Management services: missing and forgottenby Dr Jamal Khan
Many people do not seem to be clear about the role of, and the rationale for, management services in Bangladesh’s public sector. What are, after all, management services? At the same breath, many remain uninformed and tend to project a simplistic and misleading view of public management. They are neither, for instance, aware of management’s instrumentalist concept nor are they cognisant of an essentialist concept of management, let alone organisation and management theories, management principles and techniques, development theories and practices, policymaking, programme evaluation and quantitative management. In Bangladesh and similarly-placed low-income postcolonial peripheral societies in which the public sectors lead the charge, management services are relatively unknown or underutilised.
Management services are designed and provided by specialists to examine, improve, develop, run and evaluate the operations, workflow and other staff/line services of public sector organisations. It is a consulting assignment done by in-house or externally-hired specialists from the various organisations, including those who are R&D fellows, college/university faculty, private-firm consultants, and development assistance/donor agency personnel. It is concerned with identifying and solving bottlenecks in operations and customer services; undertaking organisation and management studies, work studies, work measurement and work simplification; expanding, enriching and adding value to customer counter services and customer experiences; neutralising and removing constraints in the workflow and decision-making processes; improving interpersonal and inter-group relations; improving analytical, implementational, operational and evaluative skills; building and heightening accountability and responsiveness; promoting reliability, efficiency and effectiveness; encouraging problem-sensing and problem-solving activism; questioning and curbing dependence, absenteeism and alienation; improving operational ease; shortening decision cycles; improving standard operating procedures; accelerating output generation and delivery systems; measuring performance and productivity; improving morale and motivation; curbing corruption, dysfunction, cronyism and spoils system; employing merit principle in human resource development and management; resisting partisanship and politicisation in public sector management; collaborating through professional societies; and building healthy working relationships between elected/appointed politicians and career personnel.
Among the several reasons why management services did not get going in Bangladesh, some are citeable, even if there may not be full consensus on the reasons. To start with, colonial managements were preoccupied with political control, power preservation, tax collection, law and order maintenance, roadwork and minimum socioeconomic services to keep the colonial system going. Colonial officials and their subordinates hardly bothered about analytical functions, such as management services because it was not in their interest, and plunged directly into routine management, relegating in the process key development functions. Second, the colonial tradition of ignoring or minimising management services has continued until today, with the unfortunate consequence that the public sector operates managerially in a slow-moving, incremental and unchanging world, as though time is frozen, change management is unimportant, taking one day at a time and strategic management is inconsequential. Management services have a bumpy ride, personnel at all levels breeze through a routinised and hierarchical process, and emphasis is laid more on piecemeal than long-term strategic activities.
Third, what is really disappointing, in this day and time, that after many top and middle-management employees have been exposed to contemporary public management theory and practice at one time or another, considerable management training has been periodically offered, numerous conferences, seminars and workshops have been held and considerable research and writing have been invested in this respect, the awareness and understanding concerning management services is still almost pallid in the country. Given this, it is difficult to reconcile heightened management education, training and socialisation with very low ebb of cognitive quest for organisation development, management development, supportive operating culture, high performance and measurable productivity. Because such action is held to be either unimportant or placed at a low order, with some unconventional and independent awareness here and there on the part of some personnel or policymakers, management services have not been mainstreamed.
Fourth, a perverse attitude toward management services on the part of many employees is noticeable. With ignorance having no premium, often prejudice and unawareness breed fear, uncertainty, resentment, discomfort, defensiveness, hostility, and rejection. That seems to have happened, more or less, to management service prospects in Bangladesh. Many seem fearful and cagey because they are not really sure what management services actually involve and what it might do to them and their career interests. Should management analyses show them up — their incompetence, mediocrity, corruption and non-performance — they tend to hide behind ambiguity, ambivalence, and verbiage.
Fifth, the public sector does not benefit, as much as expected, from management services, partly because the professionalisation of public sectors has not occurred adequately in the country. Even in the older professions — accounting, agriculture, architecture, engineering, law and medicine — management services are peripheral, let alone management which is a new kid on the block. With professionalism, non-partisanship and knowledge-building being a long shot and no lasting move being made as yet in that strategic direction, nobody seems to know how long performance-driven management is likely to take in the country.
Let us examine management services’ modus operandi — how it might work in staff agencies and operating organisations. Let us assume that in an auditing agency, a great deal of employee time is consumed by filing and documentation system which is dated and dilatory. No one seems to know what exactly to do, and personnel seem to have resigned themselves to the status quo and have been putting up with the obsolete system. In that event, management service specialists can be contacted, asked to look at it, make a study, provide recommendations, consult and review, install and develop, and operate and evaluate. Second, a tourism agency has been losing money in which fixed and variable costs are rising and remains unable to secure a reasonable return on its investment. Again, management services personnel can take a thorough look at the operations, weed out weak/nonperforming areas, cut costs, improve rationality and workflow, trim budget and personnel, downsize the agency if necessary, get the maximum out of the existing personnel, and undertake hard-nosed profitability analysis.
Third, a housing agency is reeling under a long waiting list, comprising thousands of prospective customers waiting for many years and without a guarantee in the near future of getting a rentable apartment of their own. Specialists concerned can do consulting in this respect, with the following steps in mind: diverting some customers to similar public and private sector housing organisations; counselling customers to seek other viable options and offering them professional backstopping; offering customers fully-serviced housing land/space so that they can build their accommodation; and going for other options in this market, such as time-sharing, subletting, cost-sharing, deferred payment, etc.
Finally, an industrial development corporation seeks to achieve efficiency in its industrial park operations. A management service team recommends a series of measures: contracting/subcontracting janitorial and landscaping services; selecting park tenants carefully after a thorough background check, especially checking previous tenancy, utilities, credit and security records; identifying a legally-binding and fast-acting modality by means of which defaulting and troublesome tenants can be promptly evicted; periodically hosting trade fairs and exhibitions where outputs produced by park tenants can be profitably sold. Specialists can also recommend if a one-stop centre can be set up for all investors and financiers to transact business under one roof, without having to get run-around and experiencing delays and frustrations with the conventional public sector setup.
The key differences between what may or may not exist today in Bangladesh’s public domain and management services being talked about here may be summed up in this way: (a) existing personnel in existing agencies may or may not be qualified or able to carry out such consultancy; many employees may be entirely clueless because these are analytical functions; (b) more significantly, such recommendations, prescriptions and actionable measures are mandatory; these are not recommendatory or advisory, the likes of which Bangladeshis have been seeing ruefully for many decades, which are not implemented and enjoy rather the dubious distinction of long shelf life.
What management services can create, nurture and support is a specialty area which can elevate the public sectors’ analytical and operational capacity on strength of their professional work. Let us get one point clear here. The public sector is not only large but also multifunctional. There are numerous programme managers — public health specialists, agricultural extension personnel, works engineers, tourism officials, investment counsellors, school inspectors, housing inspectors, etc. We are not talking about these managers some of whom are good in their jobs. Here, we refer only to those specialists/consultants whose job is to solve/resolve work problems, speed up workflow and progress, minimise conflict, improve morale, and simplify/rationalise procedures and processes. We are here talking about a core group of analysts/specialists who are formally credentialed in the theory, practice and research of public management and is comfortable with research methods, analytical approaches and quantitative/qualitative analysis. The management service job cannot be done by a lone ranger, or in a void, or without support, no matter how able or creative a consultant is academically and experientially. The job requires not only thorough understanding and familiarity with management content and form but also a team-based, data-driven and problem-solving setting, analogous to a natural scientist’s working environment.
They are the specialists, professionals, problem-solvers and core-group experts who help clean up messy, cluttered and untidy operating environment, identify and deal with deficiencies and dysfunctions, own organisational problems and constraints and attempt to solve or get around those, bring in modern management techniques, standard operating procedures and organisation-building tools into an otherwise placid working environment, and energise operating culture. Specialists will do what they are required to do with a view to operationalising and professionalising public management — a daunting job but is doable and achievable under the right visionary leadership who is driven by public interests. Undue pessimism, persistent despair and habitual dependency apart, management services personnel will fight in the trenches to keep management mobilisation going.
Then as now, management services cannot work if management continues to be exclusively elite-based, politician-dominated and group interest-specific, i.e. the rhetoric-driven rabble-rousing political culture and self-devouring profit-driven milieu. This point has to be grasped right away. While management services aim at integrating, strengthening and utilising analysis and problem-solving, politicians tend to be big time into breaking down the rationale of analysis and imposing the extensive culture of patronage and cronyism on the entire management system. Following New Zealand and Singapore, among other countries, the NPM (New Public Management) needs to be creatively incorporated in our operating environment. Worse still, the costs of not doing management services are mind-blowing, viz. the continuity of status quo, underdevelopment, underperformance, dependency, disparity, conflict, polarization, violence, and rapaciousness. By this logic, bizarrely, the race to the bottom is on.
Dr Jamal Khan was a professor of public sector management at the University of the West Indies. email@example.com.
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