The ‘simplification syndrome' in education governance: analysing the complex experiences of senior executive officers

Year: 2013

Author: Marshall, Vernon, Zipin, Lew, Brennan, Marie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper argues that Post-Westphalian forms of governing manifest a key shift in governance rationalities, which we term the ‘simplification syndrome'. This shift expresses a wide-spread crisis of governance, at levels from national to institutional, in which governing bodies and actors - constrained by new ways and degrees of budget restriction, media attention, and more - lose faith in their capacities to address substantive social needs, and so turn self-referentially inward. That is, they increasingly invest effort and resources less in addressing social-material needs of populations, and more in technical-administrative management of their own legitimation crises, promoting political legitimacy through discursive means. A key strategic effect is short-term, highly simplistic constructions of ‘problems' and ‘solutions', avoiding recognition of complexities that do not seem readily ‘manageable'.
The paper focuses on effects of the simplification syndrome on senior executive officers (SEOs) in a state education department. Analysis draws on elite-actor interviews with SEOs who, at different times in the past decade, have worked in this department. SEOs were asked to comment on how they registered pressures towards simplification in trends such as devolution, aggressive party politics, and media news cycles. Their testimonies indicate a general sense of being caught in a permanent ‘just in time' condition of response, which inhibits addressing issues and conditions of longer-term complexity. They note the irony that simplification pressures add to complexities of their everyday work in which they nonetheless must address inescapable intricacies of old and new problems for schools, as well as associated political issues and ‘crises' (often constructed by media). 
Analysis finds that populist media pressures on SEOs register in non-stop and exhausting impression management, with demands (from ministers) and felt necessities (in their habitus), to spin public perceptions towards positive reception of government policy and actions. As well, devolution trends of governments, seeking distance from direct responsibility for problem domains, create new work of overseeing accountability from ‘below'. Ironically, such oversight of performativity induces a one-dimensional conception of public sector service provision, favouring a limited range of criteria, expedient by virtue of ease of calculability; and yet performance oversight entails newly intense and complex labours of governing. Such elements and dynamics of simplification converge in a complex assemblage of new problems and challenges for governments striving to reduce risky interfaces between government and citizens. The costs in resources, labour and ingenuity are considerable.