Saturday, March 27, 2010
the search for post-autistic public administration
another Tudor Banus graphic
All my adult life, I've had a passion for what we might call "the machinery of government" - namely the way institutions of government operated and related to citizens and their needs. When I started on the reform path - almost 40 years ago - trying to reform the bureaucracy was considered a foolhardy enterprise. Now every self-respecting government leader is into it.
But what is there to show for the incredible effort and spending on reform efforts in Europe (let alone globally) over the past 25 years? The academic judgement is that very little has been achieved (see C Pollitt 2000). Consultants, officials and politicians all have vested interests in suggesting otherwise - although few of these 3 groups actually put anything coherent into print under their own name. We are generally left with the strategy documents they have sponsored - and which have emerged from the tortuous process of collective approval.
My emergence into working life in the late 1960s coincided with the optimism of a new period of social engineering - when people began to believe that it was both necessary and possible to change state bureaucracy for the better. Some thought this could be done by internal reform - with better management systems. Others felt that it required strong external challenge - whether from the community or from the market.
One of the best writers in the business, Guy Peters, argues - in his book Ways of Governing (2000)- that the reforms can be reduced to four schools of thinking. They are - "market models" (A); "the Participatory State" (B); "Flexible Government" (C); and "Deregulated Government" (D). You can see a couple of useful tables which summarise the key components of these 4 schools in my annotated bibliography in "key papers" in my other blog.
But so much of the literature of public management (or public administration, to use the older term) complacently argued that a combination of voting in a pluralist system, good civil service and management systems, media coverage and ethics would keep officials and politicians in check.
Hardly surprising that, in reaction, public choice theory went to the opposite extreme and assumed that all actors pursued their own interests - and that privatisation and "command and control" was the way forward. Where the new approach has been implemented, the results have been catastrophic - with morale at rock bottom; and soaring "transaction" costs in the new contract and audit culture of the pst 2 decades.
Where, then, does that leave public management? Is there in fact a serious discipline - or body of work which can be read with benefit by practitioners? Or is it just a collection of stories and fashions?
The discipline of Economics is having to reinvent itself - with "behavioural economics" leading the way. No longer do the younger economists build models based on individualistic rationality - they at last recognise that human beings are social and complex. In my October 24 blog, I mentioned the establishment a decade or so ago of something called "Post-autistic Economics" - a protest in the first instance by younger economists about the false assumptions on which economics was based.
And psychologists such as Martin Seligman have (claimed to) moved that discipline away from its fixation on illness to pose question about the preconditions for happiness ("Positive Psychology").
So what is public management doing to deal with the disillusionment? The "good governance" fashion has been about the only effort to suggest a way forward. And, quite rightly, that has come in for a great deal of criticism - the most practical of which is M Grindle: Good Enough Governance . Perhaps we need a post-autistic public administration movement?
One problem is that public management is hardly a discipline per se. It is rather parasitic on other social sciences. But hundreds of university departments, courses and books use that phrase and therefore purport to be of use to those in government wanting to improve the structures, skills and tools they use. And this is one subject which cannot say it exists "for knowledge's sake" only! This is a subject (like medicine) which has to demonstrate its relevance for those in charge of state and municipal departments who are seeking the public interest.
Citizens and public staff alike are disillusioned (at least in anglo-saxon countries) with the management culture of public services. Public management needs to be reinvented. And, unlike, the new psychology's focus on the positive, that rethink perhaps need to focus more on the failures, disasters, corruption, repression and boredom which is the sad reality of government in so many countries. Scottish Review - one of the "links" on this site - gives excellent coverage to some of the more routine flaws of a system which is supposed to be advanced!
PA has long had an identity crisis - there are many academic articles about this - some of which I will try to upload to my website. And much of this is intertwined with the rise and fall of new public management which is best caught in Wolfgang Dreschler's article I have just read on "the rise and demise of new public management". Significantly, it appeared in the post-autistic economics journal all of 5 years ago!
Its argument (largely from an economic rather than PA point of view) is that NPM was a major aberration and that we can and should now return to a neo-Weberian system. In a future blog I will give some quotes from this stimulating review.