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The Politics of Regulation, pt. 4: Intended or Unintended Consequences?

Published in Governance by Mark Murphy on February 19, 2013

[image (c) Le service photo du Conseil général du Val-de-Marne]

In last week’s seminar (abstract here), I discussed how the unintended consequences of the new bureaucracy (including time compression and the rise of jurisphobia) might be best understood as manifestations of a struggle over forms of regulation – political, temporal and legal. My aim was to counteract the naive assumption that political regulation enjoys an uncontested monopoly over the management of public sector behaviour and that there exist other regulatory mechanisms that are irreducible to political imperatives. Hopefully that point came across during the seminar.

Another issue was highlighted during the discussion, one that deserves a bit more emphasis (that’s the thing about seminars, some of this stuff normally just hangs in the air), and I thought I’d use this forum to reflect on it a little more. Two of the participants, Muir Houston and Liam Kane, talked about how the unintended consequences referred to in the literature and emphasised in my paper, could instead be viewed as intended consequences – i.e., that the stated objectives for regulation (efficiency, quality, standards, service) hide an ideological agenda designed to weaken the public sector and make it amenable to even more centralised control; Or, even worse, using regulation to effectively deregulate and leave the sector wide open to dismantling by private sector imperatives (not sure if I’m putting words in mouths but happy to correct).

This is certainly a question that needs further consideration and highlights to some extent the ways in which different research traditions can exist side-by-side without any kind of constructive dialogue between them. It is true that some of the public administration literature acts as if politics doesn’t exist, to an extent pandering to its own paradigmatic understandings of policy imperatives and implementation. This lack of realpolitik is something I’ve previously pointed to regarding Habermas and his take on bureaucracy, see below:                    

“One issue that has been viewed as problematic is the apparent inability of Habermas’ theory to account for action at the systemic level. Some authors have commented critically on Habermas’ insistence on a norm-free sociality in the sub-systems, with Horowitz (1998, 9) arguing that the media of money and power are ‘anchored in a lifeworld saturated with the norms appropriate to their existence’. And McCarthy (1991, 125) argues that, while it might be correct to characterise the market as ‘norm-free’, given its functional integration of individual decisions on the basis of profit utility, it is questionable whether it provides an adequate description of political life, with its in-built capacity for ideological machinations. On this note, Carr and Hartnett provide an excellent account of the way in which British education was transformed via the new right offensive of the Thatcher years, resulting in, amongst numerous other troublesome outcomes, the replacement of traditional educational policy-making with ‘an attempt to portray all educational issues as technical issues and to reduce consultation to a public relations exercise’ (Carr and Hartnett 1996, 173).

In contrast, Weber’s analysis of bureaucratic procedures was very much focused on the actions of Germany’s civil servants, whom he believed had specific interests of their own. They were also the object, according to Scott (2000), of Weber’s ‘sometimes barely controlled contempt’. [taken from Bureaucracy and its limits: accountability and rationality in higher education].”

So I would agree there is a case to be made for exploring the world of intended consequences and their role in shaping regulatory politics. At the same time, I’d be reluctant to conflate unintended and intended consequences. While an argument can be made for the existence of both, to suggest that they are one and the same thing is problematic and asking too much of a state apparatus that (at least in the UK) has difficulties in regulating its own civil servants let alone the complex world that is the public sector.             

Neverthless, there’s an interesting discussion to be had here – for example, what about examining where the two forms of consequence coincide/diverge? – feel free to comment, Mark 19.02.13


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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