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Continuous change, continuing contradictions                 

Taking a bird’s eye view of public management reform over the past two decades, there are two features which stand out. The first is the huge amount of reform activity during this period (See Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000). The second is the continuing controversy over both what the nature and the effects of those reforms have been.

As to the volume of reform, in many OECD countries the civil service has been significantly –- sometimes radically –- downsized. The terms and conditions of employment for many public servants have been moved closer to those prevailing in the private sector (e.g., through the introduction of term contracts, performance-related pay, and greater flexibility in promotion, transfer and termination). In a large number of countries, fundamental budgetary and financial management reforms have been introduced (notably reforms that permit managers to exercise budgetary flexibility over more than one year, that demand more information on outputs by spending programs, and introduce varieties of accrual accounting). Modernization of public procurement procedures has also been widespread.

In some countries, major privatization programs have reduced the overall size of the public sector (especially New Zealand and the UK, but also, more cautiously, in Canada, Finland, France and the Netherlands). Programs have been launched in many countries to shift functions out of traditional ministries into a range of more or less autonomous public bodies –- agencies (Australia, Japan, Netherlands, UK), special operating agencies (Canada), crown corporations (New Zealand), Self-Standing Managed Organisations (Netherlands), and so on. In even more countries, increasing use has been made of market-like mechanisms such as competitive tendering, voucher systems, or public service "internal/quasi markets." There has been a widespread move towards various kinds of decentralization of authority. More recently, a number of countries that had implemented the most intensive reform programs (including Canada, New Zealand and the UK) have turned their attention to questions of public service ethics, and have developed a variety of codes and guidelines intended to define what it means to be a civil or public servant at the start of the 21st century.

The nature of the reforms                                     

Both the underlying character of these changes, and their impacts, are matters of debate and disagreement. As for the character of the changes, a many-faceted argument rages over the extent to which there is international convergence towards a "reinvention" (Osborne and Gaebler 1992) or a "New Public Management/NPM" (Hood 1991). These two models differ somewhat from each other, but are far more similar than either is to the traditional model of a monolithic, hierarchical bureaucracy (Kettl 2000). Some have claimed that convergence is both global and more or less inevitable (Osborne and Gaebler 1992). Others have suggested that there is widespread convergence, but that there are significant differences according to the type if political regime (Kettl 2000; Lane 2000). Still others have pointed out that major national differences of political and administrative culture stubbornly refuse to go away, so that the extent of convergence is actually quite modest (Christensen and Laegreid 1998; Guyomarch 1999; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000; Premfors 1998).

Some of these commentators suggest that the international debate has become so dominated by voices from the USA, the UK and Australasia (the most vigorous practitioners of NPM/reinvention) that a misleading impression of uniformity has been created, which masks continuing and perfectly legitimate differences. A number of important countries, including Japan, Germany and Italy, have clearly been much less enthusiastic about implementing the NPM/reinvention models than the "brand leaders" –- Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the USA (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000). International talk, in other words, diverges significantly from actual national practice.

It is important to bear in mind that there is a difference between reform talk, reform decisions, actual implementation of reforms, and results. Convergence is probably at a maximum in the world of reform talk –- where the NPM and reinvention models predominate –- but lessens (perhaps radically) as one moves through the successive stages of decisions, implementation and eventual results (Christensen and Laegried 1998; Pollitt 2001). To gain a more balanced view, one also needs to look more broadly at the totality of public sector reform, which may reveal divergent elements that are just as important as the more common ones (e.g., Total Quality Management, contracting out, performance-related pay).

Reform impacts                                               

A controversy of a rather different kind surrounds the results of management reform. Many claims have been made in many countries on behalf of the NPM/reinvention models. Their implementation is said to lead to greater technical efficiency, higher quality service, greater cost-consciousness, more responsiveness to service users, greater transparency and even a restoration of the legitimacy of public authorities in the eyes of citizens (see Osborne and Gaebler 1992; Gore 1996). Yet, the evidence for all this is hard to interpret with any confidence.

On the one hand, there are certainly some individual success stories. Specific organizations in particular countries can show that they have reduced unit costs, are providing faster service, and responded to user demands for more flexible provision. The performance improvements can sometimes be impressive –- e.g., cost reductions of 25% or more within a short period and much better systems for dealing with dissatisfied citizens when something goes wrong. Advances in IT have been important here, of course, and they may continue to facilitate a new kind of relationship between government and citizen (see National Audit Office 1999). Many organizations provide far more public information about their operations and performance than was available twenty years ago (see Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1997).

On the other hand, there is a distinct shortage of independent evaluations of many of the reforms. Furthermore, most of the broad assessments that have been undertaken have had severe methodological limitations; so a number of the big questions still cannot be answered (Pollitt 1995). The impact of reform on the effectiveness of public services is particularly difficult to estimate. Often several different types of reform have been going on simultaneously, with overlapping effects (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000: ch. 5). For example, one detailed Swedish analysis suggests that expenditure savings had driven management reforms, rather than the other way round (Sweden; Ministry of Finance 1997).

Evidence of beneficial results from management reform also varies by sector. The reform of standardized processes such as issuing licenses, collecting refuse, maintaining buildings, paying benefits or operating data registers generally has proved less problematic than "‘softer" services such as health care or education. In these latter, less standardized, more professional activities, NPM/reinvention models have often been less welcome and their impacts much harder to assess (Lane 2000).

There is also a concern that, even if certain values have been enhanced by NPM/reinvention reforms (e.g., efficiency, customer-orientation, etc.) this may have been partly at the (hidden) price of other values, such as equity, equality of opportunity, and staff loyalty. One reservation, which several governments have expressed, is that decentralization may have been carried out in a way that has made the strategic co-ordination of policies ("joined-up government") more difficult to accomplish. Therefore, in these countries, there is now a search underway for new steering mechanisms to facilitate the formulation and implementation of cross-sectoral policies (see Cabinet Office 2000). The effects of extensive decentralization and "autonomization" on traditional mechanisms of public accountability is a related concern, especially in countries with systems where individual ministerial responsibility has previously been paramount.

The emergent lesson is that public management reforms cannot just be taken "off the shelf." They must be carefully tailored to the distinctive political, institutional, and wider cultural characteristics of the country concerned to develop appropriate strategies and sequencing.

Recommended readings                                   

  • Cabinet Office. 2000. "Wiring it Up: Whitehall’s Management of Cross-Cutting Policies and Services." A Performance and Innovation Unit Report, London.
  • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. 1998. "Next Steps Report 1997." Cabinet Office, Office of Public Service, London.
  • Christensen, T., and P. Laegreid. 1998. "Administrative Reform Policy: The Case of Norway." International Review of Administrative Sciences 64, pp. 457-475.
  • Gore, Albert. 1996. The Best Kept Secrets in Government. New York: Random House; and Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.
  • Guyomarch, A. 1999. "'Public service', 'Public Management' and the 'Modernization' of French Public Administration." Public Administration 77(1): 171-193.
  • Lane, J-E. 2000. New Public Management. London: Routledge.
  • Hood, C. 1991. "A Public Management for All Seasons?" Public Administration 69(1): 3-19.
  • Kettl, D. 2000. The Global Public Management Revolution: A Report on the Transformation of Governance. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  • National Audit Office. 1999. Government on the Web. HC87, Session 1999-2000. London: The Stationary Office.
  • OECD. 1999a. "Performance Contracting: Lessons from Performance Contracting Case Studies; A Framework for Public Sector Performance Contracting." OECD, Paris.
  • _____. 1999b. "Government of the Future: Getting from Here to There." OECD Symposium Papers, OECD, Paris.
  • _____. 1997. "Modern Budgeting." Paris: OECD
  • _____. 1996. Integrating People Management into Public Service Reform. Paris: OECD.
  • OECD/PUMA. 1995. "Governance in Transition." Public Management Forum 1(1).
  • Osborne, David, and Ted Gaebler. 1992. Reinventing Government. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Pollitt, Christopher. 1995. "‘Justification by Works or by Faith? Evaluating the New Public Management." Evaluation 1(2): 133-154.
  • _____. forthcoming (2001). "Convergence: the Useful Myth?" Public Administration.
  • Pollitt, Christopher, and Geert Bouckaert. 2000. Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Premfors, R. 1998. "Re-shaping the Democratic State: Swedish Experiences in a Comparative Perspective." Public Administration 76(1): 141-159.
  • Schick, Allen. 1996. "The Spirit of Reform: Managing the New Zealand State Sector in a Time of Change." Executive Summary of a report prepared for the State Services Commission and the Treasury, New Zealand.
  • Sweden; Ministry of Finance. 1997. "Public Sector Productivity in Sweden." Budget Department, Swedish Ministry of Finance, Stockholm.

Suggested websites and contacts                               

This page was developed by Christopher Pollitt, Professor of Public Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. It was submitted on 11/04/00.