (Quoted in Gilmour, 1992: 6).

6Specifically, Thatcherism entailed a much more explicit and often aggressive commitment to free market Capitalism (economic liberalism or neo-liberalism), and therefore a professed goal of ’rolling back the State’. Yet in the social sphere, and also the realm of morality, Thatcherism was often characterised by authoritarianism, entailing a strong emphasis on law-and-order and the traditional family (a heterosexual married couple), disdain for civil liberties and those who participated in public protests, and attacks - rhetorical or/and legislative - on institutions considered to be opposed to Thatcherism and its policies: Left-wing Labour councils, trade unions, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) educationalists and universities, the senior civil service and even the Church of England.

7Hence Thatcherism was defined as ’the free economy and the strong state’ (Gamble, 1988), whereupon the State was ’rolled back’ in some spheres, but rolled forward or strengthened in others. The State had to be strong in order to provide the political and legislative framework work within which ’the free market’ could function, which in turn prompted intervention to weaken, reform or remove institutions which were deemed to obstruct ’the market’, private enterprise, profit-maximisation and wealth creation.

8The most famous example of Thatcherism’s economic liberalism was the programme of privatisation during the 1980s, when most of the industries which had been nationalized (taken into public or State ownership) by post-1945 Labour Governments were returned to the private sector, often with some of the shares sold to ordinary individuals - ’popular capitalism’. The Thatcherite pursuit of re-creating a free market Capitalist economy also entailed cuts in direct (personal) taxation, with the largest tax cuts being for those on high salaries (down from 83% to 60%, and then to 40%), and a series of statutory curbs on the power and activities of trade unions, which inter alia strengthened the authority of employers and managers in the workplace, and reduced workers’ protection and rights (this was part of the promotion of ’labour market flexibility’).

9In this paper, though, our focus is on the reform of Britain’s public services since the 1980s, particularly education and health (the National Health Service - NHS), and the manner in which the reforms initiated by the 1979-90 Thatcher Governments have been maintained, consolidated and extended by subsequent governments, not least by New Labour. That post-1990 governments enacted similar reforms of the public sector/services ensured that the legacy of Thatcherism in this major sphere of public policy has endured, and continues today.

10Rather than adopt a chronological approach identifying each reform as it was enacted in sequence, this paper will offer a more thematic account of public sector/service reform since the 1980s. In so doing, we will highlight five specific aspects, these being: a) the Thatcherite critique of the public sector, and why this was viewed as inherently inefficient; b) the process of ’marketisation’, whereby public services have been compelled to adopt many of the principles and practices of the private sector, even while remaining predominantly State-owned and publicly funded; c) the parallel imposition of a ’managerialist’ regime in Britain’s public services, especially in the guise of the ’New Public Management’, which has simultaneously aimed to enforce ’marketisation’ while also reducing the power and autonomy of professionals working in the public sector; d) the increased role of audits, inspections and other monitoring exercises to measure the performance of public services and their staff, and which are then published so that the public, and particularly the ’customers’ of services such as education and the NHS, can see how well (or badly) schools, hospitals and universities are performing, and thus whether they are improving; e) the ’discourse’ which has accompanied public sector reform, in order to legitimise it, and reinforce the principles of ’marketisation’ and ’managerialism’.

The Thatcherite critique of the public sector

11In economic terms, there was deep concern at the cost of providing public services, because the primary source of funding was taxation. Thatcherism believed that the public sector - along with the welfare state - consumed too much tax-payer’s money, but what compounded this objection was a belief that many of those employed in the public sector viewed this source of funding as a ’blank cheque’ or a ’bottomless pit’; the government could, and would, always be able to secure additional revenues by increasing taxation. This apparent assumption meant that those employed in public services had no incentive to be more cost-effective, and thereby improve their performance and service provision by deploying existing resources more prudently. This was linked to another criticism of the public sector, namely that it lacked the creativity, dynamism, flexibility and value-for-money which characterised the private sector.

12Following on from such concerns, Thatcherism was critical of the public sector for failing to provide its clients and users with a more courteous, efficient and higher quality service. Staff employed in the public sector allegedly failed to appreciate that the people they served, such as parents and patients, were precisely those people whose taxes provided a major source of revenue for the public sector, and, of course, the salaries of those employed within it. For Thatcherites, therefore, the public sector was often synonymous with a shabby, second-rate service.

13Thatcherism advanced two further arguments to explain why the public so often received a poor service from the public sector; they were dominated by ’producer interests’, and that they were, in most cases, monopolies. In claiming that the public sector was often dominated by ’producer interests’, Thatcherism argued that those employed in such services tended to prioritise their own interests over the interests of the public which relied on such services. Public sector workers were (and still are) accused of privileging their own professional convenience and objectives over and above the interests and needs of service users. The public was too often expected to subordinate itself to the professional preferences and priorities of public sector workers, rather than vice versa. The alleged attitude of many public sector staff was that those who relied upon such services should simply ’accept what they are given’ and be grateful.

14Important though this particular criticism was/is, it was also very significant because it directly challenged the erstwhile assumption that most people who pursued careers in services such as education, health care and social work were motivated by altruism, civic duty and a genuine commitment to ’serving the people’, as opposed to ’making money’ or working for profit-making private companies. Thatcherites rejected this benign image of benevolent public service professionals, and argued instead that such staff were themselves often motivated by considerations of self-interest, most notably in term budget maximisation or/and or professional power, either of which meant that they did not necessarily provide the best service to their ‘customers’ or clients.

15This cynical (or ’realist’) characterisation of selfish, self-serving, public servants and professionals was itself partly derived from ‘public choice theory’, a critique of public sector or governmental bureaucracies which was developed by (mostly American) neo-liberal economists from the 1960s onwards (for example, see Buchanan and Tullock, 1962; Lee, 2012; Tullock, Seldon and Brady, 2000;). They claimed that many State employees were themselves ‘rational actors’ who were concerned to acquire more resources and power, even while claiming to be motivated by altruism and a desire to serve civil society.

16Another way of depicting this apparent distinction between virtuous altruism and venal self-interest among public sector professionals and street level bureaucrats has been advanced by Julian Le Grand (2010: 2 and passim), who has posited a distinction between ‘knights’, who are ‘predominantly public-spirited or altruistic’, and ‘knaves’ who are ‘motivated primarily by their own self-interest’. Needles to say, Thatcherites viewed many, if not most, public sector workers as being ’knaves’.

17Meanwhile, the other argument advanced by Thatcherites to explain the allegedly poor quality of service provided by the public sector was that such services were usually monopolies, and so did not face competition from others providing a similar service. Consequently, professionals in the public sector allegedly assumed that service users could not go elsewhere if they were dissatisfied with the quality or speed of service they received; they were a ’captive clientele’. This naturally reinforced the chronic lack of incentives for the public sector to become more efficient and responsive to the wishes of the millions of people who relied upon its services. Lack of competition thus led (allegedly) to arrogance and atrophy.

18According to Thatcherites, this lack of competition also compounded one other major problem concerning the public sector in Britain, namely the power of those trade unions whose members worked in such services. It was argued that where a particular group of workers were the sole (monopoly) providers of a service, their bargaining - or ’blackmail’ - power was enormously enhanced, because if they go on strike, the result will usually be widespread disruption and inconvenience to the millions of people who are totally reliant on the affected service. Recognition of this was deemed to make public sector trade unions much more powerful, and also militant, in selfishly promoting or protecting the interests of their members.

19By contrast, in the private sector, a strike by workers in one company often results in much less disruption to the public or the community, because customers can obtain the same service or product from several other rival companies. Indeed, having turned to a competitor during a strike, many customers might decide to remain with the alternative firm, rather than return to their former supplier when the strike was over. In such instances, the workers who went on strike might find that the consequent loss of customers and orders results in their firm suffering a catastrophic decline in profits, resulting in redundancies. Hence workers in the private sector are assumed to be much less likely to pursue industrial action such as strikes, quite apart from the fact that trade union membership is much lower than in the public sector anyway.

20The final, and more general or over-arching, Thatcherite objection to the public sector was not only that it did not pursue profits or create wealth, but that it ’crowded out’ the private sector which is the sole source of wealth creation (for an exposition of this critique, see Bacon and Eltis, 1976). As such, the public sector was portrayed as being ’parasitic’ on the private sector, for whereas the latter (along with entrepreneurs) created the wealth upon which economic growth, progress and prosperity depended, the public sector merely consumed the wealth created by others; it did not produce anything of economic or monetary value itself. Ultimately, Thatcherites argued, the ever-expanding but non-productive public sector was stifling the scope for private sector activity and wealth creation, and consuming too much of the nation’s wealth.

21For Thatcherites, because successive governments in post-1945 Britain had taken the need for a large public sector for granted, the wrong question had repeatedly been asked: ’how can we maintain and expand the public sector, and from where will we procure the additional revenues to achieve this objective?’ In stark contrast, the questions which Thatcherites posed towards the public sector was how far it could either be privatised directly, or at least forced to adopt principles, practices and processes prevalent in the private sector.

22Our concern in this paper is how Thatcherism reformed those parts of the public sector which were not directly ’privatised’, and the manner in which the reforms enacted by the (1979-90) Thatcher Governments have subsequently been entrenched by all governments (Conservative New Labour, and Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition until May 2015), under the premierships of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron respectively. Although Margaret Thatcher resigned as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister in November 1990, and died in April 2013, her legacy has endured in very many areas of public policy in Britain, even when New Labour was in office for 13 years. Indeed, public sector reform provides a clear example of how the principles, objectives and policies promoted by Thatcherism have been readily embraced and extended subsequently, and continue to be implemented today.

’Marketisation’ of the public sector

23Based on the above critique of the inherent inefficiencies of the public sector, a major objective of the Thatcherite reform of the public sector was to instil the principles and practices of the private (market) sector into such services as education and health. The public sector would continue to be mostly funded by government, using the revenues accrued by the Treasury from taxation, but where and whenever possible, the manner in which public services were administered and provided would imitate aspects of the private sector. This was intended to instil a new ethos and modus operandi into the public sector, enshrining such principles and practices as consumer choice, competition, cost-effectiveness, ’customer’ satisfaction, payment-by-results - the last of these especially intended to imitate the profit motive which underpins the private sector (for a brief account of the ’choice’ and ’competition’ aspects of marketisation in the public sector, see see Gash and Roos, 2012; Le Grand, 2007).

24Thatcherism decreed that competition was crucial to improving performance and thus providing the public with a much better service. Only if a public service is exposed to competition will it be compelled to ’raise its game’ and becoming more responsive to what its customers or clients actually want. This, in turn, is intended to change the ethos of staff in the public sector, so that they become genuinely concerned to offer their ’customers’ a more courteous, efficient and prompt service.

25A major aspect of ’marketisation’ was to fragment some public services, so that staff or sections within them were compelled to compete against each other. This sometimes entailed establishing ’cost centres’ within a public service or even within individual institutions, which would then be required to compete against each other for funding or resources - these increasingly being linked to the attainment of a plethora of specified results, such as improved output or ratings for ’customer satisfaction’.

26One key example of marketisation was the introduction of the ’internal market’ in the National Health Service (NHS) in 1990-91. This created an administrative separation between ’purchasers’ and ’providers’ of health care services within the NHS, whereby General Practitioners (GPs) - community doctors based in local surgeries - diagnosed what medical treatment their patients needed, and then purchased this treatment from a hospital (or other health care ’provider’). This system allocated GPs or local health authorities an annual budget for purchasing health care and medical treatment from ’providers’.

27The premise was that the health care ’providers’ (hospitals) would be in competition with each other to be commissioned by GPs (thereby increasing their income), and that this would compel them to offer a better or more cost-effective medical treatment in order to ensure that they were chosen by the ’purchasers’ of health care, rather than another hospital. In other words, rather than operating within a monolithic and monopolistic NHS, hospitals would be obliged to compete against each other in order to secure ’purchases’ from GPs and other health services. This, in turn, would ultimately benefit patients by providing a more effective, efficient and responsive health service.

28Another key example of ’marketisation’, in the form of inter-institutional competition, concerns secondary (school) education in Britain, whereby successive governments since the late 1980s have promoted competition between schools, in order to raise academic standards. By linking the funding of schools to the number of pupils recruited, establish a market in secondary education, whereby the more successful schools (in terms of key criteria such as qualifications attained by their pupils) will attract more pupils and thus more funding. Conversely, schools whose pupils do not perform as well in terms of academic qualifications, will (potentially at least) attract fewer pupils, and ultimately risk redundancies and closure, or perhaps be placed under different ownership and/or management.

29The ’marketisation of education in Britain has also entailed a diversification of the types of secondary schools which exist. Although this process was commenced by the Thatcher-Major Governments, it was the 1997-2010 Blair-Brown (New Labour) Governments which enthusiastically embraced and accelerated this process of diversification, by creating new types of schools: Beacon schools, City Academies, Faith schools, Foundation/Trust schools and Specialist schools. One academic expert on education policy has described this as a ‘bewildering array’ (Chitty, 2009: 74), while another expert has referred to it as a ‘jumble of a system’ (Smithers, 2001: 405–6).

30In this context, reforms of secondary education during the last three decades have endeavoured to empower parents, and transform them into consumers, able to ’shop around’ for the best school for their children, rather than having to accept that their children would simply attend the nearest school, regardless of its overall academic performance and, by implication, the quality of its teaching.

31Similarly, in Higher (university) Education, the introduction of a system whereby students pay fees (£ 9,000 per year since 2012), albeit repaid in monthly instalments after graduation, on a pro rata basis linked to salary - was intended to transform students into consumers. The assumption was that because they were now paying for their university education (until the 1990s, most students were paid - via a government grant – to pursue higher education), students would be much more discerning about what they studied, and at which university. As with schools, the ideological assumption and intention was that those universities offering the ’best’ education would attract more fee-paying students, and thus increase their incomes, while those universities perceived to be less academically attractive or successful would have to improve or risk closure (either of individual Departments, or in extreme cases, the whole university, with the accompanying loss of 1,000s of jobs).

32Like supermarkets, universities now have to compete for student ’customers’ by persuading them that they offer a better quality degree, better facilities or/and better value-for-money than rival institutions of higher education. This reflects the political or ideological objective of empowering students, who are now encouraged to ’shop around’ for the ’best deal’ when deciding which degree to study, and which university to study it at.

33One final aspect of marketization which has become increasingly prevalent is the ever growing involvement of private sector companies in ’delivering’ or managing public services, either in partnership with or on behalf of public sector institutions. An increasing number of such services are contracted-out or ’out-sourced’ to private firms on the grounds that they can administer or manage a service at a lower cost or more efficiently, and thus provide the tax-payer with more value-for-money. Currently in Britain, - Atos, Capita, G4S, and Serco are the four main recipients of government contracts to run various public services on behalf of the State. For example, many of Britain’s prisons are now managed by private companies (Grimwood, 2014; Panchamia, 2012), and the just over half of the probation service (working with and rehabilitating young offenders) has now been contracted-out - by the Ministry of Justice - to two private companies.

34The services themselves, however, formally remain under the control of the State - even if operated at arms-length via a bureaucratic agency established by government or the relevant Minister - and those using the service do not have to pay directly; it is still ’free at the point of use’, it is still funded mainly by taxation. Moreover, to those who express concern that £ billions of tax-payers money is being paid to private companies to administer or manage public services, Ministers invariably insist that because these firms usually do so at a lower cost, they are actually giving tax-payers value-for-money, and thus ensuring that the money saved can be spent on other public services, or used to fund tax cuts.

35It is this increasing involvement of private companies in public service ’delivery’ or management which leads critics to complain of privatisation ’by stealth’ or through the back-door. Recognising that much of the British public is deeply apprehensive about the notion of schools or hospitals being owned or managed by profit-making companies, Ministers repeatedly insist that they have absolutely no plans to privatise cherished public services such as the NHS, but the cynicism with which so many politicians are now widely viewed means that many people simply do not believe such assurances.

36One consequence of this increased involvement of private sector firms in public service ’delivery’ is that the boundary between the public and private sectors is becoming increasingly blurred, which in turn has serious implications for accountability - who is responsible or to blame when failures or mistakes occur? This is particularly ironic, given (as we note below) that the reform of the public sector in Britain since the late 1980s has been presented or promoted as a means of increasing the accountability of those responsible for delivering’ public services, and ensuring that blame is correctly apportioned when things go wrong.

League tables

37Another major feature of marketisation and the associated veneration of ’consumer choice’ in the public sector has been the increasing fetishisation of league tables to illustrate institutional performance or ’customer satisfaction’. This reflects two closely-connected objectives. First, to provide hospital patients, parents of school pupils and prospective university students with clear and accessible information about how each hospital, school and university is performing, according to various criteria. The provision of such information is intended to enable the users of public serviced to make an informed and rational choice about which hospital, school or university they wish to attend. This information also allows politicians to see which public sector institutions are proving successful (or hitting government ’targets’ - discussed below) and which are ’failing’.

38Second, but following directly on from this objective, these league tables are supposed to provide hospitals, schools and universities themselves with objective evidence about how well they are performing, how much they have improved (or deteriorated) and how their performance compares to that of their competitors or rivals. In this context, any institution which finds itself located near the bottom of a league table ought to be galvanised into reviewing its service provision and the professionalism or competence of its staff, in order to ensure that it secures a higher position when the next league table is published. Public sector league tables thus constitute a form of ’naming and shaming’ of hospitals, schools and universities.

39One final objective which Thatcherism aimed to achieve through the marketisation of public services was weakening the power of trade unions in spheres such as education and health. By fragmenting public services, and fostering competition between hospitals, schools, universities, solidarity among workers employed in any of these services would be weakened. The intention or expectation would be that teachers or lectures would identify themselves with their particular school or university, for example, rather than the profession en masse: competition would weaken any sense of comradeship and solidarity; individualism would replace collegiality. This would also enable governments to pursue divide-and-rule among public sector workers or institutions, and thereby further weaken opposition to the reforms by eroding sources of collective resistance by professionals.

Managerialism in the public sector

40In tandem with the ’marketisation’ of the public sector, Thatcherism has also bequeathed a legacy of ’managerialism’. The ’discipline’ supposedly imposed by ’the market’ has been accompanied by the discipline exerted by the increased number managers, coupled with an expansion of regulatory agencies in the public sector. These two modes of discipline have jointly reduced the power and autonomy of professions in Britain’s public services. This, of course, is linked to the Thatcherite critique of public sector staff as self-serving ’knaves’ who are strongly inclined to place their own professional (or ’producer’) interests over and above those of their ’customers’, as well as the tax-payers who are ultimately funding the public sector.

41Much of this managerial discipline has been imposed largely through the application of what has been termed New Public Management, and which, according to Christopher Hood (1995: 104-5. See also Hood, 1991), enshrines seven main features and objectives:

42• ‘Hands-on’ management in the public sector.
• Specified criteria and standards of performance, both by individuals and institutions.
• Stronger emphasis on ‘output controls’.
• Disaggregation of monolithic public services into distinct units and ‘cost centres’.
• Increasing competition, both with the private sector, and within the public sector itself.
• Private sector styles of management
• Greater financial discipline and ‘parsimony in resource use’.

43As an academic expert on social policy has noted: ‘A particular feature of NPM in practice has been an attack upon the traditional autonomy of the established professions – medicine, teaching, etc’ (Hill, 2009), with an expansion of managers and senior administrative staff throughout Britain’s public services. For example, during the 1997-2007 Blair Governments, the number of managers in the NHS doubled, while many universities have experienced a significant expansion of senior administrative and managerial staff - often with a strong emphasis on strategic leadership. Indeed, in some British universities, there are now more senior administrative and managers than there are academics.

44However, it is not just the increasing number of such bureaucrats which has been significant, but the greater authority which they have steadily acquired, whereupon they make many decisions which were previously the prerogative of public sector professionals themselves. Consequently, the expansion of senior administrators, bureaucratic functionaries and managers, in sectors such as education and health, has meant a corresponding reduction in the autonomy of public sectional professionals, such as doctors, teachers and university lecturers. Front-line professionals have increasingly been expected to perform their roles and responsibilities in a manner stipulated by their institution’s senior bureaucrats, and thereby ensure adherence to its strategic goals and targets. For example, teachers have increasingly felt compelled to teach in manner which will best achieve the goals or strategy of the school (as defined by the head-master or governing body), rather than in a way which might enthuse and inspire the pupils.

45Meanwhile, in Britain’s universities, academics are increasingly being told what type of research they should focus on, and what sort of publications their research should be published in - primarily monographs and prestigious journals, rather than in edited books (collections of essays by different academics, on a particular topic) or textbooks used for teaching purposes. Academics are also increasingly expected to obtain research grants to buy themselves out of teaching altogether while they pursue a research project, and, furthermore, to pursue research which has ’impact’ beyond academia. Academic appointments and promotions now rely heavily on meeting these research requirements, to the extent that they have become the main criteria for a successful academic career in many universities.

46Public sector professionals therefore find themselves much more rigorously managed, with their performance being constantly and closely monitored (See, for example, Newman and Clarke, 2004), both through regular individual appraisals by their ’line manager’ (the person immediately above then in the organisation’s bureaucratic hierarchy) and external audits or inspections of the organisation by external bodies acting on behalf of the government.

The audit culture

47This last aspect of managerialism has led one academic to refer to an ‘audit explosion’ (Power, 1994), as a result of which, Britain’s public services have been exposed to a strong ‘audit culture’ (Power, 1997. See also Russell, 2009: 27). Every public service and public sector institution in Britain is now subject to a constant cycle of audits and inspections, usually conducted by agencies which have been created by successive governments, and acting under the auspices of the relevant government Department or Ministry. Much of the statistical information and data gleaned from such audits and inspections is then used both to construct the league tables of institutional performance, and to decide how much (extra) funding is to be awarded - if any.

48Figure 1 illustrates the audits and inspections which the National Health Service, the Probation Service, schools, social work, and universities are subject to in Britain today, highlighting which agency conducts the audit or inspection, the Ministry it serves, and, most importantly, what specific criteria or performance indicators are being measured.

Figure 1: Public sector/service audits and inspections in Britain today

Policy sector or institutions

Agency conducting audit, and ’parent’ Ministry

Criteria - what is measured

National Health Service

Care Quality Commission

(Department of Health)

Hospitals (and other health providers) measured against 16 criteria (outcomes), including :

Respecting and involving people who use services.

Acquiring patients’ consent to treatment.

Meeting nutritional needs

Cooperating with other health or care providers.

Cleanliness and infection control.

Safety, availability and suitability of equipment

Adequate levels of staffing.

Effective and safe management of medicines

Accurate and up-to-date patient records.

Probation Service

HM Inspectorate of Probation

(Ministry of Justice)

Adult offenders; five main criteria :

Assisting sentencing.

Delivering the sentence of the court.

Reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

Protecting the public.

Delivering effective work for victims.

Inspections often thematic, focusing on a particular topic (drug abuse, violence, etc.).


OFSTED (Department of Education)

School inspections; four main criteria :

The achievement of pupils at the school.

The quality of teaching in the school.

The behaviour and safety of pupils at the school.

The quality of leadership in, and management of, the school.

Social Work

OFSTED* (Department of Education)

Several aspects concerning ‘at risk’ children and children in care :

The quality, effectiveness and timeliness of assessment and risk management.

The effectiveness of the help given to children, young people and their families.

The consistency of the focus on the child/young person’s needs and best interests.

The quality and effectiveness of inter-agency co-operation and communication.

The extent to which social workers and other professionals working with

The child/young person and their family have meaningful, consistent and direct contact with them.

The effectiveness of quality assurance and management oversight of practice and decision making the experiences of particularly vulnerable children/young people.

How well the local authority takes account of, and responds to, the wishes and feelings of children and young people.


Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills).

Higher Education Funding Councils (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills).

Three main types of audit :

1. Periodic Programme Review (validating academic quality of degrees and teaching).

2. Institutional Review.

3. Research Excellence Framework (measuring quality of academic research, and, increasingly, its impact).

Source: Dorey, 2014a: 262-63.

49The assumption of all governments and Ministers since the late 1980s has been that: ’If a performance can’t be measured, it cannot be managed’ (Burton, 2013: 219). Indeed, it seems to be widely assumed that if a performance cannot be measured, then either it is not important, or it needs to be modified and conducted in a manner which makes it measurable.

50In effect, the (bureaucratic) tail wags the (professional) dog.

51Certainly, a common complaint among many public sector professionals in Britain is that too many of their activities and roles have to be performed in a manner which enables those conducting audits and inspections to tick boxes. Indeed, many professionals in the public sector now have to devote a considerable proportion of their time to the paperwork, questionnaires and other requests for detailed information which these audits and inspections invariably entail. As a consequence, they often spend less time performing their core roles and tasks than previously, and thus less time dealing directly with their patients, pupils, students or other members of the public. Preparing for, or actually participating in, the next audit, inspection or monitoring exercise becomes a priority, a core activity, for many public sector professionals.

52For example, a 2012 survey by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) revealed that ‘60% of respondents [nurses] were spending less time with patients than they did a year ago, with over a quarter (26%) claiming their patient-facing time had significantly decreased’ (Royal College of Nursing, 2012: 14). This was partly due to the amount of time which nurses now have to devote to: ‘Lengthy admission forms, patient care plans, complex discharge planning documents…a plethora of risk assessments…[an] increasing number of audit reports, policy documents and evaluation sheets required to measure outcomes and care quality’ (Lomas, 2012. See also Royal College of Nursing, 2008).

53Meanwhile, in 2011, the (House of Commons) Justice select committee deemed it ‘staggering’ that probation officers could spend as little as a 25% of their time supervising and helping to rehabilitate criminals and ex-offenders, because of the extent to which a ‘tick-box, bean-counting culture’ compelled probation offers to prioritise paper-work and form-filling (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2011: 19, para.40; 33, para.83).

54Finally, universities have been similarly subjected to this regime of constant audit and monitoring, ostensibly to measure the quality of teaching and research, and ensure that regulations are consistently being adhered to or specified procedures are being followed for each and every academic activity. Having experienced this regime, two incredulous American academics who were visiting British universities a few years ago confessed that they were:

…baffled by the level of monitoring, reporting, evaluating and bureaucratic hassling to which academics in this country are subjected...why doesnt Britain let its academics do what they do best, teach and carry out research, without government and university administrators breathing down their necks?...Many British academics groan under the weight of administrative tasks…US universities have [also] experienced an increase in paperwork in recent decades. But they cant compare with their UK counterparts in terms of sheer zeal for reporting and monitoring...Instead of the central administration reacting to problems that come to their attention, they expect departments to spell out their activities in mind-numbingly detailed reports. (Kord and Wilson, 2006)

55Ultimately, and ironically, ’manageralism ’ has established a regime in which the only way in which many public sector professionals can cope with the bureaucracy, box-ricking and form-filling which purports to measure and monitor how effectively they are performing their professional roles, is to spend less time actually performing those roles, and thus less time serving the public!

56One other irony of this regime is that while these public sector reforms have been enacted by the ideologues of neo-liberalism, the associated managerialism bears an alarming similarity to aspects of governance in the former Soviet Union (see, for example, Amann, 2003; Brandist, 2014). These similarities are apparent not only in the regime of top-down control, centrally-set targets, five year plans, constant monitoring of front-line or local-level staff, and inspections by bureaucratic functionaries to measure performance or ensure compliance, but in Ministers’ refusal ever to acknowledge that this regime - and the ideas on which it is based - is itself defective and fundamentally flawed; is itself a major part of the problem.

57Instead, every ’failure’ by a public sector service or organisation to achieve specified results or targets is viewed either as further evidence of its inherent incompetence and innate inefficiency, or that its staff are refusing to perform their professional roles properly, whereupon they need to be even more closely monitored - or dismissed altogether.

The discourse of public sector reform

58To lend more legitimacy to public sector reform in Britain, and secure wider popular support, the dual processes of marketisation and managerialism have been accompanied by a discourse comprising a particular vocabulary and series of phrases or terminology. These portray public sector workers in a negative or derogatory manner, in order to garner wider support among the population for the type of reforms outlined above. This is a classic populist tactic and one which Thatcherism and its subsequent adherents have consistently deployed: successive governments and Ministers since the late 1980s have portrayed themselves as being ’out there’ with, and ’on the side of’, ordinary, hard-working people and taxpayers, against allegedly arrogant, incompetent, lazy, over-paid, selfish public sector workers.

59This same discourse also depicts public sector workers as ’vested interests’, whose professional priorities are deemed to conflict with or disregard the interests of those who actually use public services. This often entails establishing a series of binary opposites, such as teachers vs parents and pupils; medical staff vs patients; university lecturers vs students, etc, with governments always on the side of the latter in each pairing.

60The portrayal of public sector workers as ’vested interests’ has often been invoked when public service professionals and/or their trade unions have opposed particular reforms, whereupon they have been accused of a selfish, self-interested, conservatism, and attacked for being resistant to change and modernisation. This has enabled successive governments and Ministers to depict themselves as forward-thinking and imaginative, while characterising the public sector and its staff as backward-looking and intransigent.

61Another component of the discourse of public sector reform bequeathed by Thatcherism, and promulgated by all subsequent governments, is the promotion of ’accountability’ and ’transparency’. As noted in the previous section, every public sector activity is now be open to regular and highly-detailed audit, evaluation, measurement, monitoring and regular inspection, with the results then made available to the public via league tables. If public sector professionals then raise any objections - perhaps by querying the accuracy of the data, or the method by which it was obtained - politicians will frequently accuse them of being ’afraid of accountability/transparency’.

62The clear implication of such an allegation is that if public sector workers object to the publication of data about their institution’s or sector’s performance, they must have something to hide, or perhaps be ashamed that they are not performing as well as they should. After all, if a hospital, school or university is performing superbly, then surely the staff would want this success to be widely publicised? If they are not performing well, then publicly revealing their apparent shortcomings should act as a spur to improving their performance.

63Although Thatcherism was inherently hostile towards the public sector, and therefore often highly critical of those employed within it, this hostility did not abate or soften following Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. As we noted above, John Major’s (1990-97) Conservative governments consolidated and continued with the Thatcherite reforms of the public sector, and in so doing, were often just as critical or derogatory about the ethos and performance of Britain’s public services.

64However, as also noted above, it was the advent of New Labour which really ensured Thatcherism’s legacy vis-a-vis the public sector, not only by consolidating and extending Thatcherite reforms in services such as education and health, but by also displaying similar disdain and cynicism towards those working within them. Indeed, a year before New Labour was first elected, one of the leading architects of New Labour co-authored a ‘manifesto’ for the modernised Labour party, in which it was alleged that:

The educational system in Britain has always given priority to the interests of an academic elite rather than to high general standards of education...The teacher unions have tried to focus the public debate about education on pay and resources, rather than the curriculum and pupil attainments: on inputs rather than outputs. (Mandelson and Liddle, 1996: 91)

65Certainly, New Labour and the Blair Governments sustained the Thatcherite criticism of much of the teaching profession, and just like the Thatcher-Major Governments, actually seemed to enjoy provoking confrontation with teachers and their unions when imposing reforms. By insisting that its reforms of education were equally concerned to extend competition between schools, provide more choice through creating different types of school, and inter alia raise academic standards, while also both sharing the Thatcherite faith in performance league tables, and refusing to reduce the role of OFSTED, the Blair Governments and successive (Labour) Education Secretaries similarly depicted themselves as ’out there’ on the side of parents against selfish or incompetent teachers and the out-of-touch, self-serving ‘education establishment’. This combative stance was evident in the David Blunkett’s (Tony Blair’s first Secretary of State for Education) insistence that: ‘Every other sector has had to embrace diversity and respond to its customers. It is not only inevitable, but right that this too becomes a requirement of any twenty-first-century school’ (Blunkett, 2001: 44).

66One final component of the discourse articulated to secure popular support for, public sector reform since the 1980s, has been the allegation that services such as education and health are dominated by an ethos which is ideologically incompatible with the interests of public service ’users’ or taxpayers in general. Such criticisms often enshrine the claim that the professions are dominated by a Left-wing or ’liberal’ elite, who then use their position to impose their ’alien’ values on the profession and then, through it, into wider society.

67For example, successive governments and Ministers have repeatedly criticised the ’education establishment’, and its alleged Left-wing perspective, or its perpetuation of liberal educational principles which are rooted in the 1960s. According to Margaret Thatcher (reflecting on her time as Education Secretary in the 1970–74 Heath government), ‘the ethos of the DES was self-righteously socialist...Equality in education was not only the overriding good, irrespective of the practical effects of egalitarianism on particular schools ; it was a stepping stone to achieving equality in society.’ Moreover, she was highly critical of the extent to which the DES had ‘become as closely connected with its clients as the DES was with the teaching unions, in particular the National Union of Teachers (NUT)...a large number of DES senior civil servants…and the NUT leaders were on the closest terms’, sharing ‘a common sympathy’ (Thatcher, 1995 : 166). Similarly vituperative views were expressed by two Conservative secretaries of state for education, Kenneth Baker (1993 : 168) and John Patten (1995 : 196–7).

68At the same time, Thatcher believed that ‘too many teachers were less competent and more ideological than their predecessors’ (Thatcher, 1993 : 590). Such views were shared by one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisers in the Downing Street Policy Unit. Alfred Sherman (2005 : 107, 108), who averred that in post-1945 Britain : ‘The education establishment…had brought standards steadily down’, while also alluding to the pernicious influence of ‘Marxoid dons’ in shaping higher education policy since the 1960s. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, himself denounced ‘the giant left-wing experiment in levelling down’ (Major, 1992 : 9), ‘the failed nostrums of the 1960s and 1970s’ (Major, 1993 : 31), and ‘the fads and fashions that short-changed an entire generation of children…called…progressive education’ (Major, 1999 7 : 20).

69Much more recently, Michael Gove (Education Secretary from May 2010 until July 2014) referred to ’the blob’ (bloated education bureaucracy), which allegedly comprised much of the teaching profession - teachers’ unions, local education authorities, university education departments and many others involved in training teachers. He argued that ’the blob’ was an obstacle to progress in reforming Britain’s education system and raising academic standards. At the same time, Gove also attacked ’Marxist’ teachers who opposed his education reforms, and derided them as ’enemies of promise...a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need’ (Gove, 2013).

70Front-line professionals have been repeatedly blamed, not only for being a major cause of alleged failings and poor standards of service in the public sector, but for then causing reforms to fail as a consequence of being deliberately intransigent and obstructive - or simply incompetent. It is rarely acknowledged that the reforms themselves might be based on a misdiagnosis about the underlying problem, or that they are simply impracticable. Instead, the assumption is invariably that further reforms are necessary, or/and that they need to be imposed more strongly, in order to conquer the perceived resistance of public sector professionals who are deemed to be resistant to change for entirely selfish and self-interested reasons.

71This is another manifestation of the ’Sovietisation’ of the public sector in Britain since the 1980s, and a paradoxical legacy of the fiercely anti-Soviet ideology of Thatcherism : the adherence to a theory whose proponents insist is intellectually coherent and logically consistent, so that any failings must be attributable either to a insufficiently strong implementation, or to refusal by subordinates to act in the manner required. The doctrine itself is never subject to any serious reconsideration by those promoting it, and others who do seek to challenge it - not least those individuals and institutions on whom it is being imposed - are automatically assumed to have selfish motives for questioning it - which merely makes it even more important and justifiable to ignore their views.

72This, then, is a major legacy of Thatcherism vis-a-vis the public sector : a neo-liberal regime of competition between institutions (hospitals, schools, universities, etc.,), with its discourse of markets, consumer choice, competitiveness and a reduced role for the State, but a Soviet-style regime within many institutions, characterised by an obsession with centrally-imposed five-year plans and targets, an obsession with ’strategies’, and constant monitoring of organisations and their staff by a cadre of bureaucratic functionaries ultimately acting on behalf of the State to ensure the ’success’ of public sector reform.

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Peter Dorey, « The Legacy of Thatcherism - Public Sector Reform  », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 17 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2016, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1759

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Peter Dorey

Professeur de Sciences Politiques à l'Université de Cardiff

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