The politics of regulation: Exploring bureaucracy and its consequences for public sector professions

Mark Murphy, University of Glasgow

This is a page designed to provide background material to a ‘Theory and Methods’ Seminar to be delivered on the 13th February at the University of Glasgow [1:30-4pm, Rm 433, St. Andrew’s Building].

Below is the abstract, but over the next week I will post up several items that will help to contextualise the issues raised in the actual seminar itself. I will put these posts in the slider as I go and also link to them here on this ‘fixed’ page. Feel free to discuss and make comments about the issues raised – doesn’t matter if you’re not physically there on the day!  Mark, 05 February 2013


The new bureaucracy of accountability has altered the landscape of public services since its development in the last several decades. In particular, the implementation of quality assurance mechanisms – audit, inspection, performance indicators, evaluation – has opened up the public sector to ever greater scrutiny. As a tool of political regulation, however, they are not without their critics, accused of among other things, undermining professional autonomy, instrumentalising public services and trivialising democracy.

While these criticisms are concerning, from a purely functional point of view the issue is whether or not accountability mechanisms are an effective form of regulation. Previous studies of accountability indicate its tendency to deliver unintended consequences, consequences that have implications for the act of accountability itself. Less established are the reasons why these unintended consequences occur in the first place: why are phenomena such as risk avoidance, impression management and what some have termed the ‘accountability trap’ so prevalent in a public sector supposedly geared towards the efficient delivery of high quality public services?

Based on findings from recent research with public sector professionals in England, this paper argues that at least part of the answer to this question lies in the nature of social regulation itself. The evidence suggests that increased political regulation of teachers, nurses, social workers, among others, has unwittingly highlighted the existence/magnified the importance of, other forms of regulation that tend to get sidelined or forgotten entirely when it comes to talk of regulatory mechanisms – temporal, legal and normative regulation. Exploring the connection between these forms of regulation is important, as they have the effect, in this study at least, of mediating the effect of political regulation on the working lives of public sector professionals.            

The paper explores this world of regulation and public sector professions via a combination of ideas adopted from neo-Weberian sociology and research in the field of public administration, in particular research informed by the work of Michael Lipsky and his theory of street-level bureaucracy.

Links to additional content available below:

  1. First post on the seminar content is available here: The Politics of Regulation 1: Bureaucracy and its Consequences
  2. Second post on the seminar content is available here: The Politics of Regulation, 2: Time and the Front Line
  3. Third post on the seminar content is available here: The Politics of Regulation, Pt. 3: Fear in the Ranks
  4. Fourth post on the seminar content is available here: The Politics of Regulation, Pt. 4: Intended or Unintended Consequences?