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date: 08 December 2019

Introductory Remarks

Abstract and Keywords

This article gives an assessment of the major trends in the study of public management. It also briefly outlines the organization of the book. Section 1 orientates the reader by exploring basic frameworks, background, and key current controversies at a high level of generality. This is followed by Section 2 which explores alternative theoretical and disciplinary perspectives on public management. Section 3 covers a number of current public policy and management themes, albeit from a scholarly and social science-based point of view. Section 4 considers developments in particular functional areas, such as Human Resource Management. This is followed by Section 5 which explicitly considers the international and comparative dimensions of public management reforming. The book ends by considering emerging overall themes and outlines possible future directions.

Keywords: public management, public policy, social science, human resource management, management reforms, management themes

The organization and management of public services is moving through an intriguing and even disorientating period across the world. Governments have been launching major public sector “reform” programs now for over twenty years. Long-standing “taken for granted” assumptions and orthodoxies no longer hold. Traditional public sectors are under pressure to change and seem to be evolving—but into what? How are we to understand what is really going on and move from immersion in short-term events and parochial perspectives so as to recognize underlying patterns and enduring trends?

The editors and authors of this Handbook have sought to rise above detail and generate a big picture of the current state of the field, taking stock of how the recent generation of public management reforming has changed the way we think about and practice public management. In the 1970s, one normally talked of “public administration.” In the 1980s came the move to “new public management,” embraced by some and criticized by others. (Some of our authors refer to “public management” or “new public management”; others to “public administration”—the editors left the choice of terminology to authorial discretion!) These changes have had the effect of attracting additional academic disciplines (such as management and economics) to the study of “reformed” public management. More (p. 2) recently some have argued that there is a further shift from a “new public management” perspective to a “governance” perspective. Is the NPM itself becoming old and passé? Or is the NPM more than a policy fad, having had a more enduring impact than its early critics supposed? Are the same NPM based trends in public management reform evident globally or are reforms better seen as nationally specific and differentiated?

Communication between the three editors, which began soon after our receiving this commission from Oxford University Press, generated an editorial consensus that the Handbook should aim to provide a wide-ranging, authoritative, and internationally focused overview of major themes and key debates within the current field(s) of public management and administration. While we wanted an authoritative collection of essays, we also wanted one which, to the greatest extent possible, featured diverse disciplinary and methodological perspectives and authorial attributes such as age, sex, and nationality.

First of all, we wanted well-written, authoritative essays that discussed the important developments both in public policy and in relevant scholarship. The use of the word “authoritative” is deliberate. The editors have been fortunate in attracting distinguished authors who are recognized experts in their fields. In order to promote the authoritative nature of the chapters, authors were given a generous word length for their chapters so that they had the opportunity to develop sustained and subtle arguments. We negotiated an overall brief with our authors but gave them considerable latitude to develop their subjects as they saw fit (they were the subject experts, after all). We encouraged originality, preferring provocative ideas and arguments and strong individual voices over bland, encyclopaedic summaries. Authors were also encouraged to explicate the theoretical and analytical foundations of their topics, identifying as far as possible where theoretical and applied frontiers lie. We wanted fully developed, engaging, and stylish chapters even if these qualities were achieved at the cost of our commissioning fewer chapters than otherwise would have been the case.

Second, we wanted to ensure strong international coverage across the chapters. The three editors are based in three different geographic locations: the UK (Ferlie); the USA (Lynn) and continental Europe (Pollitt) and brought with them the different perspectives of their surrounding intellectual communities. We deliberately sought to recruit a similar mix of contributors. In reading their essays, the rather different preoccupations of the British, continental European, and American scholars become evident. At the same time, sensing that even greater geographical diversity would pose editorial challenges, we did not cast our net wider. Should there ever be a second edition of the Handbook, we would wish to commission more authors from the developing world, thereby raising additional opportunities to explore the diffusion of managerial reform ideas and their “translation” into non-western, as well as the fascinating subject—largely unexplored in the Anglophone literature—of “home-grown” reforms in these contexts.

(p. 3)

Our preference for authors who were fluent in English may have excluded non-Anglophone authors and affected the resulting balance. We are light, for instance, on French and Spanish authors but stronger on Dutch and Scandinavian authors who more often write in English. In sum, continental European scholarship is certainly represented in this book, but not to its full breadth or depth.

Third, the editors sought to encourage different perspectives rather than orthodoxy. The Handbook displays a colourful mix of different disciplines and theories: the old charge that public administration is a parochial, empiricist, and a-theoretical field divorced from a social science base has never been less accurate. Management academics follow democratic theorists; postmodernists rub shoulders with public choice economists; constructivists alternate with positivists. Intellectual polycentrism in public management scholarship seems to be here to stay, and any attempt to impose “one best way” would be strongly resisted. However, extreme diversity in any scholarly field presents some novel challenges of its own. Will the field disintegrate into a plethora of non-communicating subfields? What are the indicators of “quality” in each subfield and do they vary? How does the well-informed but general reader navigate the many academic tribes and boundaries and make sense of a greater whole? These are questions that need to be addressed if (as seems likely) conditions of high scholarly diversity within the study of public management persist.

Fourth, without sacrificing authoritativeness, we sought to achieve diversity across the population of authors, paying attention to issues of sex (women as well as men) and seniority (promising younger scholars as well as established senior writers). In the end, however, the shift in the mix we achieved was only moderate—perhaps we could not overcome the underlying diversity problems of the profession. Some more senior scholars have co-written their essays with younger colleagues, but this may be a field where the authority we wanted tends to be associated with some maturity of judgement and experience.

We encountered other limitations and difficulties. For a variety of reasons, important subjects that belonged in the Handbook could not be included. It was difficult for authors to be authoritative about some national literatures with which they were initially unfamiliar, although the editors' comments on first drafts often emphasized the importance of greater international coverage. There are more comparativists and internationalists in the field than a generation ago, but the majority of public management scholars are still overwhelmingly focused on their own country.

We have grouped the essays into five sections to make the journey through the Handbook inviting for the reader. Our intention is to move from the more general to the more particular, and then to return to the general at the end. Section 1 orientates the reader by exploring basic frameworks, background, and key current controversies at a high level of generality. This is followed by a set of chapters in Section 2 which explore alternative theoretical and disciplinary perspectives on (p. 4) public management. Section 3 covers a number of current public policy and management themes, albeit from a scholarly and social-science-based point of view. The chapters in Section 4 consider developments in particular functional areas, such as Human Resource Management. This is followed by a Section 5 which explicitly considers the international and comparative dimensions of public management reforming. The final chapter by the editors considers emerging overall themes across the set of chapters and outlines possible future directions.

We hope that readers' interest in understanding more about the current state of the field will be invigorated by this Handbook. It is intended to be useful to faculty, reflective practitioners, research students, and international public management institutions. Those looking for consensus will be disappointed; those who relish debate will be stimulated. Despite our reservations indicated above, we feel that we have accomplished much of what we originally intended: a handbook that is current, lively, original, and deserving of a wide and international readership. The Handbook is neither an encyclopaedia nor a survey but an intellectual whole which is greater than the sum of its parts in that it reveals both enduring and emerging trends, both durable and fresh ideas, and locates areas of consensus and controversy.

The debates addressed in the Handbook will improve our understanding of major contemporary developments in public management. While the public domain may be changing, the view characteristic of the 1980s that it would “wither away” has proved inaccurate: government still very much matters, albeit in altered forms. Linked to these policy developments, the study of public management is going through a fresh and exciting period, evidence of which awaits the reader of this Handbook.