Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Public management and the state: Beginning a dialogue between two worlds


This draft comment has been prepared for a panel on public management research and the state to be held at the research conference of the Public Management Research Association at the University of Aarhus in June 2016.  Comments and responses are welcome.

GOVE_DraftsBy Brint Milward.  About thirty years ago a cadre of young scholars (the writer included) began a movement to reorient public administration toward “the study of public management.” This was a movement that had two goals; the first was to break with the tradition of public administration, especially the normative aspects of it and second with behavioral political science. The belief was that as a professional field advice should be based on the empirical study of the structure and functioning of public organizations.

This approach had certain implications about what the “big questions” were in the field. It also had implications about what the level of analysis was (managers, organizations, and programs) and also carried with it some assumptions about preferred method of inquiry (quantitative and synchronic). There is no arguing with the success that the public management movement has had in the United States and around the world. Whether in China, parts of Western Europe, or the United States, this is the dominant mode of research in public administration, and it has made public administration much more of a social science than it was before.

But this success has not been without its cost. The big questions in public management aren’t really that big — and meanwhile really big questions about state capacity and legitimacy go largely unaddressed by leading researchers and journals in our field. For example, are the questions that we are asking in the field of public management relevant in a new world of hyper-devolution? What does the public service ethic mean when there are more people who act in the name of the state, outside the government than in it? What does it mean when in a war zone, there are more contractors than military personnel and on some occasions, these contractors are authorized to use deadly force?

It is time to encourage a dialogue between scholars engaged in public management research, and the distinct community of scholars interested in studying the state. This dialogue should be aimed at giving more profile to bigger questions about the changing nature of the state and the growing army of contractors who are far more than camp followers. This is a call from public management scholars to attend to these bigger questions before they are addressed by other disciplines.

Don Kettl and I began a conversation about the limitations of today’s public management research in 2013. This led to a plenary panel at the Public Management Research Conference at the University of Minnesota last summer and subsequently to a workshop at Hong Kong University this September. In both cases we asked ourselves and panelists to address the following questions:

Are the instruments of public administration and governance, especially instruments like contracts, partnerships, networks and other alliances, outrunning the ability of governments to control them?  What are the implications for legitimacy when governments are unable to control and monitor those who act in their name?  As increasing use is made of proxies to advance the goals of the state, is the state’s governance capacity and legitimacy being significantly reduced?  What kind of state is needed in order to ensure appropriate capacity and more trust in a stronger pursuit of the public interest? These questions focus on actors (who is doing what), institutions-organisations (how strategies and tactics of government connect policy with the people), and events (how performance problems and political developments shape the strategies of political leaders and the views of citizens). What is the ecology of the interlocking forces involving actors, institutions and events in governance?

I came to a fascination with ecology in my work on dark networks of non-state actors. Specifically it took me back to a concern with the ecology within which governments act and the ecology within which opponents of the government act, much like Norton Long’s classic article “On the Local Community as an Ecology of Games“. This has led me and my colleague at the University of Arizona, Ron Breiger, to what we call “the multi-nodal world” in which states are often as concerned with the behavior (positive or negative) of non-state actors, be they international corporations or terrorist networks, as they are with other states (Milward & Breiger, 2014). We also believe that network analysis now has the power to capture the nature of this ecology so that comparative research is possible. Very often more is found out about how the world works from looking beyond the state to great corporations, transnational criminal enterprises, international non-governmental organizations, and terrorist enterprises like the Islamic State which in itself “combines elements of a proto-state, a millenarian cult, an organized crime ring, and an insurgent army” (Stern, 2015, p. 67).

If the multi-nodal world is one touchstone for a renewed concern with the state and public management, a second is an explicit examination of the state over time. Here public management has little to offer. Francis Fukuyama has written about the decay of the nation state, primarily the decay of the democratic capitalist systems of North America and Western Europe caused by their inability to adapt to changing circumstances. His critique focuses on two elements. First, governments are trying very hard to do things they do not know how to do very well with instruments they do not fully understand. Second, elections and representative institutions have become counterproductive to the ability of governments to govern (Fukuyama, 2014).

What can be done to broaden the scope of current public management research? From the layers of the inter-governmental system to policy domains like defense, education and health, there is a need to learn how to govern complexity rather than creating more of it. It is essential to extend thinking beyond a conception of the state in terms largely just of its authorizing capacity. Bobbitt (2002), for example, argues that the era of the nation state has been coming to an end and that a new evolutionary stage of governance has been taking its place: “the market state.” This has multi-nodal implications in line with Slaughter’s (2012) arguments about the need for the US to embrace complexity by throwing out the Westphalian notion that we are only concerned with the relations between nation states in foreign affairs. Slaughter argues that we live in a multi-nodal world where, to succeed, the US needs a grand strategy of network centrality among a host of state and non-state actors that influence the stability of the international system. These nodes include religious movements, international corporations, terrorist organizations and networks, and transnational organized crime.

At the same time adopting a multi-nodal approach means acknowledging that the instruments of governance are in the hands of many actors inside and outside of government (Milward, 2014). Governments may outsource force to militias created by warlords as in Afghanistan, or to private armies of contractors organized as corporations during the Iraq War – either to economize on costs or to ensure some degree of deniability for the harm that they do civilian populations. The question of legitimacy is critical when such tasks are delegated to non-state entities. Political principals can transfer power to their agents within limits set by law, but they cannot transfer legitimacy in the same way.

Instruments of governance like contracts, partnerships and alliances are often viewed by governments as ways of outflanking slow-footed bureaucracies that are unable or unwilling to adopt modern business methods. Governments also turn to these instruments in the hope that private companies and nonprofit organizations can deliver government services better, faster and more cheaply to its citizens. Of course, in some cases, involving the private and nonprofit sectors in helping governments deliver better public services can be a good thing. However, good things carried too far can have bad effects. A key concern is that the privatization of public services can, if not carefully designed, outrun the ability of governments to control them which is where this dialogue began.

There is a need to rethink what it means to be a state, and scholars currently engaged in public management research need to be engaged in that conversation. The answer to governing complexity is not just the adoption of modern management techniques. It requires serious thought about what we can expect from governments, in the light of such discussions as those by Bobbitt (2002) on the passing from the nation state to the market state, and Fukuyama (2011, 2014) on the tendency of government institutions to decay and how they must be renewed if a state is going to be able to meet the challenges of the future.

H. Brinton Milward is the Director of the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. He holds the Providence Service Corporation Chair in Public Management.


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fukuyama, F. (2011). The Origins of Political Order. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fukuyama, F. (2014). America in decay: The sources of political dysfunction. Foreign Affairs, 93: 5-26.

Fukuyama, F. (2015). Political Order and Political Decay. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Milward, H. B. and R.L. Breiger (2014). A multi-nodal world: Networks, games and narratives. Paper presented at the International Studies Association, Toronto, 29 March.

Slaughter, A-M. (2012). A grand strategy of network centrality. In R. Fontaine & K. M. Lord, (Eds.). America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration (pp. 45-56) Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security.

Stern, J. (2015). Obama and terrorism: Like it or not, the war goes on. Foreign Affairs, September/October, 62-70.

Written by Governance

November 3, 2015 at 5:14 pm


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