One day, after a successful revolution, in that bit of political theory where Marxism tends towards anarchism, the State will wither away and we will no longer have the government of people but the administration of things. Public administration would become concerned with technical issues rather than the coercion implied by laws.
I think this is too idealistic — it pretends that politics, at its heart an argument about how resources are allocated, will disappear just because the resources are allocated “scientifically.” But I am more concerned with the idea of administration here: what is it and why should we worry about it?
It’s usually defined as the day-to-day running of an organisation, though can sometimes be used to mean the government of the day. It’s not something that everyone can do: there are certain aptitudes that make for good administrators, such as an attention to detail and a good memory, that can’t be learnt.
But a lot of administration is about processes: the secretary of a campaign or anarchist group might deal with correspondence, arrange and give notice of meetings and make sure minutes are circulated. All this is administration — it is not political because the decisions lie with the whole group.
It’s something that a lot of anarchists are pretty bad at. This is not in itself surprising — the urge to action that drives a lot of anarchists tends to worry about admin a lot later. It’s also why a lot of anarchist activity is cyclical — the people who can hold all this together burn out or move on, often without sharing any of the skills needed so that no-one can take over. Admin skills, or how to run a group/campaign, should be part of any activist’s skillset, just so that the wheel does not need to be constantly reinvented.
But it is not just in the world of activism that admin happens. All organisations need administration: most know this. Private companies will pay for good admin. But when it comes to the public sector, “admin” is a nice easy cut for image-conscious politicians.
It’s not cutting front line services, after all, and who wouldn’t object to NHS or council managers being reduced? Of course, when the admin departments are cut, it’s usually the lower-paid workers who get cut, and the work they did still needs to be done.
Some public services are approaching this by trying to use technology. If you phone your local hospital or council, the machine that answers will ask you who you want to talk to. Let’s hope your accent isn’t too strong and you know how to pronounce the person’s name in the same way the machine does. Others just expect the front-line workers to do their own admin. If someone is a really good doctor, I’d rather they were treating patients and had passed the admin to someone who was a good administrator. But what do I know?
It is just one aspect of austerity — but when you encounter basic administrative incompetence in your everyday dealings with the public sector, you have to ask how many other hidden cuts are also affecting services.
This article first appeared in the Summer issue of Freedom anarchist journal