Stewart Clegg, Martin Harris and Harro Höpfl (2011) Managing modernity: beyond bureaucracy? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

‘Managing modernity: beyond bureaucracy’ is the type of collection that illustrates just how good edited books can be, once care is taken over choice of topic, range of authors and strength of case study. This is certainly the case here, in a book that asks: ‘do we live in a more or less bureaucratic world? Do new information communications technologies undermine or modify bureaucracy? Or do these technologies create new ‘iron cages’ and modes of organisational control?’ The book brings together a set of research studies in settings such as public administration, healthcare and corporations, and in doing so provides a nice complement to Max Travers’ book The new bureaucracy: quality assurance and its critics from 2007.

A significant tension can be found thoughout the book between arguments for ‘post-bureaucratic’ forms of organisation and, effectively, business as usual. As you’d expect then, the shadow of Max Weber looms large over the collection and rightly so. As the father of bureaucracy studies, his analyses of organisational rationality and forms of management and control remain important signifiers in this corner of public administration, political science and business and management studies.

Some choice quotes from a book with numerous examples:

despite a string of policy interventions designed to establish internal competition in health-care delivery, the organisational archetype of the professional bureaucracy in health care is now more firmly embedded than ever (from David Buchanan and Louise Fitzgerald’s chapter on the ‘accessorized bureaucracy of health care’)

Fragmentation and disaggregation, far from representing an emergent new paradigm, are in fact long-standing and endemic features of British industrial organisation (from Stephen Ackroyd’s chapter on the post-war organisation of large British organisations)   

Establishing or strengthening an ethos of bureaucracy is not simply a matter of reducing the number of forms or files but, rather, creating and processing those forms and files in such a way that is consistent with the bureaucratic principles of fairness, justice, equality, and so on (from Hugh Wilmott’s chapter ‘Back to the future: what does studying bureaucracy tell us?’)  

One sentence that especially caught the eye was from Harro Höpfl’s paper on bureaucratic accountability in Britain:

the problem in the end is not accountability, but: who is to be trusted?

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

The collection would have been made even stronger with the inclusion of some case studies from the field of education. So next time Stewart et al –  just call me, ok?

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