As is now well established, the role of the public sector manager in the UK has changed significantly over the last two decades, shifting from traditional 'public administration' towards private sector 'management' (Morris 1998), and producing what has become known as the 'new public management' (NPM). Underpinned by 'the seldom-tested assumption that better management will prove an effective solvent for a wide range of economic and social ills' (Pollitt 1993:1), these developments have revolved around improving performance in a sector which, so Conservative logic ran, had historically been badly managed (Pollitt 1993; Flynn 1997; Lawton 1998; Farnham and Horton 1999).
With the above in mind, this chapter focuses on experiences of NPM. It is based on qualitative interviews with twelve public services managers, all women, and all employed in the social services, the National Health Service (NHS), higher education, the probation service and local government. Not all of these respondents are managers in the strictest sense - their job descriptions do not consist entirely of 'getting things done through other people'. However, they each have some experience of managing in the public sector, as the appendix shows. Moreover, although the interviews took place during summer 1997, and the chapter therefore does not cover New Labour public sector policy, the data are still relevant in terms of the twelve women's experiences of NPM, given that it was the Conservative regimes of 1979-97 that effected the key changes to the public services. Moreover, there seems to be 'a great deal of continuity' between Conservative and Labour policy on the public sector, despite 'a different tone in government' and some variations in 'basic values and … priorities' (Horton and Farnham 1999a: 6 and 19).
But it is not just the emergence of NPM that inspires discussion here. The public sector is still very important in our lives, two decades of reform notwithstanding. For example, public organisations provide goods and services that have a direct impact on our standard of living, and for which we pay through taxation of various kinds (Farnham and Horton 1999:35). They also employ workers numbering in the millions. So we should arguably be especially concerned with what happens in the public services, and in particular whether it is good, bad or indifferent.