Public administration in Britain takes place through a variety of state agencies with varying histories, functions, as well as patterns of political control and accountability. These comprise the civil service; a large number of local bureaucracies serving an elective system of local government; another massive organization administering the National Health Service (NHS) and, under the acronym ‘quango’, a diverse range of organizations responsible for a assortment of administrative, consultative, advisory in addition to regulatory roles. In addition there is a compound of tribunals, inquiries, an ombudsman system and the judiciary, which together dispense administrative justice.
The architecture of the modern state was drawn mainly in the nineteenth century, when the rising industrial bourgeoisie required a means of supporting the emerging capitalist economy. A number of major reports and Acts of Parliament offered blueprints for a competent and meritocratic modern civil service and the system of carefully managed municipalities. Reconstruction following the Second World War added a new layer to the modern state with the making of a inclusive welfare state, including the NHS, and the nationalization of a number of chief industries in the form of public corporations.
From the 1980s an additional chapter was opened, as the post-war Keynesian beliefs were challenged in the rise of neo-liberalism under the government of Margaret Thatcher. The bureaucratic terrain was re-landscaped, part of a procedure distinguished as a ‘hollowing out’ of the state (Rhodes 1994; 1997). Even though talk of reform had long featured on the political program, the public bureaucracies had established a renowned capacity to resist change. However, this time the thoughts were backed by resolute political will. A significant intellectual dynamic came from interpretation based on rational individuality under the name of public choice theory (Niskanen 1973).
This was usually suspicious of public bureaucracies, which were seen as principally self serving. Much of the practical reform in structure and management was stirred by the model of the private sector, where it was reasoned that the restraint of the profit motive secured greater efficiency, effectiveness as well as economy. The oratory spoke of ‘reinventing government’ (Osborne and Gaebler 1992); though to critics it emerged as abandoning government in an anti-statist crusade.
A program of privatization cut sheathe through the state industrial sector while giving rise to a new generation of regulatory agencies. Much of the civil service was recast into a compound of agencies with a greater level of autonomy from the centre, and the collection of quangos began to grow as responsibilities for a variety of functions were transferred from the realm of elected local government. Indeed, processes of market testing as well as compulsory competitive tendering saw the stipulation of certain services passing from the state altogether and into the hands of the private sector. The arrival of a Labour Government in 1997 did little to stem the tide of change. Furthermore, this new government occasioned further seismic shifts through devolution to Scotland and Wales.
Great Britain includes the nations of England, Wales and Scotland, while the United Kingdom extends the embrace to Northern Ireland. These cultural forms were recognized in an outline of administrative regionalism. For long this motivated little political feeling; only in Northern Ireland were separatist tensions felt. Nonetheless, during the 1980s, nationalist movements gathered speed in both Wales and Scotland; this sequentially generated some pressure towards English regionalism. Thus the state has been forced to concern itself with issues of territorial management and make some chief allowances to diversity (Thompson, 1997).
Rooted in a history dating from the take-over of Ireland by the Tudors and re-conquest first by Cromwell and later by the Protestant William of Orange, Northern Ireland dwarfs all other territorial problems of UK Government. Coming to office in the year 1997, Tony Blair’s first official journey was to Ulster and Sinn Fein was invited into new peace talks. After indirect negotiations, which included some mediation from US President Bill Clinton, an agreement was reached which included:
- A Northern Ireland assembly of 108 elected by PR with legislative powers under an all-party executive
- A North-South Ministerial Council to reflect on issues for instance cross-border co-operation
- The Irish Government to give up constitutional claims to Northern Ireland and Westminster to reinstate the Government of Ireland Act
- A Council of the Isles comprising members from the north and south of Ireland and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies
There were also to be releases of prisoners in addition to a decommissioning of arms. The agreement was effectively put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic in May 1998. Elections were held, but advancement began to slow down.
Scotland and Wales
In the UK mainland, Wales and Scotland had been governed as provinces from London, with Secretaries of State in the Cabinet and Grand Committees in Parliament. Public administration in the provinces came under Whitehall outposts, the Welsh and Scottish Offices. Nonetheless, from 1979 an extremely centralizing government heightened a mood of separatism, placing strains on the veracity of the state which were to go off in tectonic constitutional shifts in 1998.
The configuration of the two new assemblies was intended to release a safety valve on the separatist pressure. On the other hand, opinion polls began to show rising support for the SNP and its objective of complete Scottish independence in the background of the EU. Comparable murmurings were heard in Wales, a country that had done very fine from its European involvement (Jones 1997). Labor’s central machine showed an enthusiastic concern to have its chosen men as the leaders of the provincial parties (and hence first ministers in the assemblies) representing a keen aspiration to keep the provinces under the Westminster wing.
Nonetheless, when the elections by the additional member system (d’Hondt version) to the new assemblies were held on 6 May 1999, the Labour Party, with 28 of the 60 seats in the Welsh Senedd, and 59 of Scotland’s 129-seat assembly, failed to win unconditional majorities in either province. A future of alliance government loomed. furthermore, with 17 seats in Wales and 35 in Scotland, the nationalists were second placed in both cases, possibly presaging further separatist pressure (Drewry, & Butcher, 1991).
Devolution debate reverberated into England with requirements for regional independence. A political split was opening as from the early 1980s voting patterns gradually more revealed the Conservatives as a party of the southeast. past the ballot box an economic split yawned as huge deindustrialization and the collapse of mining confounded communities in the north. The economic forecasting organization, the Henley Centre, found per capita income in the south-east to be 20 per cent higher than in the rest of Britain (Wagstyl 1996). A European Commission report of November 1996 established that, while post-war economic revival had closed the poverty gaps between Western Europe’s states, wide dissimilarities remained between regions, the greatest being within the UK.
The British public sector, with numerous of its customs cast in the nineteenth century, has for long been criticized as managerially incompetent. The post-war era saw repeated efforts at reform all through the public sector, though few made any lasting notion before the 1980s. Ever since this time there has been something of a revolution as what was phrased a ‘new public management’ movement became a familiar international influence (Hood 1991; Lowndes 1997). It was to send shivers to the very foundations of the state, reforming structures as well as practices.
The nineteenth-century reforms recognized a custom of elitist generalism and social superiority in which Oxbridge graduates schooled in the classics were to lead the upper reaches of the state bureaucracy. This was to stimulate substantial post-war debate. The onset in office of a Labour Government in 1964 pledged revolution and the 1968 Fulton Committee set up by Harold Wilson criticized the ‘cult of the amateur’. It resulted in the formation of a Civil Service Department (CSD) in Whitehall to supervise managerial reforms all through the service, and the establishment of a Civil Service College to offer continuing operating training.
One proposal which failed to stimulate was that entrants should hold relevant degrees: the place of the ‘generalist’ administrator remained unassailed. In the 1990s, Richards (1996) initiated the generalists’ promotion prospects still significantly brighter than those of the specialist. In the interim, the Civil Service College had fallen well short of the determined position envisaged for it and the CSD had been ignominiously wipe out from the bureaucratic map.
Not until Thatcher took the bit between her teeth did a grave breakthrough come. In her first year of office an Efficiency Unit was set up headed by Sir Derek Rayner of the retail giant Marks & Spencer. He initiated a system of ‘scrutinies’ in which competence teams studied recognized practices and suggested reforms, an initiative which achieved more than anything before (Hennessy 1990:619).
Even so, the reforms did not go far enough for those of a fundamental bent. An even greater culture shock was to come when Robin Ibbs took over the Efficiency Unit and produced the 1988 report, ‘Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps’. This was the report which led to the recasting of the Civil Service as executive agencies. Despite its structural impact the intent in this initiative was essentially managerial (Elcock 1991:236-42). Once established, the new chief executives were given a free rein to introduce a wide range of management practices such as performance-related pay and short-term contracts in the quest for efficiency. A special unit was created in the Cabinet Office to maintain the reforming impetus.
The government also assisted developments by abolishing the Northcote-Trevelyan model of centralized recruitment through the independent Civil Service Commission for some 95 per cent of appointments. Responsibility was to lie with the various departments and agencies themselves. A Recruitment and Assessment Service was created to offer central assistance if required although, amidst heated controversy, this itself was privatized in 1991. The result was a variety of terms and conditions of employment throughout the service.
There were limits to the revolution. Government radicals had wanted the reforms to reach the senior mandarins, subjecting them to short-term contracts, market-testing and large-scale appointments from the private sector on the ‘revolving-door’ principle. For most civil servants, anticipating a life insulated from the chill winds of the market economy, much of the managerial reform process was demoralizing. While academics in the right-wing think tanks applauded the changes, many other academic critics saw in the quest for efficiency serious threats to the fundamental public service ethos (Elcock 1991:188; Chapman and O’Toole 1995).
There was some feeling that the reforms reflected governmental antagonism towards civil servants as much as a quest for improved management; the term ‘deprivileging’ was sometimes heard. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee noted that in 1992/3, £768 million worth of activities out of the £1.119 billion subjected to market testing were contracted out without civil servants even being allowed to make in-house bids.
The traditional management structure in local government entailed separate departments responsible for the provision of various services, each headed by a chief officer and responsible to a particular council committee. A legion of post-war critics saw this as slow, cumbersome and diffuse. A major debate in the 1960s concerned a corporate management model in which a powerful chief executive would displace the traditional town clerk to give strong leadership at the centre. Councilors, faced with a palpable loss of power, proved resistant and traditional practices persisted, although often under the camouflage of some changed nomenclature.
New impetus came with the Thatcher regime and was elaborated under John Major (Kingdom 1999). Looking as always to the private sector, much was made of the concept of the ‘enabling authority’; the emphasis was not on the direct provision services but on contracting them out to the private and voluntary sectors.
Such a practice was by no means new but, from the late 1980s, it became central to government policy, with compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) introduced for an ever-widening range of functions, from refuse collection to professional, legal and accounting responsibilities. A policy of care in the community, coming into force in April 1993, added impetus by requiring local authorities to make use of private and voluntary-sector residential homes for their widening community care responsibilities. In opposition Labour had poured scorn on the policy; in government it maintained the contracting out principle under the term ‘Best Value’.
The managerial implications in CCT were profound. Although local responses varied with political complexion, few authorities could remain untouched by the culture shift. Even where there was no stomach for contracting out, teams of officials had to endure considerable stress in producing competitive in-house bids in order to keep their jobs. Colleagues found themselves in competitive relationships with each other, some becoming contractors and others providers (Audit Commission 1993).
Moreover, the drawing up and monitoring of contracts required the skills of lawyers and accountants rather than elected councilors. Major’s Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine produced a consultation document, The Internal Management of Local Authorities, stressing that the control and co-ordination of large workforces would no longer be the central management task. The paper looked for speedy decision-making and strong leadership, advocating local cabinets, appointed council managers or, most radically, directly elected US-style mayors with high public profiles.
The latter had held little appeal to Heseltine’s party but, in a February 1998 consultation paper, Modernizing Local Government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership, the new Labour Government declared itself ‘very attracted’ to the model of a strong directly elected mayor (para 5.14). The promised Greater London Authority was seen as a suitable flagship for innovation. Here the mayor, served by three or four deputies and a small bureaucracy of around 250, would set policy objectives and an annual budget (of some £3.3 billion). The role of the councilors in the assembly would be approving rather than determining the budget.
Responsibilities of the new mayor would include public transport, the fire brigade, strategic planning, trunk roads, traffic management, the ambulance service and possibly the arts. In addition, responsibility for the Metropolitan Police Force would be taken over from the Home Secretary. The potential power of the new office would be considerable, and both main parties showed alarm as the names of some of their more maverick members were canvassed. For Labour leader Tony Blair, the nightmare candidate appeared to be the left-wing Ken Livingstone, ex-leader of the old GLC and extremely popular with Londoners. The nightmare became reality in May 2000.
There was an expectation that this model would be extended to other major cities. All 494 councils were asked to submit plans to central government showing how they would separate the decision-making role from that of representing constituents. Three options were offered: • a leader elected by the council who would appoint a cabinet from the council
- A directly elected executive mayor who would appoint a cabinet from the council
- A directly elected mayor working with a full-time manager appointed by the council
The general election of May 1997 saw the end of an 18-year period of Conservative rule during which the administrative landscape of the state had been radically recast. Few corners of the public sector could be said to have escaped some aspect of the winds of change which included privatization, agencification, CCT, market-testing, public-private partnership ventures, the emergence by stealth of the ‘new magistracy’ and the general spread of a private-sector managerial ethos.
In opposition, the Labour Party had maintained a prolonged crusade against most of the reforms, and many supporters had looked forward to the advance of the political bulldozers to level the ground. In power the party kicked off with a number of significant constitutional moves over devolution, the electoral system, the ECHR, the House of Lords, the Bank of England and the reform of local government. However, the party in power termed itself New Labour and preservation orders appeared over the recently privatized sector; indeed further privatizations were soon mooted in the cases of the Royal Mint and Air Traffic Control, and the remodeled Civil Service and NHS.
In local government grant-maintained schools remained under the term ‘foundation schools’, and the replacement of CCT with ‘Best Value’ was, in the eyes of critics, little more than cosmetic (Theakston, & Fry, 1998). Moreover, there remained something very much like a capping regime over local government expenditure. In managerial terms, the three Es of effectiveness, economy and efficiency continued as the holy trinity. As the millennium closed it was safe to say that, while the British public sector would remain in the state of flux allowed by its vague and unwritten constitution, the substructure had seen some tectonic shifts from which there would be little reversal.
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