All they need is a chain : lean production and the new performance management in the British civil service

Danford, A. and Carter, R. and Howcroft, D. and Smith, A. and Richardson, Helen and Taylor, Philip (2010) All they need is a chain : lean production and the new performance management in the British civil service. In: 28th International Labour Process Conference, 2010-03-15 - 2010-03-17.

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Since Labor and Monopoly Capital was published in 1974, workplace studies of the application of scientific management have tended to focus on factory labour. This is despite the fact that Braverman himself suggested that office-based labour processes were even more suited to the rationalisation of Taylorism than manufacturing processes. Indeed, it is in its historical analysis of the transformation of social relations in the office, from those based on intimacy and trust to something akin to a factory environment of subordination and impersonal discipline, that Labor and Monopoly Capital provided the richest of Braverman’s empirical data. Two key factors that were pertinent to administrative labour processes were highlighted. The first was that office-based labour processes in large capitalist corporations were essentially continuous flow processes requiring a large scale flow of documentation that, with the development of F.W.Taylor’s ideas, lent themselves more easily to the principles of subdivision, time and motion measurement and minute task fragmentation. The second, and with our knowledge of the nature of work in many contemporary call centres Braverman was prescient here, the introduction of computerised automation into the office contained the technological means of deepening the rationalisation of tasks and enhancing management control through computerised surveillance (Bain et al., 2002). Notwithstanding the criticisms that followed in the wake of Braverman’s highly influential thesis - and the emergence of arguments that sought to show a post-Fordist break from the principles of Taylorism - our contention is that the ‘modern management methods’ now emerging in certain office environments previously associated with ‘good jobs’ show some close similarities with the despotic management practices of ‘bloody Taylorisation’ (Lipietz, 1982). The empirical focus of this paper is the UK public sector and specifically, the civil service. The paper draws on a multi-site investigation of the emergence of untrammelled Taylorism, replicated from private sector lean production techniques, at different HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) offices in the UK. The genesis of this development lay in the cumulative demands for stringent performance management under different ‘New Public Management’ regimes. But the specific catalyst for the introduction of lean management techniques was the announcement of over 80,000 civil service job cuts by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the spring of 2004 and, later that summer, the publication of a government sponsored review of public sector efficiency (the Gershon Report) that proposed to secure the required job cuts by radically transforming the labour processes underpinning ‘transactional services’, those public services that require interaction with citizens and business (Gershon, 2004). In this paper, we adopt a methodology that accesses directly worker voices from the front line of public sector reform. We present evidence that, on the one hand, sits in stark contradiction to those managerial conceptualisations of lean that emphasise links between productivity gains and ‘worker empowerment’, and on the other hand, highlights a profound degradation of employment conditions arising from the Taylorisation that is immanent in lean office environments. The authors conducted the research in 2008 at six sites of HMRC that were selected as those central to processing work and subject to new lean procedures implemented by HMRC management. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data was collected. Questionnaires were given to approximately 15 per cent of the workforce at each site (the size of the sample population in each HMRC workplace reflected broadly the relative size of establishments in the six locations). In total, 1650 questionnaires were distributed and 840 (51%) returned. In addition, interviews were completed with 20 workplace representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) at each site, three PCS national officials, six line managers and a focus group of workers at one site.