Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Why public management is a flawed kind of statecraft

GOVE_DraftsAlasdair Roberts contributes to our blog’s conversation on public management and the state:  “Even the most abstract works of political theory are never above the battle,” the historian Quentin Skinner has observed, “They are part of the battle itself” (Skinner 2008, xvi). The same can be said about modes of inquiry such as Public Management Research (PMR). PMR ought to be understood as the product of a particular phase in the development of some advanced western states. But this fact is rarely acknowledged.

Public management research emerged in the early 1980s and was thoroughly institutionalized over the next thirty years. Today, PMR has these features:

  • Its work appears in a small number of journals published in the United States and the United Kingdom. The articles in these journals are disproportionately concerned with aspects of management in a few wealthy democracies: notably the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (Hou, Ni et al. 2011, i47-i48).
  • It is particularly attentive to management problems within agencies providing social services, and relatively inattentive to functions such as defense, law enforcement, judicial administration, legislative administration, and electoral administration.
  • It is not usually concerned with basic structural questions such as the design of personnel or financial systems, systems for executive oversight and coordination, or systems for assuring the legality of administrative action. It is generally taken for granted that these systems exist, and that problems of corruption and improper political influence over administration have been minimized.
  • It has a propensity to prefer quantitative research based on data that is generated by the administrative processes of public agencies. (This assumes that there are administrative processes capable of generating this data.) This is widely viewed as the most reliable way of “testing” propositions about management.

Two events led to the emergence of PMR and help to explain its distinctive features. The first was the expansion of the American welfare state in the 1960s. By that time, basic problems relating to the organization of government had been resolved in the United States. Systems of personnel and financial administration, executive control, and judicial review were well established. For this reason, there was great confidence about the ability of government to solve public problems, guided by specialists in the new policy sciences. Schools of public policy were soon established across the United States. Economists often played a prominent role within the faculties of these schools (Yates 1977, 364).

By the mid-1970s, however, there was a widespread appreciation that many programs established during the surge of the 1960s had failed to achieve their objectives. This was interpreted as the result of inattention to problems of compliance and coordination within a sprawling federal system. Soon public policy schools began to put more emphasis on problems of implementation and management, focusing mainly on social programs, and using methods of inquiry that were often sometimes designed to deflect criticism from the economists who dominated the faculties of those schools (Elmore 1986, 70). By the 1990s, faculty in some old-style public administration programs began to emulate the focus and methods of management specialists within public policy schools, with whom they were increasingly in competition.

The second event that shaped PMR was the period of state retrenchment following the collapse of the western post-war boom in the early 1970s. In the United Kingdom, the pivotal moment was the humiliating appeal for assistance from the International Monetary Fund in 1976; in the United States, it was the California tax revolt of 1978. For the next thirty years, politics in these two countries was preoccupied by efforts to contain the cost of public services. One of the key concepts within PMR — New Public Management, or NPM — was born out of this search for more efficient ways of managing public services (Hood 1991). Center-left politicians were eager to find ways of making government “work better and cost less” so that they could counter conservative demands for complete abandonment of some public services (Gore 1993).

In sum, we can think of PMR as an exercise in statecraft — that is, part of a project of renovating public institutions to accommodate the needs of the moment. However, PMR has rarely viewed itself in this way. And because it has not been anchored by sensitivity to context, PMR has tended to have an imperialistic quality. Generic “questions of public management” are frequently enumerated, with the assumption that the whole world shares an equal concern for these questions. Some writers have even heralded the advent of a “global public management movement.” New Public Management has often been used as the framework for homogenizing national conversations about governmental reform. In the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, there were many studies that examined how specific countries were pursuing NPM-style reforms and whether the world was converging on the NPM model. Of course, this was a backward way of diagnosing governance challenges in most countries. The practices of other countries became significant only insofar as they reflected or diverged from the preoccupations of countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

Certainly, non-Western countries face many challenges that can be fit within the public management paradigm. But this does not mean that the main problems of statecraft in these countries have to do with public management. On the contrary, the administrative challenges confronting most national governments are often distinct from those confronting the Anglo-American and northern European democracies. Territory is not secure, internal order is not established, police are corrupt, elections are manipulated, the judicial system is broken, taxes cannot be collected, political leaders cannot formulate plans and the bureaucracy cannot execute them. Sometimes the basic idea that there should be a sphere of administration that is free of political, ethnic or familial influences is not established. Statecraft in these countries is preoccupied with building the foundational elements of state capacity that are taken for granted in the advanced democracies.

Such problems are not unknown in the West. As it happens, the field of Public Administration came into being in the United States as part of the project of building these foundational elements. In other words, old-style Public Administration was also an exercise in statecraft, suited to harsher conditions. But Public Administration was overthrown by Public Management after the 1980s. Today, the state-building problems of non-Western countries are more likely to be addressed by academics in Political Science or Economics. Public Management does not have much to say about them.

Nor does Public Management have much to say about recent problems with state performance in Western countries. In the United States, for example, there are complaints about the “dysfunctionality” of government: that is, the apparent inability of the establishment to respond coherently to current and looming challenges (Mann and Ornstein 2013; Fukuyama 2014). There are also complaints about a pattern of “endemic failure” in government programs caused by broad structural features of government (Schuck 2014). And there is an observed need to build new forms of state capacity to deal with unfamiliar challenges like climate change. Again, there was a time when all of this would have been regarded as the natural terrain of scholars in Public Administration. Much of the Public Administration literature of the Progressive and New Deal eras was written in response to similar problems of state failure. But Public Management Research, a mode of inquiry built for a different time, does not have much to say about these topics.

The broad aim of Public Administration is the construction and renovation of public institutions to fit the needs of the moment. Because circumstances change, we should expect that every generation will have a distinctive understanding about priorities and strategies for state reform. PMR has been viewed as an umbrella concept that could displace Public Administration entirely (Lam 1997, 405-406). But PMR is just an instantiation of the broader project of Public Administration. It is a form of statecraft that made sense in a few advanced democracies in a few decades at the end of the twentieth century.


Elmore, Richard F. (1986). “Graduate Education in Public Management: Working the Seams of Government.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 6(1): 69-83.

Fukuyama, Francis (2014). “America in Decay.” Foreign Affairs 93(5): 3-26.

Gore, Albert (1993). Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less. New York, NY, Times Books.

Hood, Christopher (1991). “A Public Management for All Seasons?” Public Administration 69(1): 3-20.

Hou, Yilin, Anna Ya Ni, Ora-orn Poocharoen, Kaifeng Yang and Zhirong J. Zhao (2011). “The Case for Public Administration with a Global Perspective.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 21(suppl 1): i45-i51.

Lam, Jermain T. M. (1997). “Transformation from Public Administration to Management: Success and Challenges of Public Sector Reform in Hong Kong.” Public Productivity & Management Review 20(4): 405-418.

Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein (2013). It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. New York, Basic Books.

Schuck, Peter H. (2014). Why Government Fails So Often. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Skinner, Quentin (2008). Hobbes and Republican Liberty. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Yates, Douglas T. (1977). “The Mission of Public Policy Programs: A Report on Recent Experience.” Policy Sciences 8(3): 363-373.



Written by Governance

December 10, 2015 at 9:04 am


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 463 other followers

Build a website with
%d bloggers like this: