Putting the Politics back into Public Management – are the times a’changing?

As some of you may know already, I am about to leave a Business School (MBS) and join a School of Social Sciences (Politics) (both at the University of Manchester, so not a big move in one sense). This may be unduly influencing my thinking, but the question I want to ask in this post is: am I part of a trend?

First, some history. Some time back before the last Ice Age (i.e. in the 1960s and 70s) government and public administration courses were fairly well represented in Britain, at both undergraduate and post graduate levels. Then, in the late 1970s they started to die off. Many departments became departments of politics, and later politics and international relations. The focus switched away from government institutions and how to run them to political behaviour and IR.

In the Polytechnics however there was a considerable growth in the 1980s of policy and management masters courses aimed at the 20% or so of UK managers who worked in the public sector, and often had strong professional backgrounds. Mostly part-time and ‘post experience’, these catered for the growing interest in how to make the by now large public services run better.

This trend then often fused with the sudden massive growth in Business Schools and MBAs that started in the early 1990s as a result of the Handy and Silver and Mangham reports on the (almost non-existent) British management development provision. MBAs leapt from about 20 or so in 1990 to a 120 in less than a decade. In the Poly’s/new Universities these drew heavily on the public sector – in many MBA students were up to 50% public managers.

(On a personal note, this was my route into academia. I did a Masters in public sector management in the late 80s, and then got offered a job teaching in the rapidly expanding business schools who wanted people with public management experience to teach on their new MBAs.)

This was also of course the era of ‘New Public Management’ (NPM) when everything went managerial and the political side of public management was strongly downplayed. The supposedly neutral NPM ‘technology’ was, in Christopher Hood’s famous phrase, “a public management for all seasons”. So NPM sat well inside the often politics-free zone that existed in business schools.

Is that now all changing? Several business schools that did have fairly prominent public sector outfits or courses within them have drawn back and wound them down or even wound them up – Warwick, Aston, London and Manchester business schools all set up courses and units in the 1990s backed away from public management.

Interestingly, at the same time there has been a spurt of growth in Masters in Public Administration (MPAs) and Masters in Public Policy (MPPs) mainly located in schools of social science, social policy or politics. Oxford and Cambridge have both launched MPPs, and Oxford the Blavatnik School of Government. Other places setting up new units or courses over the past decade include the LSE, UCL, Plymouth, Queen Mary’s, Nottingham, York, Edinburgh, etc.

What is clear from this is that there seems to be a ‘re-politicisation’ of public management in Britain at least. Most of these developments are outside the business schools, and some that weren’t (Warwick for example) have since more or less disappeared.

We are still a very long way from the USA, where the MBA (in business schools) and the MPA/MPP (in schools of PA and PP) are clearly separate and both strong presences within the academy. NASPAA*, the association for MPA/MPP type providers, has (to quote its website) as of 2012 “280 members – located across the U.S. and around the globe – award[ing] MPA, MPP, MPAff, and similar degrees.” We may or may not be heading in that direction – business schools focussed on, well, business whilst schools of social sciences, social policy or politics focus on public administration and public policy.

One intriguing feature though is that as many public policy issues become more complex “wicked issues” there is also a small but discernable trend towards public policy being seen as a ‘whole University’ engagement opportunity. Cambridge’s MPP is, apparently, the first ever masters degree course that is a ‘whole university’ degree.

Our own Policy@Manchester initiative involves about 150 academics from right across the University, scientists and social scientists, humanities and business. Although in both cases developments are also ‘anchored’ in structures more clearly focussed on public policy.

This sort of ‘hub and spoke’ development isn’t entirely new – Stanford’s MPP is run along similar lines.

So watch this space. My little idiosyncratic move from our Business School to Social Sciences (Politics) may just be part of an interesting new pattern. I’d very interested to hear what colleagues across the UK think about this? You can leave your comments here, or email on colin.talbot@manchester.ac.uk.


*National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration

2 thoughts on “Putting the Politics back into Public Management – are the times a’changing?

  1. One thing you haven’t metioned, Colin, is the large amount of PA that is and has been taught on university-based occupational courses for public service staff – especially but not exclusively for health care, social care, education and police and probation services. This area seldom gets mentioned or noticed, but, as far as I can tell, may cater for as many of more students as mainstream PA. What is taught there is a bit of a terra incognita – but is pretty important from the point of view of equipping the people who actually do the useful work in delivering the basic public services which we (nearly) all need.
    Christopher Pollitt

    1. Unfortunately, the movement of PA within universities is more often a reflection of the desire to capture (or in some cases recapture) enrollments from those other professional programs than it is to reassertion the status of PA as a social science. There was a time in the US when PA was the energizing intellectual force within the political and social sciences (e.g., look at the roots of the Social Science Research Council, or the consider the dissertations of folks like Samuel Huntington, or the early work of Robert Dahl and colleagues — not to mention folks like Herbert Simon and the Ostroms….) One can hope that the move is the start of a shift of PA back to the core of the social sciences rather than its current position at the periphery — a point recently highlighted by Fukuyama….

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