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date: 15 December 2019


Abstract and Keywords

The Afterword provides some final thoughts, which it states will not remain final. It is more realistic to explore in very general terms what this mass of material tells us about the current coordinates of the field. What do the efforts of the anay in this title show about the view or views which academic public management takes of itself? The Afterword asks the following questions: What are the boundaries of “public?” What are the boundaries of management?” What are the appropriate epistemological frameworks or paradigms within which the work of this field should be carried forward? What particular disciplines and theories are in play? And how do scholars in the field handle the distinction between the descriptive, the prescriptive, and the normative dimensions of their work?

Keywords: academic public management, boundaries, descriptive, prescriptive, normative, management

30.1 Introduction

Naturally, these final words by the editors cannot for long remain final. The strange mixture of disciplines, concerns, and instrumentaria that is the field of public management constantly moves on. Nor can we realistically aspire to offer a clinching summary of what has gone before: the preceding chapters are too numerous and too rich to be reduced to a few bullet points or a seven-step program. What may be more appropriate and feasible, however, is to explore in very general terms what this mass of material tells us about the current coordinates of the field. What do the efforts of our many distinguished contributors show about the view or views which academic public management takes of itself?

We will therefore first take note of what seem to be the main contemporary preoccupations in terms of substance and theme. Then, second, we will review—lightly and quickly—the positions which have been here been taken in respect of five more enduring and fundamental questions. These are:

  1. 1. What are the boundaries of “public?”

  2. 2. What are the boundaries of “management?”

  3. 3. What are the appropriate epistemological frameworks or paradigms within which the work of the field should be carried forward?

  4. (p. 721)
  5. 4. What particular disciplines and theories are in play?

  6. 5. How do scholars in the field handle the distinction between the descriptive, the prescriptive and the normative dimensions of their work?

30.2 Substance and themes

Naturally, we as editors bear responsibility for the selection of chapter titles (see the Introduction for an account of our intentions). Within broad chapter titles, however, we gave contributors considerable leeway as to how they interpreted the subject. Several interesting points seem to emerge from their collective and individual exercise of this discretion.

To begin with, it does seem that the “New Public Management,” two decades after its christening, continues to exert widespread fascination. Many more chapters position themselves mainly or partly in relation to NPM themes and controversies than in relation to, say, “governance” or “networks” (although the latter two subjects do appear fairly frequently). At least 10 of the 29 substantive chapters are centrally framed by or focused upon the NPM agenda. It is an exaggeration—but only a small one—to say that the Handbook has spontaneously developed an NPM center of gravity. By now the NPM may be middle-aged rather than new, but it is still the center of attention for many academics—and for many practitioners too (Hood and Peters, 2004; Pollitt, 2003).

Does this mean that the predictions of (among others) Osborne and Gaebler that there would be a global convergence on NPM/“re-invention” practices are confirmed (Osborne and Gaebler 1992: 328)? Certainly the global reach of these ideas has been impressive. Nevertheless, the arguments presented here suggest a less imperial conclusion. A number of contributors stress how, while the broad ideas and slogans may travel widely, each country makes its own translation or adaptation of the NPM package (e.g., Dingwall and Strangleman; Ferlie and Geraghty; Ingraham; Lynn; Proeller and Schendler; Rubin and Kelly). Constitutional differences, patterns of institutions, administrative cultures and economic circumstances are some of the principal sources of variation. What is more, in some significant cases, NPM ideas have not just been adapted, they have been consciously rejected, or backed away from after initial adoption. Commentators should also be careful to distinguish between different levels of penetration: that NPM ideas are much debated among the chattering classes does not mean that they can necessarily command the backing of authoritative political elites, and that they have achieved the status of white papers or ministerial speeches does not (as any student of our subject knows) mean that they will be put into practice by rank-and-file public officials (Pollitt 2002).

(p. 722)

We should also ask whether the NPM has a single stable identity, or whether it is just a portmanteau concept? Many different definitions have been offered in the literature (see, inter alia, Ferlie et al. 1996; Hood 1991; Kettl 2000; Lane 2000; Pollitt 2003). Within these covers, also, we find (inter alia) Hood treating the NPM as an ideology or religion, while Vining and Weimar stress that at its core lie a set of economic doctrines and Bertelli sees it as a vehicle through which contracts become central to national administrative law. Clearly, it is possible fruitfully to regard the NPM from a variety of perspectives, but this is not the only threat to the coherence of the NPM debate. For it is also the case that NPM doctrines, whether regarded as religious, economic, legal, or simply managerial, contain tensions and paradoxes among themselves (Hood and Peters 2004; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004). Hood points to paradoxes and anomalies. Mathiasen notes that the NPM “has many parents.” Meier and Hill speak of two “wings” of NPM, one of which seeks to eliminate government and another which seeks to liberate managers from red tape and political interference. Power writes that the NPM is neither unitary nor very clearly defined.

One danger here is that all contemporary public management reform will be thought of as “NPM,” a lack of discrimination that deprives the original title of any specific meaning. None of our contributors fall into this trap, but in the wider literature it occasionally happens. This error leads observers to overlook or underestimate the mass of reforms which go forward without any of the characteristic NPM labels. There are budgeting reforms which are not in any sense performance budgeting and which have little to do with the NPM doctrine. There are accounting and auditing reforms and HRM reforms and public participation reforms which are similarly distant from NPM thinking.

Finally, even if the NPM remains the center of academic gravity in our field, what else is there in the solar system of public management? The short answer is plain from this Handbook—the lasting fundamentals. Issues of constitutions, legalism and juridification, democracy, bureaucracy, accountability, ethics, centralization, and the public interest. For many of these topics the NPM gives a new twist to an ongoing debate, but that is all. Then there are new topics, such as networks, virtual organizations and governance, topics where the NPM features as either just one perspective among several (virtual organizations) or as the previous, now-too-narrow way of thinking (networks, governance).

30.3 The Five Fundamental questions

Additional insights to the nature of the field can be gained by interrogating the foregoing chapters with each of the five fundamental questions posed at the beginning of this chapter. Whilst we did not specifically ask most of our contributors (p. 723) to reflect on these issues they arguably constitute the key meta-issues for the field. In a sense, therefore, they are always present. Thus we will now examine a set of theoretical, epistemological (and in some cases normative) preferences which have been revealed during the process of addressing the more specific issues about which we asked our distinguished contributors to write.

30.3.1 What are the Boundaries of the “Public?”

It has become a commonplace that the boundaries between the public sector, the private sector, and civil society are becoming less clear-cut and more ambiguous (see, e.g., the chapters by Skelcher, Klijn, Frederickson, and Smith). The consequences of the growing interconnections between hitherto more sharply differentiated spheres of society are both numerous and profound. Indeed, some of them strike at the very heart of our notions of the public domain, and demand far more research and debate than we have yet afforded them. Four cases will have to suffice to illustrate this point. First, Bertelli notes (p. 150) that the NPM trend to more and more contractualization of hitherto hierarchical relationships “places administrative law in something of a disequilibrium” (although he remains optimistic about the long-run ability of the courts to rectify imbalances). Second, Dobel wonders how “to extend the ethos and values [of the public sector] across networks of partners and contractors” (p. 172). Third, Bovens acknowledges that “the increasing use of private companies in the provision of public services and the privatization of public organizations, raise questions about the public accountability of private managers” (p. 200). Fourth, Smith notes how many major public policy issues now involve NGOs, and how these bodies may even, de facto, define citizenship rights (p. 592). These are hardly trivial matters. The traditional public sector was defined to a considerable extent by its distinctive laws, ethics, patterns of accountability, and definition of citizenship rights. If all four dimensions are now shifting under the impact of new approaches to management—along with new systems of public accounting (Rubin and Kelly) and of human resource management (Ingraham)—then the normative foundations of the liberal democratic state are in question. Many “public” services will henceforth be delivered under a different legal framework, by private sector or NGO employees operating in a different ethical climate, spending money under more commercial accounting systems, and with reduced political accountability. Already, it is estimated that the US Federal government retains four times as many people through grants and contracts as through direct employment (Light 1999, cited in Skelcher's chapter).

Boundaries are less marked in a second sense also. One “public sector” is less insulated from another than used to be the case. Mathiasen makes the case for the internationalization of public management thinking and advice, and lists many (p. 724) international organizations which have grown up to promote and feed upon this global traffic. Many other chapters add to his testimony on this point, including Dobel (who remarks on the apparent recent international consensus on fundamental administrative values), Skelcher (who records an upsurge of interests in PPPs in Australasia, Scandinavia, the UK, and the USA) and Vining and Weimer (who mention the international reach of economics-based forms of reasoning concerning the design public sector organizations).

30.3.2 What are the Boundaries of Management?

It has to be said that this question is not much discussed within these covers. Most of what can be said must be inferred from reading between the lines. In some ways this is a surprising omission, which leaves several rather important questions hanging in the air. For example, who are the public officials who are not managers? How do we characterize them? How are they different? What are their relations with managers like? Have the boundaries between managers and non-managers been changing? If there were ever to be a second edition of this handbook the future editors might well consider commissioning a chapter aimed specifically at such issues.

A far more common preoccupation has been the differences between public management and private management. On this issue, most of our contributors seem in broad agreement that there are such differences and that they are significant. Rainey and Chun produce a finely nuanced account and signal the need for a contingency approach to the complexities of multidimensional difference. But they nevertheless read the literature as pointing towards appreciable differences in respect of formalization, rule intensity, the valuation of financial incentives, levels of altruism, and so on. Lynn puts it more succinctly:

there is widespread professional acknowledgement that constitutions, collective goods production, and electoral institutions create distinctive managerial challenges that justify a separate field. (p. 28)

Bertelli (law), Dobel (ethics), Bovens (accountability), and Meier (bureaucracy) are among the other contributors who also clearly see enduring differences between public and private management (whilst not denying the existence of ambiguous border zones).

Finally, it is the chapter by Lynn that brings the two sets of boundary issues together, as he attempts to define the field of public management. This is seen as encompassing “the organizational structures, managerial practices, and institutionalized values by which officials enact the will of sovereign authority, whether that authority is prince, parliament, or civil society” (p. 28).

(p. 725) 30.3.3 What are the Preferred Epistemological Frameworks?

Most of our contributors simply get on with their business, without feeling any need to dig up their own epistemological foundations. Nevertheless, we can plainly see a number of different assumptions in action. Perhaps the biggest divergence is between those who largely rely on positivistic assumptions of a researchable external reality and those who, by contrast, adopt a more constructivist stance. Take, for example, our two opening chapters. In Chapter 1, Christopher Hood treats public management as a belief system, a secular religion or movement that is perhaps best understood through efforts culturally and historically to situate and interpret an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of doctrines and catchecisms. In Chapter 2, however, Hal Rainey carefully reviews a large body of research which has, by and large, conceived the task of comparing public and private as an empirical question of looking for externally existing patterns of similarity and/or difference. Both camps are well represented in the remainder of the book. Both contain within themselves many degrees and nuances, and neither term should be used (as each sometimes is) as a catch-all intellectual dismissal.

Within the second group, the social constructivists, another significant epistemological frontier divides those who have taken the “argumentative turn” from those who have not. “What if our language does not simply mirror or picture the world, but instead profoundly shapes our view of it in the first place?” asked Fischer and Forester (1993: 1). While some of our contributors hover uneasily at or near the frontier between these two positions, others are clearly on one side or the other. Looking over the Handbook as a whole, one might be tempted to see this divide as, in part, a transatlantic one. Most of the American contributors (Rainey and Chun, Bertelli, Mathiasen, Weimer, Meier and Hill, Rubin and Kelly, Ingraham, and Smith) ignore or stop short of the “argumentative turn.” Equally, most of those contributors who actively embrace a more constructivist/constitutive view of language are European (Hood, Bovens, Bogason, Dingwall and Strangleman, Power, and Dahler-Larson). Now of course there are representatives of both camps in the academic public management communities on either side of the ocean (as Bogason's chapter, among others, makes clear) but perhaps the “balance of power” between the two perspectives is indeed different on either Atlantic shore. The problem, perhaps, is that the different camps often seem to rest content with internal conversations, conducted in their own associations and journals, and not to invest much effort in constructive dialogue with the other groups.

30.3.4 What Disciplines and Theories are in Play?

Public management, like public administration, may be “a subject matter in search of a discipline” (Waldo 1968: 2) but it is certainly not short of theories. The (p. 726) evidence between these covers indicates that the field resembles a kind of theoretical car-boot sale. Anything and everything—from pre-modern to post-modern, from public choice to discourse analysis to regime theory to chaos theory—is in use somewhere or other. It would seem that the “decades of heterodoxy” referred to by Lynn (p. 40) as following upon the seminal works by Dahl, Simon, and Waldo during the 1940s have yet to reach any consensual terminus.

The contributing disciplines are equally diverse. Anthropologists, accountants, economists, lawyers, organization theorists, political scientists, and sociologists are among those who have made notable inputs to the public management literature of the past decade or so. Waldo was right, though one might add that few are now even bothering to look for disciplinary unity. Whether this rich variety is a source of weakness or of strength is a debatable question. It could be argued that diversity fosters adaptability and the kind of three-dimensional vision that comes from multiple perspectives. On the other hand it could equally well be pointed out that the Tower of Babel was not the best place to seek clear understandings.

One interesting point that emerges almost from a side door during the exercise of these different theories and disciplines is that the field remains embarrassingly short of ambitious, large-scale empirical work. (Some post modernist theorists may question the very concept of “empirical research”, but most of our contributors, and most of the wider public management community still assert that it should play a central role.) In a substantial number of chapters authors refer to the lack of decisive research (among them Rainey and Chun, Mathiasen, Meier and Hill, Klijn, Øvretveit, Ferlie and Talbot). In part this is no doubt due to the genuine difficulties of organizing and financing such inquiries. Anyone who has tried to conduct large-scale fieldwork in many organizations (and especially in many countries and languages) will testify to the fact that such projects are major management challenges in themselves. Yet the paucity of such studies perhaps goes beyond practical barriers and speaks to a certain failure of imagination, ambition, and cooperative inclination among our community.

30.3.5 How Are Normative/Prescriptive/Descriptive Distinctions Handled?

Looking over the Handbook's many chapters, it seems clear that the field of public management is thoroughly suffused with normative and prescriptive issues. This is no dry science, limiting itself to value-free description and analysis. Indeed, some of the central concepts of the field are irredeemably value-laden: public accountability, public service ethics, public service traditions, quality, and, most recently, “good governance.”

Beyond this, it is very common indeed for public management scholars, even when writing academic material, to move into prescriptive mode (many of them, of (p. 727) course, go further and become advisers or consultants as well as academics). Thus (to take just a few local examples) Skelcher's chapter not only describes public private partnerships, but indulges in some searching for ways of reducing the risks and lowering the barriers. Pollitt's analysis of decentralization includes a tentative identification of some of the conditions that may be conducive to or antipathetic to efficiency gains. Klijn examines networks as, inter alia, a form of prescriptive theory. Øvretveit tries to pin down those factors which help make quality improvement techniques effective. Smith points to factors which make the use of NGOs more or less risky in the delivery of public policies. And so on. If the aforementioned second edition of this handbook were ever to see the light there would be a strong case for adding a chapter on public management academics as advisers and consultants. These roles are both commonplace and yet at the same time fraught with complex power relationships, theoretical challenges, and ethical issues.

30.4 Final Thoughts

It is perhaps remarkable that public management/public administration, a field periodically condemned as atheoretical, confused, over-dependent on contradictory and proverb-like statements, or just plain boring, should even qualify for the status of an Oxford Handbook. However, a kinder reading of the offerings we have assembled would find this elevation less surprising. This more sympathetic critic might note that ours is an academic arena that contains several species of topic. There are long-standing debates on foundational issues, where some degree of cumulation of knowledge can be detected (for example in relation to accountability, bureaucracy, or budgeting). There are technical issues where academic study may lead to innovations in techniques and methods (such as HRM, quality improvement, or contracting-out). And there are also the green shoots of emerging new topics and theories (as in the debates on consultancy and virtual organizations articulated in the chapters by Saint-Martin and Margetts). The garden of public management is certainly untidy, and its borders are frequently vague, but it is nonetheless a fertile territory, in some parts of which careful cultivation over the years has born considerable fruit. The modern-day ecologist might compliment it on its biodiversity!

The foundational strength of this field comes from the unceasing relevance of its core subject matter. The (alleged) “rolling back of the state” and “end of big government” have come and gone without any discernable lessening in the intensity of public debate concerning law and order, the provision of healthcare, (p. 728) education, and social security, the regulation of public utilities, and a host of other public management-type issues. To these have been added more international concerns, including terrorism, climate change, environmental protection, immigration, and the role of international and supranational organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Commission. Indeed, there is a sense in which, as public trust in political leaders and bold ideological programs has dwindled, public management has come to bear an increased load of attention and expectation. Many political leaders have fostered this increasing prominence by announcing programs of administrative reform and claiming that they will be better than their opponents at the business of managing the state. In some instances they have attempted to displace political crises onto the administrative machinery—not necessarily solving the political crisis but certainly helping to foster citizen anxiety about public services. Indeed, possession of some program of public management reform (preferably with a catchy title like Reinventing Government, the Citizen's Charter, Copernicus, or Een Andere Overheid) seems to have become a sine qua non for political parties aspiring to government. This was not the case fifty years ago.

Thus we are confident that public management as a field of study will not disappear. It may change its name, and its disciplinary recruiting grounds. Having (in some countries, but not others) moved its academic base from law to political science departments to business and professional schools, it may move again. It may be studied by professors who profess all manner of disciplinary allegiances, from computer studies to development economics to social anthropology. In this unpredictable future the NPM may come to be regarded as a form of late twentieth-century cargo cult, and earlier fashions for administrative durability and continuity may come around again. But, whatever future academic formations evolve, we believe that there will remain a need for periodic stock-taking of the field of public management. We have been honored to have the responsibility for shaping this particular early twenty-first century version.


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—— and Peters, G. B. (2004), “The Middle Aging of New Public Management: into the age of paradox?” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 14(3): 267–82.Find this resource:

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(p. 729) Lane, J.-E. (2000), New Public Management, London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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—— (2003), The Essential Public Manager, Maidenhead and Philadelphia: Open University Press/McGraw Hill.Find this resource:

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