The Transparent Professional: Unintended Consequences of Rule Following in Professional Practice

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 15:03
Location: Hörsaal 17 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Fran OSRECKI, University of Osnabrueck, Germany
Over the last decades the autonomy of professionals became heavily criticized from several perspectives. While some social movements (e.g. environmentalists, self-help groups) and large parts of the social sciences attacked professional autonomy as an outdated, uncontrolled, non-democratic and often abused power relation, managerial reformers in most Western societies saw it as a hotbed of inefficiency and lack of accountability. Though very diverse visions emerged on how to control professionals, the perhaps most influential one was to make professional practice transparent via formalized audits and control mechanisms. Meanwhile, a well-established field in organizational sociology has emerged that deals with the rise, the spread and the consequences of this “audit explosion” in professional work.  Most studies in this field criticize auditing and control mechanisms for unintentionally creating over-bureaucratization and an obsession with self-observation. In this presentation, it is argued, first, that both the sociological critique of professional autonomy and managerialist reforms share a similar vision: that formalized (often quantified) techniques of transparency can and should force professionals to play to self-defined rules as strictly as possible in order to enable lay control. Second, it is shown that an unintended consequence of this vision is that it binds affected professional organizations to an inflexible “work-to-rule” mode in professional practice. Here, case studies are compared that show how this enforced rule following paralyzes decision making in public administration (corruption control) and health services (evidence-based medicine) and creates incentives to outsmart surveillance and transparency techniques. Finally, a theoretical model is presented that explains such professional reactivity by re-discovering the organizational concept of functional deviance, i.e. the need to break formalized rules on a regular basis to maintain organizational adaptability.