Post Bureaucracy and the Politics

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Post bureaucracy and the politics
of forgetting
The management of change at the BBC,
Martin Harris
University of Essex, Colchester, UK, and
Victoria Wegg-Prosser
Bournemouth University, Dorset, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate the imputed “fall” and subsequent “reinvention” of the BBC during the 1990s, relating a managerialist “politics of forgetting” to the broader ideological narratives of “the post bureaucratic turn”. Design/methodology/approach – The paper draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, combining case study analysis with long-term historical perspectives on organisational change. Findings – The paper shows the ways in which public sector professionals contested “post bureaucratic” pressures for marketisation and organisational disaggregation. Originality/value – The paper shows the ways in which large-scale technological, regulatory and organisational change was mediated by cultural continuities and recurrent “surges” of managerial control.

Keywords Television, Organizational change, Bureaucracy, United Kingdom Paper type Case study
Introduction: recent debate on post bureaucracy
Comment on the “end” of bureaucracy is derived from the view that bureaucratic rationalisation can no longer provide a viable basis for organising in the current context of radical uncertainty and turbulent change (Harvey, 1989; Kumar, 1995; Castells, 2000). Advocates of post bureaucracy argue that organisations are becoming more decentralised, loosely coupled and likely to foster the empowerment of employees (Kanter, 1989; Heckscher, 1994; Osborne and Plastrik, 1997; Child and McGrath, 2001). The overview provided by Power (1997, p. 43) shows that there is a very considerable overlap between the “post bureaucratic turn” and “the new public management” (NPM). The latter emphasises:

. . . cost control, financial transparency, the atomisation of organizational sub-units, the decentralisation of management autonomy, the creation of market and quasi-market mechanisms . . . [and] . . . the creation of performance indicators. Post bureaucracy promises new forms of strategic action which will assume a more creative and open form. Comment on “hybrid political regimes” and “democratic hierarchies” is centred on the long-standing question of how organisations combine centralised control and co-ordination of resources with the need for more flexible forms (Adler and Borys, 1996; Courpasson, 2000; Clegg and Courpasson, 2004). The notion of The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at

Journal of Organizational Change
Vol. 20 No. 3, 2007
pp. 290-303
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09534810710740146
organisational hybridity has a particular relevance for public sector organisations, where calls to “reduce bureaucracy” have been manifested in attempts to simulate market disciplines within the organisation. (Causer and Exworthy, 1999; Dent, 1995; Farrell and Morris, 2003; Laffin, 1998; Ferlie et al., 1996; Ferlie et al., 2003; Harris, 2006). Two aspects of the post bureaucracy debate are of particular significance for the present study. The first concerns the large volume of comment which has challenged the substantive claims made for post bureaucracy and NPM. The second relates to the idea that the post bureaucratic turn is embedded in an overarching “discourse of endings” whose leitmotiv is that the advanced industrial societies have now entered a definitively new epoch. Thus, as Reed (2005, pp. 101-2) has argued: . . . a neo-liberalist economist such as Schumpeter, a social democrat such as Schumacher, a neo-corporatist such as Elias, a technological determinist such as Bell or Castells, and a theorist of radical participatory democracy such as Illich, can all agree that the underlying currents of history, will, eventually make bureaucracy an obsolete form...
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