Over the past 25 years numerous management methods have been
exported from the private to the public sector. Known as new public
managerialism (NPM), the trend was accompanied by enthusiasm for
the idea – particularly within government – that competition
between providers was key to creating efficiency and choice. Those
working in the public services had to learn the language of
business and markets, despite not always feeling comfortable about
The 1990s saw a gradual disillusionment with many of these
classical management ideas. There was an increasing awareness of
the difficulty in applying the private into the public, and an
emphasis on the importance of leadership emerged.
At the same time several other management models emerged. For
example, whole systems theory argues that, rather than needing a
grasp of the details, managers need a good overview of what
influences their work, in particular the constraints and challenges
of the external environment.
Chaos and complexity theory also have begun to influence management
models in the UK. Hailing from North America, these theories argue
that new approaches to unpredictable systems in the pure sciences
could also be relevant to understanding economies and public
But complexity theory challenges the idea that managers can control
the detail of performance. Classical models of management are based
on the premise that managers can predict with confidence, which
inputs will lead to the required outputs.
Under complexity theory, the key management skills are
adaptability, diplomacy and flexibility in a rapidly changing
environment. Such an approach encourages the development of a set
of core values and ideas that creates a “vision” about where
services want to be, which itself generates an attraction towards
order, stability and progress.
The potential for disorder and chaos is a feature of many complex
systems, including public services. But, although some disorder is
a creative feature of all systems, there are risks associated with
it which need constant attention.1
Performance management has proved an influential NPM technique.
Much effort has been expended in health and social care to set up
performance monitoring systems that allow services to be compared,
often through long lists of indicators. In some cases these are
linked to qualitative inspection regimes, such as the joint reviews
of social care services. But the aggregation of such data into
general star ratings and comprehensive performance assessments can
distract from the real local issues.
Complexity approaches offer an alternative by moving away from the
focus on identifying “cause and effect”. Instead, managers look for
key processes that affect performance. In the case of a local
authority with high numbers of family placement breakdowns, it
might be possible to identify a critical point where things start
to go wrong, such when communication between social worker, school
and carer fails.
Under complexity theory, when that point has been identified an
attempt is made to understand what is happening within the system
of local services and efforts are made to intervene. In other
words, complexity theory takes a wide and open initial view of the
system and gradually focuses on the feedback between the key
elements within the system. The idea is to increase positive
feedback between key elements and to break negative feedback where
the wrong kind of communication is occurring. So, in this case,
this might involve the intervention of an educational support
worker who can mediate between the family and the school.
The sector is at something of a crossroads now. It can encourage
the real world application of these new approaches or see a
negative return to classical methods such as performance management
that focus on over-defining outputs, and relating this directly to
inputs. But it must be noted these classical approaches often
undermine both creativity and the use of professional skills in the
Philip Haynes is principal lecturer in social policy,
University of Brighton.
1 P Haynes, Managing Complexity in the Public
Services, Open University Press, 2003