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What is Best ‘Value’?

Daniel Miller 


In preparing you for reading this paper it is perhaps worth starting with the admission that I am not a student of bureaucracy or indeed government. Rather this paper is a by-product of a much larger study that is concerned with the concept of value and its centrality to activities ranging from commerce and finance, to morality and government. As an anthropologist committed to using ethnography I am intending to carry out a series of studies that include, where possible, an element of participant observation. My case studies are various and I am just starting my second in the series, which is focused upon the nature of shareholder value in the workings of finance. The present paper is based upon my first case-study which took as its subject the `Best Value' (from hereon BV) audit of local government in England and Wales (Audit Commission 1999, 2001). My primary concern was the role of value in the transformation of public funds back into public services, but for the purpose of this paper I will be concerned more with the issues that were encountered in the tensions between the BV inspection and the people and practices observed within local government. I will also refer to the one publication that has already emerged from this study (Miller 2003) which was directed at a different issue, that which I elsewhere call `virtualism' (Miller 1998) which is the problem of increasing abstraction in modern institutions and the way this acts to produce effects that are the opposite of intentions.

BV, which was established in the in 1999 is a colossal operation, said by Martin (2001) to cost £600 million a year. It is based on a statutory requirement that every service provided by every council in England and Wales must provide a BV report and be subject to a BV inspection once in every five years. At the time I finished my fieldwork there were already about 1,600 of these reports published ranging from cleaning buildings and security services; maintaining playgrounds, highways or libraries; through to planning and environmental controls - in short every aspect of what local government does (for reviews of BV see Boyne 1999, Martin 2000, 2002, Raine, 2000, Snape 2000). I had some precedent for an anthropological perspective in that there have been some anthropological works on audit collected in Strathern (2000), as well on bureaucracy (e.g. Herzfeld 1992, Riles 2001). My study was equally influenced by my sense that Power (1997) and Du Gay (2000) had in different ways made clear what had been my largely uninformed hunches as to what might be going on.

In conducting this study of BV I was fortunate to be granted excellent access by the Audit Commission. I was able to accompany the pairs of inspectors in every aspect of their inspection, including the discussions that took place at Millbank Tower (the headquarters of the Audit Commission as well as of the Labour Party) before and after inspections. I could sit in and record all meetings with local council officials, and accompany inspectors on their `reality checks’ of actual instances of these services. I participated fully in three inspections (which I will keep anonymous) and in addition discussed BV with council officers elsewhere that had been inspected or were preparing for inspections. My research both as participant and interviewer took place in and around London during 2001. I also various associated documents which are freely available on the websites of almost all the councils in the UK. Although I suspect my presence was sometimes felt to be `the third that makes a crowd’ given the intimate nature of the interview process, I do not think I had a significant impact on any of the results or procedures. I did not speak during interviews but usually discussed the interviews with the inspectors after the interviewee had left.

Although my aim was to relate this inspection to issues of value, which I attempt later in this paper, my reason for using audit as a case study arose from an earlier theoretical project. In what I called a theory of Virtualism I argued that there has been a major shift in recent times that affects a wide range of institutions we may not otherwise think of as connected. The starting point was the rise of consumption as increasingly important source of political authority (Keat 1994). The consumer was becoming the ultimate arbiter of what should exist in the world. I argue that just as actual consumers seemed to be about to be, in some sense, empowered by being accredited this authority, it was in effect taken away from them by a whole series of institutions that usurped this authority. This leads to what might be called a fetishism of the consumer parallel to Marx's argument about the fetishism of the commodity as hiding its source in labour. Obvious examples of this seemed to me to include: firstly the power accrued to lawyers standing on behalf of consumer rights, secondly the power of the modern economist asserting academic models such as that of the free market that governments are supposed to conform to based on the claim that this is the best way the economy can serve consumers, the huge increase in management consultancy and its claims to deliver clients and customers to those it advises. The rise of a theory of postmodernism in the social sciences based on claims about consumers societies but often backed up with precious little research on actual consumers, Within this larger picture the rise of audit is not simply something that emerges from the internal development of government but part of a much wider series of changes over the last thirty years.

This logic seemed quite explicit and clear in the development of recent audits that seek to justify themselves as being carried out on behalf of `patients as consumers' or `students as consumers' or consumers more generally. As Powers (1997) has argued the effect of these audits is actually to turn the attention of the institution in question from the actual consumers of their services to auditors who stand in as `virtual' consumers in the stead of actual users. Audits and inspections increasingly take up the time and resources of institutions that might otherwise have been directed to real users and consumers. This is precisely what I would argue happens in all these other cases of management consultants, economists, lawyers, social scientists and others who have appropriated the mantle of consumer authority. In each case they are legitimated by the authority of the consumer but in effect lead to less rather than more attention to actual consumers. The point of this theory of virtualism is to argue that it is no coincidence that all of these forces have grown considerably over much the same period following much the same logic.

This was my starting point, but I intended to use the study to start an investigation into a complementary area, which was the concept of value, which is why out of all the audits available I chose to study BV. Even this very brief introduction should hopefully demonstrate that to talk only of government emulating the private sector is too simple. The trends that are identified here are much broader than either government or commerce, which is why at some point it is worth trying to go back to a broader theory that the term virtualism, or the concept of value are trying to address. This would, however, take us far from the immediate concern with defending bureaucracy, and so this paper having taken note of this larger context will now move towards the more particular issue though first stopping to examine the concept of value itself a little more closely.


Until recently the term value has not had quite the sense of `bedrock' associated with it in government as one would find with `added value’ or `shareholder value’ in commerce, and where used had a slightly different connotation. Under the Conservative government the development of CCT or Ofsted and many other inspections and regimes, represented a concern dominated by two factors - price and failure. The underpinnings of most audits and inspections was a belief in tax-cuts and thus cost-cutting and the need to justify an increase of private sector involvement through demonstrating the failures of the public sector. Yet in many ways the failure of this relatively single minded strategy has everything to do with this little word `value'. The problem is that the word value does what might otherwise be regarded as an outrageously broad amount of work. On the one hand it can be used as almost synonymous with the word price, as in `what is the value of this house or antique in today's market. On the other hand it pulls us close to the various meanings of the term values, which could be defined as everything in this world that we regard as irreducible to price and more generally money.

So the word value seems to insist upon the connection between things which the same word shows to be quite incompatible, that which cannot be priced and that which must be. This paradox was brilliantly explored by the sociologist Viviana Zelizer (1987) in her history of the insurance industry's concern with children `Pricing the Priceless Child.' With regard to the Conservative government it was clear in the rhetoric and focus of the last two general elections that the ideal of cost-cutting faced considerable, if not insurmountable, problems when confronted with the public's generally sentimental sense of the welfare state as one of the most valued contributions of Britain to the modern world. The problem could be said to be that the welfare state was now experienced as a valued possession that could not be reduced easily to mere value. Where the term values includes a quality that transcends that which can be reduced to price, cost-cutting was seen as something that demolished rather than, as intended, created value.

So when the Labour party came into power the word value was at something of a high point in its ability to point to both apparent political solutions and also apparent political problems. The political problem - in a highly generalised form - is that the Conservative government was viewed as better at retaining possession of value in the sense of low price, while the Labour government was better at retaining possession of value in the sense of values that transcend price. The future seemed to be with which ever party could seize upon the potential clearly expressed in the word value itself which was its ability to simultaneously occupy both ends of this apparent polarity, value as price and value as priceless.

This is of course quite typical of the kind of problem and solution with which the Labour party associated itself with through the adoption of the term New Labour and its doctrine of a Third Way. From the perspective of this re-positioning in the hallowed middle ground of politics the word value can be located as the bridging point that potentially delivers the overcoming of all such polarities. While CCT under the Conservative government was generally regarded as subjecting local government to evaluation in terms of price and competition, value under New Labour has come back in line with the sense of public service as a highly valued outcome of government. The term now implies that the bottom line of local government is the quality of the services it provides as experienced by users of those services in balance with the obligation to those same people to keep taxes low by ensuring that the services are provided at the lowest cost commensurable with that improvement in quality. The trick here is to turn the contradiction inherent in the term value from a fault into a virtue. To simplify my paper I will from now on use the word value to mean forces used in evaluation such as money, and the word values for the heterogeneous, incommensurable concerns that transcend such reduction to evaluation.

It is not at all unreasonable to consider local government services as situated within the paradox occupied by the term value, since one way of defining the work of local government is that it occupies the position of turning value in its homogenised form of money into values in the heterogeneous form of the many services which benefit the public. Local government transforms a money as a quantifiable measure into services which have to reach a heterogeneous population with a diversity of needs. The public themselves go through many quite similar exercises in their own lives and have no difficulty in identifying institutions that they feel satisfy this ability to resolve contradictions in value. To give just one example, I recently undertook a study of the retail sector from the point of view of shoppers. In the retail sector we can see a polarity between discount stores that are good value in the sense that they offer the cheapest products, and quality stores that are seen as good value in offering products of high quality, that will last, or work effectively for some purpose or other. Sometimes, however, a store succeeds in reconciling these differences. In our study of shoppers (Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands 1998: 135-158) it became quite clear that the department store John Lewis was understood by most shoppers as far and away the most effective retail outlet in exemplifying the concept of value that is based upon this reconciliation. It was not seen as anything like the cheapest store, nor was it seen as necessarily possessing the highest quality produce available. It was seen, however, as having already undertaken a good deal of the work of shoppers in seeking to balance price and quality. I would argue that one part of the aspiration behind New Labour was to become a kind of `John Lewis' of politics and the use of the term value could have been an effective instrument in realising this ambition. This seems to allow the possibility of cost-cutting while still preserving the sense of welfare as something valued or even `treasured’. So it seems entirely reasonable that the inspection of local government should proceed under the auspices of the word value.

Unfortunately, however, the inspection in question is not called simply value, but `Best Value.' The term `best' immediately brings out the contradictory nature of value itself. It qualifies the word value by relativising it, that is by suggesting that there are multiple instances or forms of value. This itself contradicts the increasing use of value as a single `bottom line' criteria of adjudication as implied in phrases such as `added value'. The word best adds something else. It seems to imply a sense of competition, to be won by the best. It implies a kind of free market logic whereby the best value is found through competition between different sources od value. In practice, I will try and show this is very much the case. The potential for a kind of `John Lewis’ adjudication of value between costs and quality of services, becomes lost by the more market orientation towards competition that is represented by the term best.

Before turning to the results of my investigations, I want to briefly re-state the above in the terms by which I think it was experienced and understood by those actually involved. The first actor in this drama is the government. Those who developed BV seems to have understood it as a kind of Copernican revolution in the self-conception of local government. Up to the present local government is viewed as something that grew up almost organically as a provider of services. It is seen as naturally developing its own self-interests and vision of its task a as a provider as also its concerns with its own rights, and its own continuity. This led to a perception of the world where the public came to be seen as that which circled around and provided the legitimacy for the shining star of local government in and of itself. BV is intended to reverse this history. It is a strident declaration that the public does not exist to legitimate local government, but local government exists only to the degree that it serves the public. In the future everything that local government is and does must be the direct and logical result of the aspirations and desires of the public, in particular, it should concentrate on whatever the public most appreciates having done for it. In this vision shining in the centre of the universe is the public itself and in the future local government must bask in the reflected glory of that celestial presence. This is another version of the ideal that in the future local government will be consumer led.

All of this fits neatly in to the larger ideology of New Labour.

`The ‘Best Value’ initiative combines several strands of New Labour’s approach to performance: an emphasis on what counts is what works, … There is no presumption that private or public provision is superior. … This puts local stakeholders in a stronger position to influence services, moving the focus from cost-effectiveness to community-effectiveness’ (Rouse: 1999: 90).

In places such as the New Labour in-house magazine Renewal these positionings become quite explicit. Davis and Martin (2000) are clear that Best Value is intended to chart a course between cost savings and quality improvement as also between central and local government. For Martin, who leads the largest current academic audit of Best Value the primary question is whether or not external inspection is an effective instrument for improving government services. The downside is pointed out in the same issue by Goss (2000). While her title `Can New Labour make a difference?’ clearly starts from a similar concern she takes note of the sheer burden being created by so many new systems of audit and accountability. Also at issue is this tension between being a neutral adjudicator and using BV to promote a model from the private sector. Although BV officers take pains to deny any continuities with CCT, and the government claims to be ‘simply agnostic’ about who delivers services (Martin 2002: 132), others see New Labour as actually more zealous in promoting performance management and expecting more involvement of private organizations than its Conservative predecessors (Horton & Farnham 1999: 255).

Underneath all this discussion is a clear political agenda. This concerns the need to find ways to get the public in their capacity as voters to acknowledge that the money being spent upon local government is well spent. It is assumed that the means to achieve this is to have the public involved in prioritising such services so they directly reflect that which the public cares about. So the other way of seeing this Copernican revolution is that in future local government will revolve around the results of its own surveys of what the public is telling it it ought to be. The government wants to judge the service from a consumer perspective. Since actual consumers are too broad and amorphous a body, the government has to create `virtual consumers' which is where the BV inspection comes in. The inspector’s job is to try and assess the government service from the point of view of consumers (i.e. voters). One of the ways this constitutes an assault upon bureaucracy is that it undermines other responsibilities. Local government includes many tasks that are not obvious to the public. It finds itself in the invidious position that central government on the one hand knows this perfectly well, but at the same time through the BV regime is taking on a kind of disingenuous self-representation as though it is not really government but the public or consumers of services whose concern is only with what becomes apparent at the moment of consumption.

The other key part is played by the local council itself. For them the Copernican revolution represents a significant threat. They start from the position that they are the real group who are concerned with public service and it is they who already have the interests of the consumers of services at heart. Their immediate response is to assume that BV will be largely a continuation of CCT, and a cover for another round of cost-cutting and privatisation aimed at lowering the costs of public services by lowering the wages of public servants. Value is important to local government officers more from the sense of the protection of values against evaluation. A reduction to measurement is seen as ignoring the qualitative element that stands behind what they regard as public sector ethos. This consists of a personal commitment by workers in this sector that in effect `adds value' beyond that of work compensated by wages. For them BV is the replacement of this actual added value by a more managerial regime of cost cutting and efficiency which will destroy value in the name of increasing it. So from their point of view this assault on values will ultimately lead to a reduction rather than an addition of value.

The central argument of this paper is that government ought to facilitate the process which transforms instruments of evaluation such as money into services for the diverse body of its consumers. Indeed the ideology of BV is based upon an assumption that present bureaucracies do not properly serve its consumers while BV does. In fact, however, institutions such as BV prevent this transformation, since they tend to keep re-orienting the actions of the bureaucracy back upwards to processes of evaluation and to virtual consumers such as themselves. To demonstrate this, I will first summarise the results of my investigation which are given in more detail in Miller 2003. I will then look at some specific instances of the problem BV has with values precisely because they cannot be subject to a single criterion of best value. In several cases it will become evident that the term best prevented the inspectorate from realising the potential held in the term value.

THE FINDINGS - It was clear from accompanying the inspectors that on the whole those involved were generally well intentioned, believed in what they were doing and could see various benefits to local government. This was not an overly aggressive inspection in the way, for example, Ofsted is often portrayed. Most of the inspectors came from local government and were likely to return there. All my conclusions derive from what I see as structural contradictions within the process itself, they are not a reflection of the intentions of either those carrying out the survey nor those who designed the survey. The reason local government is being hammered, at least on this evidence, is all to do with the nature of the process rather than any deliberate assault.

I divided my analysis according to the terms used by the inspectorate itself, which follows the anthropological tradition of an empathetic approach to research. The presentation of the inspection is overwhelmingly couched in terms of the four C’s which are reiterated many times through the process and in its accompanying literature as well as dominated its own reports. Councils must Challenge how and why their service is provided, Compare with others, embrace fair Competition and Consult with taxpayers, and customers. Behind the four C’s lies a fifth, which is the commitment to Continuous Improvement. In turn all of these are supposed to be carried out according to the three E’s which are to work by the most Economic, Efficient and Effective means available. These are the bedrock terms - almost anything that happens is justified in relation to them.

CHALLENGE  - This is intended to represent a fundamental re-think of the raison d’etre for any particular section. Technically it must show how the service performance will reach the top quartile for all councils in terms of improvement over the next five years. It sought to create a clear, jargon free, set of aims, and to reduce bureaucracy in the sense of curtailing the internal dynamics of process in favour of delivering goals. My evidence was that the effect was the opposite of these intentions. Given the overwhelming importance of BV, there was developing a new cadres of specialist BV officers whose skills lay in their knowledge of the language and expectations of BV and who taught each service in turn how to get through the process. These in turn generated a higher level literature, which becomes an additional level of jargon and performance. Unlike academic jargon which tends to perform cleverness through the use of obfuscation, this jargon is a kind of a kind of performance of the language of transparency. It consists of endless pages of fairly trite formulas, usually with no substantive content and often almost no examples, such as - `For local government, effective performance management requires co-ordinated planning and review systems that enable key decision makers, both political and managerial, to take action based on facts about performance’. So the effect of BV is to impose another layer of bureaucracy over that which already exists and another level of performative language above the pre-existing structure.

COMPETITION - This is intended to increase efficiency according to third way principles that are supposed to favour neither the public nor private sector, but simply to give control to whichever gives the best return on taxpayers money. The concept of value is obviously central to this contention, and its instrument is supposed to be `market testing’ based upon a `level playing field’. The results were very different, however, mainly because the appearance of a level playing field was constructed through taking a number of issues, which previously would have been internal to such adjudications, and turning them into externalities. From the point of view of local government workers the most important of these were conditions of service, such that a private company could appear more efficient simply by paying its employees less. Though this has been increasingly combated by unions and other groups. Less challenged have been issues such as finance. Public sector services are simply not allowed access to the kind of capital that allow private companies the ability to invest in the large units such as incineration plants or fleets of vehicles or information technology that are required to be efficient in the long term. The best known inequality of this kind has been the rise of PFI Private Finance Initiatives which various academic studies have suggested are unfairly weighted in favour of the private sector (e.g. Gaffney, Pollock, Price and Shaoul 1999). Perhaps the most ludicrous of these externalities is the process of inspection itself. What I found incredible was that inspectors could make reference to an advantage of the private sector being its relative freedom from `red tape’, without a trace of irony. Local government officers, by contrast, constantly pointed out that it was huge inspection processes such as BV that were the very reason they were unable to carry out other duties.

CONSULTATION - If workers in local government knew one thing about BV it was that they were supposed to consult with the public. The main workload involved in BV was the preparation of the preliminary BVR report which was based primarily on evidence for consultation which was supposed to cascade downwards as aims, priorities and delivery. Indeed there was a strong populist element to this central part of the Copernican revolution which was a re-orientation to users of services. The problem, however, was that often this was clearly not sustainable. Surveys and focus groups would constantly show the public’s priority was more likely to be `dog-poo’ on the streets than a question of whether to be more orientated to the mayor’s or to central governments strategic plan for transport. Much of what local government does is of limited interest to the public. Furthermore, when government has established a statutory priority, such as recycling, this results in the council being responsibly for `educating’ the public so that the latter choose the priority that fits government policy. In addition there is already a problem in vast amounts of resources being allocated to the potential actions of `rogue’ in the sense of litigatious users often at the expense of the priorities of the mass. Overall what become evidence is that, as implied in the theory of virtualism, a huge amount of resources are being redirected to the representation of the process of consultation, where previously these resources would have been spent on actual consumers of services.

COMPARISON – This is intended to ensure that councils take heed of and learn from their peers, but equally it signifies the use of performance indicators to make such comparisons clear and therefore the rise of quantitative over qualitative assessments. So during inspections one was constantly aware that inspectors who often had many years experience within local government and were therefore able to make astute qualitative assessments of the service in question. But these could not form part of their report, being dismissed as `subjective’. Instead the emphasis was on the performance indicators built into the system of comparison through `benchmarking’. The irony was firstly that such experienced inspectors in their private conversation knew full well that the quantitative data was faulty since local factors such as the specific social and environmental composition of the area were often effectively excluded. Furthermore the process of inspection goes from a complex and qualitative reality, reduced to quantitative performance indicators, but which then for the final adjudication are turned into one of four grades along two scales, which are so generalised as to be effectively qualitative again. Not surprisingly almost all final results end up in the middle two categories available to the inspectors. I would note, however, there are other aspects of comparison to do with best practice which really did seem to be of benefit to government services.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT – This is in practice the fifth C, and the one that was seen by many as the primary `driver’ behind the whole process. The problem was that on the one hand performance indicators, for all their faults, start to become more worthwhile when the same indicator is used consistently over many years. But a system committed to continuous improvement tends to lead by example. There is therefore built in to everyone’s expectations the assumption that there will be continuous improvements in the system of adjudication itself including the performance indicators themselves with a frequency which means that one is always left with the high costs of initial implementation and hardly ever the pay off of consistent usage. This is quite apart from the contradiction where everyone is aiming to be in the top quartile which also leads to an emphasis only upon that which represents measurable improvements.

There are many other contradictions which become evident from the ethnography. To give just two, there is the ideal that BV would lead to an overall saving target of around 2%. The effect of BV is likely to be quite the opposite. Firstly this is because BV is so time consuming, taking up the energies of the most senior officers in the service, that my straw poll of services suggested that it added at least 5% to the costs of that service in the year of inspection. And this is simply one of a whole swathe of audits and inspections today. Secondly the effect of BV is to give each service a powerful argument for having additional money spent on it in order to fulfil all the promises made towards the goal of `continuous improvement’.

The final contradiction lay in the idea that this would be a consumer rather than a politically led audit. Unfortunately the effect of BV is almost always to politicise the service in question. The reason for this is that ultimately the aim of BV is to find ways to get the public to acknowledge the value of the tax receipts given to pay for local government, by making that service sensitive to the priorities of the public. This means that each service in turn has to re-think itself in terms of what ultimately are the vote-winning aspects of what it performs, and then present these to the local council, which as a body of local politicians is obviously extremely interested in knowing precisely this factor about each service. My conclusion was that the overall effect of BV had little to do with the public. I have never met a member of the public who has even heard of BV if they have not some work-related reason to know of it. Rather the effect is to give each service in the five year cycle a position from which to argue for more resources and more political clout from the council itself.

I would fully acknowledge that the contradictions I have uncovered are closely related to basic contradictions inherent in the political system. For example, BV represents both a desire for greater local accountability, but at the same time a distrust of local electorates’ ability to make local government financialy responsible (Weir & Beetham 1999: 248). Indeed, in an excellent survey of the more general international trends of which BV is symptomatic, Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000: 170-1) more or less end up with a list of such trade-offs and cycles, including that of the trade-off between the desire to increase audit and the desire to release government agencies from too much paper work (2000: 164). But the argument of this article is that there is a deeper issue here that rests on a wider sense of abstraction than that employed in the more conventional literature on this subject. These become evidence when the two theoretical issues I have introduced, those of Virtualism and Value are taken into account.


The ideal of local government is to transform value in the form of money and evaluative measures so that they can articulate with and thereby be consumed by the various values represented in the population. But in order to carry out this task, government has to in various respects to `let go’. For example, in the original version of the Greater London Council run by Ken Livingstone the radical edge of that institution consisted of handing over funds to local community groups, sometimes orthodox religious or other groups who did not share the ideology of the council itself, but were an effective means to resource the very pluralism that London so conspicuously represents today.

By contrast, a regime such as BV, while wanting a orientation to end users, is stymied by its equal concern with accountability, which has the effect of turning the attention of officers back upwards to forms of evaluation such as performance indicators, and the common language or jargon of BV itself. Furthermore as `best’ value it also exhibits a bias towards market models and indeed the private sphere as against the values of public service. Furthermore as Best Value it, paradoxically, asserts itself as the hegemonic system of value by which councils shall be appraised against other potential values. The ultimate irony is that Best Value asserts itself as THE best value.

An example may clarify these points. As it happens, one of my ex-students now works for the AGENDA 21 section of a local council. AGENDA 21 is the attempt to make government responsible to environmental criteria and environmentalist values.

It may well be that a transformation of energy supply to self-sustaining resources also cuts costs in which case such changes score highly under the BV regime. But where the `good’ of sustainability is obtained only through the use or more expensive methods then it becomes clear that a benefit that has no cost-benefits struggles to be positively regarded within the internal and external inspections. Yet thanks to the impact of the Rio conference even BV asserted AGENDA 21 as a major performance indicator. The problem is that the `best’ in BV is orientated to market like ideals of competition. My poor student was beside himself in trying to work out what constituted market testing of the AGENDA 21 part of the service, since there are few private firms who exist simply to persuade councils to be more environmentally friendly. AGENDA 21 can only make sense within what are emerging as a plurality of `bottom-lines’ including financial bottom lines, environmental bottom lines, ethical bottom lines etc. While the council should be fostering such plural values, the inspection tries to bring things back upwards to a more abstract `best value’. In general BV seemed to be weakest when dealing with the diversity of populations as evident in traditional Old Labour concerns such as poverty, and ethnicity. This was the more conspicuous when one found some particular characteristic of the population such as disability, which since it was turned into a clear measurable target, was constantly cited and looked for during the evaluation procedures. Whereas because they were not present as peformance targets poverty and ethnicity were largely ignored. Once again the act of representation or modelling of difference was paramount at the expense of most actual diversity. It is this same difficulty in moving from value to values that ultimately becomes the main threat against which bureaucracy seeks to defend itself. I will examine this using the language of the bureaucrats in question. How does the bureaucracy talk about defending itself?


It is quite common for an ethnographer to search for particular phrases or practices that seem to crop up frequently in conversation and yet are not obviously germane. These are seen to provide possible clues to a better understanding of what they have been participating in. In this case there was one such phrase that I think shed light on both the larger context of and effect of BV on bureaucracy. Quite often during conversations participants would speak of the issue of `who owns the process’. I take this to be a common expression in modern management, but it was not at first obvious why it should arise so often within this particular exercise.

The term ownership in the specific context of management seems intended to implicate the relationship between having responsibility for and feeling responsible for. So the phrase `to own the process’ means that a group has been given sufficient autonomy to control a particular organisational process to feel that the responsibility for carrying it out is unambiguously theirs. The implication is always, however, that only under such conditions will they feel committed to the process itself. Ownership as a concept then seems to be trying to make clear that in order to expect people to be fully engaged in what they do, one has to give them sufficient autonomy and responsibility. Why then should this term come up constantly in discussions about BV?

The irony of BV is that it addresses, as though it was an absence, that quality in which local government is probably uniquely rich, outside of the voluntary sector. This is the sense of being a public servant. A sense that there is a reward for this work quite apart from wages and the internal activity of work. As a service head put it `You know, if you think about somebody who’s running a service if they’re doing it properly, a public servant isn’t just there because they’re there. If I wanted to be like that I wouldn’t come to work in the public sector. I believe I come to do a job that makes a difference in people’s lives.’

This is what distinguishes all public sectors such as medicine and education from private sector employment. But while education and medicine have more immediate positive goals in the form of health and education themselves, local government officials are often dealing with less obvious benefits such as leisure facilities or planning. As a result the ethos of public service tends to be generalised around the identity of being in local government itself rather than say being a teacher or being a nurse. In short if you work in education and medicine you do not need to establish your identity as a public servant, if you work in generic public service then this is exactly what you are inclined to do. I do not want to naively suggest that all workers share this ethos, any more than assuming cynically that none of them do. But what is important is that to the extent to which they do identify with public service, this is denied by a BV regime that represents its Copernican revolution as though it is only thanks to BV that a council might start to have regard to the public that it serves. As individuals, inspectors who mainly come from local government were sympathetic to the ideal of public service as inherent to bureaucracy. But this was suppressed by their formal status as inspectors. In turn council officials seemed to acquiesce quite readily in the idea that a service should be privatised or at least castigated if it genuinely failed the public. They were surprisingly open to outsourcing on the basis of a genuine level-playing field. But they insisted that a factor that should remain inside, and not external, to such evaluation was that asset represented by the ethos of service itself, which they felt tended to be lost in privatisation.

There is, however, a deeper issue here, which is that of virtualism. I have argued that virtualism often operates through a fetishism of the consumer, as opposed to that of the producer. We start with the authority that we attach to the consumer by virtue of our recognition that it is the consequence of services for them that legitimate the existence of that service (see Keat 1994). Under virtualism the mantle of this authority is then stripped from actual users and worn by those bodies that stand in the stead of the public at large. The BV inspection was created by the government to act as virtual consumers of services, that is to stand in the direct stead of users, who would ultimately represent themselves in their other capacity as voters. So the job of inspection is to ensure that the service is creating improvements that would be acknowledged by the users of that service. As such the key to the authority of the inspectorate is that they possess the authority of the consumer.

There is, however, a significant difference between the service and the inspectorate. This is simply that the council is capable of providing a service to the residents as consumers, while an inspectorate cannot of itself do any such thing. It can only inspect and make recommendations. This then raises the question of `who owns the process’, since the effect of this fetishism is that responsibility to the public is being taken away from those who are responsible for carrying out this work and given instead to those who are only responsible for inspecting this work and who cannot provide a service. Furthermore this relates to the single most sensitive aspect of local government identity. That is the very ethos of public service, which gives those who carry out any such work the moral satisfaction that their work is in some way of benefit to the people who they serve. My impression was that this was not often stated as directly as might have been expected. Instead it had been re-cast in the language of management that had become the `proper’ vehicle for discussing such matters, to appear frequently as the issue of `who owns the process’.

It follows that the ideal inspector is one who realises that the process of BV has to be carried out extremely sensitively, since the process of BV can only work well if at the end everything that BV has done is given back to the service, i.e. the service comes to regain and retain ownership of what they do. But there are all sorts of elements of BV that militate against this. For example, a more strident inspector can easily turn BV into an instrument of alienation, such that service workers simply feel estranged from their own work. My sense was that on the whole, not surprisingly, the more experienced inspectors tended to have developed an implicit sensitivity to this issue as the heart of the exercise they were engaged in.


I have argued that the issue of `owning the process’ makes clear why bureaucracy requires defending from audits such as BV. It may seem reasonable that BV should include the principle that it much root out any remnant self-interest that had taken root within the bureaucracy. The Copernican revolution that states local government exists to serve the people and not the other way around again seems reasonable. But the effect of BV is not to create an orientation to consumers of services but an orientation to BV itself. Unfortunately the BV inspectorate are not in fact the actual consumers of services but what I call virtual consumers, that is people who stand in the stead of actual consumers, and I would argue that it is typical of the last twenty years that virtual consumers have taken the authority of the consumer and appropriated it for themselves at the expense of actual consumers.

An emphasis upon the word value helps us see how this has happened. The use of the phrase best value seems most likely an attempt to evoke the increasing use of terms such as added value and shareholder value, in the private sector. Indeed the precise term `best value' qualifying value with the competitive sense of `best’ exemplified this borrowing. Now this is not necessarily problematic as long as it selects the appropriate model from commerce. The trouble is that most of commerce is engaged in exactly the opposite process to that of local government. Where local government transforms money value into plural values, much of commerce seeks to take a wide variety of values in the form of desires and needs and transform this into the single value. This can be considered as money, capital, or profits. Terms such as added value or shareholder value represent attempts to create single hegemonic criteria by which ultimately to quantify the benefits that accrue to business through operating successfully. So for commerce the whole point is to lose touch with the plural source of demand, that is with values, in order to concentrate on the singular form. Now this is not true of all of commerce, added value and shareholder value works best where the commercial field is extractive or singular such as working in manufacture or in finance. When it comes to directly serving the public commerce starts to look more like local government, and this would be the case in some sectors of retail.

So I would argue there is a commercial model that could have suited the precise task of the New Labour third way ideal. This is what I have called the John Lewis model. The John Lewis model is just as focused upon value as is BV but here the emphasis is on matching price as evaluation with the plurality of qualities. John Lewis, which is the largest and most successful chain of department stores in the UK, is interesting because this focus upon values in its relationship to consumers is found to be compatible with an unusual focus upon values in its relationship to itself and its workers. It may be no coincidence that this is the one major company that has no shareholder value since it has no shares. It is a cooperative that distributes all profits to its own workers. So it has the language and practice of the kind of stakeholder system that at one time in looked like the UK government might be interested in. Ironically in many ways firms such as John Lewis strive to achieve something that local government bureaucracy can almost take for granted, the collective identification with and commitment to service. Local government already has the asset of the public sector ethos and its concomitant solidarity and commitment. One can see the potential for this link between consumption, work and bureaucracy clearly in the trajectory from Du Gay (1996) to Du Gay (2000).

But the regime analysed in this paper is not a value inspection but a `best’ value inspection where the emphasis is not on the market as exemplified by firms such as John Lewis, but the business school model of the market with their emphasis upon competition, and the economists and psychologists conception of the atomistic individualised economic agent. These have no place for the John Lewis practice of social networks and investment in sensitivity to qualitative forces both with respect to workers, products and consumers. Best Value relies more on inappropriate commercial models such as added value.

So the effect of a rise of inspections and audits is that local government cannot concentrate on the values it should serve, but has to remain constantly wedded to the assessment of BV with its mantra of continuous improvement as a version of added value, a commercial notion of a measurable bottom line, objectified in a host of performance indicators, point schemes and other quantitative rather than qualitative assessments. This is ignores the inherent contradiction in local government bureaucracy which must involve a constant transformation between abstract evaluation required for consistency, fairness and accountability and the plural incommensurate values represented by populations and their needs. To overcome this contradiction bureaucracy must be allowed to directly engage with the diversity and plurality of values in real populations, and thus let go of some of the measurability required by the logic of accountability. The primary reason why in almost everything it does BV ends up having an effect which is the opposite of its own intentions is that it fails to recognise this contradiction. Instead it ends up forcing bureaucracy to work with models and representations of populations or institutions such as BV that stand in their stead..


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