Public Value – the next ‘Big Thing’ in public management?

Are we about to enter a new era of public management? There are good reasons to think that this may be the case. The current global financial and economic crisis struck, but these events may make the debate in these pages all the more salient. Public Value may, just possibly and as a result of the current tumultuous events, turn out to be the next “Big Thing” in public management a lot faster than any thought possible.

Even if Public Value does not rise to pre-eminence in public management, the debate around it certainly does raise many of the themes that are likely to come to the fore in the next period. The period since the end of World War II has been rather neatly dissected into two 30-year periods with a short interregnum in-between. From 1945 to 1975 the post-war welfare state emerged in most developed countries. Public spending as a percentage of GDP leapt to new highs. Huge new public service bureaucracies emerged – providing education, health services and welfare for unemployment, disability and pensions.

Public management in this era was characterized by bureaucratic principles – it was the heyday of the classic public administration which organized more resources and people than ever before in human history (during peace time). It ended, or at least started to end, with the oil-triggered economic crisis of 1975. The decisive shift away from collectivist towards individualist solutions to social problems is usually seen to have been signaled by the elections of Margaret Thatcher (1979) in the UK and Ronald Reagan (1980) in the USA.

The period of market oriented reforms and the supposed “rolling back of the frontiers of the state” coincided with a very different approach to public administration – the rise of the so-called ‘New Public Management’ (NPM). NPM placed great emphasis on – as the name suggests – active management rather than (supposedly) passive administration. Managing by budget and rules was to be replaced by management by initiative, responsibility and performance.

Now we have entered a new period of intense, almost global, crisis triggered by the initial collapse of sub-prime markets in the USA but rapidly spreading to almost fatally weaken the global financial system. Only decisive state intervention prevented a probable financial collapse. Markets had clearly failed in a spectacular fashion. The resulting long-expected recession suddenly seemed not only worse than expected (and probably is) but also ripe for yet more state intervention. State subsidies, guarantees, and loans have poured out of western governments and significant chunks of the financial system have been nationalized.

Are we then witnessing the dawn of new, more collectivist, period and consequently a new approach to public management? And if so – what shape will it take?

Public value (PV) a concept has been around a lot longer than the current crisis. But in the past half-decade or so it has started to gain significant purchase in some policy-making circles. True, this is mostly in a few anglo-saxon countries, but then NPM emerged initially in a very similar way.

Will it be the case that this policy solution – Public Value – will come to the fore as the replacement for NPM?

So what does PV have to offer? Well – just like NPM before it – there are already variations and sub-themes in even the approach and concepts, never mind the practice. Mark Moore’s seminal work offers an amalgam of managerialist ideas around efficiency and focus on achievement and performance, fused with broader notions about the policy role of public managers and the important of trust and legitimacy in the public domain.

PV seems to have the advantage of looking simultaneously forward and backward. It looks backward not only to the managerialism, efficiency and performance of NPM but also to some aspects of more traditional public administration, seeing legitimacy and trust as important issues which are in part engendered by due process and equity. But is also seems to look forward to new forms of governance, networks of policy and implementation and more ‘agile’ public services. Maybe these ideas are too much to be encompassed by a single epithet – but again, NPM didn’t do too badly acting as an umbrella construct for an often contradictory set of ideas.

One feature of PV which is unlike NPM is that the academic and policy-maker debates seem to be proceeding almost in tandem, whereas with NPM the academic community seemed to be constantly playing ‘catch-up’ with changes in policy already long made.

[extract of article in IJPA Vol.32 No. 3/4 due out shortly]

see also ‘Art of Performance’ blog 23 Feb  2009

see also Robert Peston on the New Capitalism and the ippr think tank has launched a new project on Tomorrow’s Capitalism

One of the main Public Management annual conferences in the USA (NASPAA) has chosen Public Values as its theme – another straw in the wind?

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