In 1953 the distinguished philosopher Isaiah Berlin published ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ and was reportedly bemused by its almost instant success. He had intended the essay to be a frivolous piece, a parlour game for his more easily distracted philosophical colleagues.
Berlin was inspired by a fragment of Greek poetry to develop a framework of two character types. On the one hand, hedgehogs ‘who relate everything to a single central vision, one system’ and on the other hand, foxes ‘who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory’. You can, he argues, place anybody into one of these two boxes. Thus Dante is a hedgehog, Shakespeare is a fox and Tolstoy ‘was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog’.
So how might this framework help us think about public sector management? It provokes three hypotheses for me.
Hypothesis one: private sector managers are hedgehogs and public sector managers are foxes. This seems fairly uncontroversial. After all the private sector has an obviously coherent system. Every decision can be framed by asking ‘Will this make us more profitable?’. It is hard to imagine a more erinaceous environment. By contrast the challenges facing public sector managers are well captured by Berlin’s fox who pursues different, unrelated and contradictory objectives. For example the prison governor who is expected to punish and reform prisoners or the planner who seeks economic regeneration whilst protecting communities and the environment or even the Prime Minister who must decide whether she wants to make the country wealthier, happier, safer, fairer, more powerful, more peaceful or all the above and more.
Hypothesis two: despite being foxes by nature, public sector managers have been encouraged to behave like hedgehogs. Since the advent of New Public Management in the 1980’s, public sector managers have been expected to ape private sector management techniques. Many of these techniques have been useful. Measuring inputs and outputs is clearly sensible as is introducing competition and outsourcing in some of the more straightforward areas of public service delivery. But it has its limitations in an environment where hard to measure outcomes trump outputs and complex meshes of relationships and accountabilities quash command and control hierarchies. This is an environment in which you need to be a fox to thrive.
Hypothesis three: hedgehogs dominate management theory and practice. If you look for a management book on Amazon or in Waterstones you will end up looking in the business section. This symbolises a wider malaise – that public sector management is considered an off shoot of business management if indeed it is considered a separate discipline at all. This matters. Public sector management does require a different approach. In fact in most important respects, managing in the public sector is far more complicated and harder to do well than managing in the private sector. Asking hedgehogs to teach foxes how to manage is like asking backgammon players to teach chess.
Berlin is careful to stress that neither fox nor hedgehog is superior. But it feels as if in the world of public sector management the hedgehogs have inexplicably and damagingly held sway for far too long. Bring on the age of the fox*!
*You can play your part in bringing on the age of the fox by buying the book I co-wrote with Marcial Boo 'The public sector fox'. You can get a £5 discount if you enter the word 'MANAGER' at the appropriate place: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3655.