The trouble(s) with regulation: How do we ‘police’ the public sector?

(c) Christian Schnettelker

(c) Christian Schnettelker

Political stakes are high on the front-line of public services. Professionals working in sectors such as education, health and social care function as the interface between the public and the public sector, their capacity to fulfil their duty of care a key component of modern state legitimacy. The fact that these services occupy the space where public interest meets private concerns, means that they represent the state at its most exposed. The success or otherwise of professional practice on the front-line has implications for how governments are judged across a range of issues – financial efficiency, political competence, and not least, the promotion of democratic values.

It is unsurprising then, that modern governments have developed extensive mechanisms of accountability designed specifically to measure the effectiveness of public services. One of the more striking developments of recent years in national and institutional governance is the rise of what Max Travers (2007) calls the ‘new bureaucracy’ of quality assurance. This is particularly true of the public sector, with areas such as education under increasing pressure to evidence accountability to the public and the public purse. The mechanisms of this new bureaucracy – performance indicators, audit, inspection and evaluation – are designed to increase formal levels of accountability to the state while also making the public sector more accountable to the public via marketisation and the development of a consumer culture. This new bureaucracy of accountability has dramatically altered the landscape of public services since its development in the last several decades. In particular, the implementation of these quality assurance mechanisms has opened up the public sector to ever greater scrutiny.

As a tool of political regulation, however, they are not without their critics, accused of, among other things, undermining professional autonomy, instrumentalising public services and trivialising democracy. Problems associated with political accountability suggest it deserves its ‘tricky’ reputation, a description that extends beyond definitional complexities. Attempts to manage and control outcomes via mechanisms such as audit and inspection face numerous difficulties with the gap between the ideal and reality often too wide to deliver satisfactory outcomes.

Given these concerns over accountability, it is inevitable that debates have developed over the usefulness of such a bureaucratic apparatus generally. Increasingly evidence suggests that these state bureaucratic systems, rather than alleviating issues associated with a lack of public accountability, have unwittingly managed to help facilitate their development in the first place. These unwelcome consequences of the new bureaucracy for public sector working should be a major concern to policy makers and those interested in the effective functioning of democratic institutions.

This theme, of the relationship between political regulation and service delivery, is at the heart of my own current research, and I will be writing about this topic on a fairly regular basis on this site. If you have similar interests, feel free to contact me at And of course feel free to join in the discussion – I’m particularly interested in hearing from professionals in the fields of health, social work, social care, education, police, probation, but this is an indicative list, not an exhaustive one.        

All the best, Mark Murphy

Note: Some of this material is adapted from Murphy, M and P. Skillen, The politics of school regulation: using Habermas to research educational accountability. In M. Murphy (ed), (2013) Social theory and educational research: understanding Foucault, Bourdieu, Habermas and Derrida. London: Routledge.

About Mark:

Mark is Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow having previously held academic positions at King’s College London, University of Chester and the University of Stirling. He is currently seconded on a 50 per cent basis to Policy Scotland, to carry out research on regulation and public sector governance. Mark has published widely, his most recent publications focusing on the relationship between theory and research. Mark’s current research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform. He has a website devoted to the application of theory in research contexts, and can be found on Twitter via @socialtheoryapp. He can be emailed at

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