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Applying labour process concepts to public sector executive reforms: Peeling and segmenting the mandarins?

Linda Katurah Colley (University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 28 June 2011




This paper aims to extend the literature by applying labour process concepts to public service executive employment.


The article draws on the secondary literature to link labour process theory to public administration reform. First, it draws on the labour process literature to provide a summary of some key labour process concepts that will be used throughout the article. This includes Littler's framework for analysing work organisation, being structure of control, employment relationship and job design. Second, it draws on the public administration literature to outline the traditional mode of public sector employment relations, using labour process concepts to illustrate the traditional organisation of work. Third, it draws on the public management reform literature, to outline the key reforms that affected work organisation. In the final section, the article draws these literatures together and uses labour process concepts to analyse the positional power of department heads in the reformed environment. For simplicity and consistency, the examples focus largely on the Australian public sector – each Westminster system has adopted slightly different reforms at slightly different times, but there are enough similarities to allow generaliseability across systems.


The article argues that executives had a strategic position in the public service labour process, and public sector reforms were designed to reduce their positional power and knowledge. Politicians wrested control away from chief executives through strategies such as the division of labour, separation of conception and execution, deskilling, and changes to employment relations that destabilised traditional career paths and tenure. This is in contrast to the new public management rhetoric that the reforms would let managers manage – in reality they were provided more control over operational aspects of work, but lesser control over the intellectual and conceptual aspects of work which were now done elsewhere.


This paper is original in its extension of labour process concepts to a different and elite work group, being public sector chief executives.



Katurah Colley, L. (2011), "Applying labour process concepts to public sector executive reforms: Peeling and segmenting the mandarins?", Journal of Management History, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 332-346.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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