Public management: A traditional public service

Public Management Has a traditional public service ethos been undermined by public management reforms, introducing more private sector values?

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The development of the traditional model of administration owes much to the administrative tradition of Germany and the articulation of the principles of bureaucracy by Max Weber. The development of modern bureaucracies made possible the industrial revolution and the breakthrough of modern economies.

The traditional model rests on the nature of bureaucracy, expressed by Weber. He emphasised control from top to bottom in the form of a ‘monocratic hierarchy’.

Pfiffner (2004) states that Weber’s view of the monocratic hierarchy was a,“system of control in which policy is set at the top and carried out through a series of offices, with each manager and worker reporting to one superior and held to account by that person. The bureaucratic system is based on a set of rules and regulations flowing from public law: the system of control is rational and legal. The role of the bureaucrat is strictly subordinate to the political superior”.

The traditional model of public administration, which pre-dominated for most of the twentieth century, has changed since the mid 1980s, to a flexible, market based form of public management. This is not simply a matter of reform or a minor change in management style, but a change in the role of government in society, and this relationship between government and citizenry.

Hughes (2003:17) characterises the traditional model as,“an administration under the formal control of the political leadership, based on a strictly hierarchical model of bureaucracy, staffed by permanent, neutral and anonymous officials, motivated only by the public interest, serving any governing party equally and not contributing to policy but merely administering those policies decided by politicians”.

Peters (2001) provides the major characteristics of the traditional model:

An apolitical civil service
Hierarchy and rules
Permanence and stability
An institutional civil service
International regulation

The practices and theories of the traditional model are seen to be no longer relevant to the needs of a rapidly changing society. The traditional model has been the most successful theory of management as well as being the longest standing in the public sector, however due to the issue raised above as well as critics seeing the classical model as inefficient, outmoded and old, it is now being replaced.

Several of the fundamental principles of traditional public administration have been challenged by the new paradigm. The principles being:

“One best way” of working – procedures are set out in manuals for administration to follow
Bureaucratic delivery
Belief among administrators in the politics/administration dichotomy
Service to the public, provided selflessly
“Special kind of activity” – required professional bureaucracy/neutral and anonymous/employed for life
Administrative tasks involved

The above traditional principles have however been challenged. Bureaucracy, however powerful it may be, does not necessarily work in all circumstances. Sometimes, it may result in negative consequences. According to Hughes (2003:32) it became apparent in the 1970s and 80s that this type of government management was inadequate. He states that, “bureaucracy may be ideal for control but not necessarily for management. It allows for certainty but is usually slow in moving. Work may be standardised, but at the cost of innovation”.

Bureaucracy has also been said to “encourage administrators to be risk-averse rather than risk taking, and to waste scarce resources instead of using them efficiently”. (Hughes 2003:34)

According to Kamenka (1989:88), pre modern bureaucracies were, “personal, traditional, diffuse, ascriptive and particularistic” whereas modern bureaucracies became, “impersonal, rational, specific, achievement orientated and universalistic”.

It was assumed by the traditional model of public administration that there was “one best way” of administering. The “one best way” principle has also been challenged as trying to find this, can lead to rigidity in operation. Government are now therefore adopting flexible management systems pioneered by the private sector.

A bureaucratic delivery is not the only way to provide public goods and services. Hughes (2003:2) states that, “governments can also operate indirectly through subsidies, regulation or contracts”.

In reality, political and administrative matters have been intertwined, which has resulted in implications on management structures. Better mechanisms of accountability are demanded for by the public, where once the bureaucracy operated separately from the society.

Those public servants who are genuinely motivated by public interest have been criticised in that they are, “political players in their own right”. It has also been assumed by Hughes (2003:2) that, “they are working for their own advancement and that of their agency, instead of being pure and selfless”.

Unusual employment conditions are now much weaker in the public services, due to changes that have occurred in the private sector where “jobs for life are rare”.

In the public sector, the tasks involved are now considered more managerial. They involve taking responsibility for actions and results, not just simply following instructions.

The above seven traditional principles provides the traditional model of public administration which in turn ensures an effective and well run public service. There have been problems with this traditional model and therefore a paradigm shift has occurred.

In most advanced countries, a new model of public sector management emerged by the beginning of the 1980s. The new model also emerged in many developing countries.

To begin with, the new model has several names:

Managerialism according to Pollitt (1993)
New Public Management – Hood (1991)
Market Based Public Administration – Ian and Rosenbloom (1992)
Post Bureaucratic Government – Osbourne and Gaebler (1992)

New Public Management (NPM) established by Hood, is the most widely used in literature.

The Public Management Committee (PUMA) at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) took a leading role in the public management reform process.

The OECD in 1998 argued that, “improving efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector itself, involves a major cultural shift as the old management paradigm, which was largely process and rules driven, is replaced by a new paradigm which attempts to combine modern management practices with the logic of economics, while still retaining the core public service values”. (OECD, 1998:5)

The above provides a summary of the managerial reform process.

Behn (2001:30) tells us that the new public management paradigm is, “a direct response to the inadequacies of traditional public administration, particularly to the inadequacies of public bureaucracies”.

What is public management reform?

Public management reform is defined by Pollitt and Bouckaert (2004:6) as, “Potentially a means to multiple ends….these include making savings in public expenditure, improving the quality of public services, making the operations of government more efficient and increasing the chances that the policies chosen and implemented will be effective”.

Pollitt and Bouckaert (2004:8) go on to tell us that, “public management reform consists of deliberate changes to the structures and processes of public sector organisations with the objective of getting them to run better”.

Structural changes can include the splitting or merging of organisations in the public sector. An example of process change given by Pollitt and Bouckaert (2004:8) can be the, “introduction of new budgeting procedures that encourage public servants to be more cost-conscious and/or to monitor more closely the results their expenditure generates.

Hood (1995:1) tells us that, “The rise of the new public management is seen as an alternative to the tradition of public accountability embodied in progressive public administration ideas….. From different assumptions, the accountability paradigm of progressive public administration put heavy stress on two basic management doctrines. To keep the public sector sharply distinct from the private sector was one, in terms of ethos, continuity, people, business methods….”

How far the public sector should be distinct from the private sector has been seen as an issue, in terms of its organisation and methods of accountability. How far the public sector should be separated from the private sector in relation to handling business and staff is also an issue.

The pandemic of public management reforms have swept across much of the OECD world. A concern raised however, is that for developed countries, the public management reforms may by suitable, but are they appropriate in countries still being developed? Certain styles of management started in the Western world will not necessarily work in different settings, as there are restrictions in lesser developed countries.

What are the reasons for change?

One reason for change is due to economic and fiscal pressures on Governments, notably seen in developing countries of Africa and Asia in the 70s/80s. These pressures have been caused by huge deficits within the public sector as well as external trade imbalances and growing indebt ness, seen mainly in the developing countries.

This has been seen as a major driver for the reconstruction of the public sector, as well as rethinking and reshaping the role of government. Methods to control these fiscal pressures and deficits and to restructure the public sector have included privatisation, downsizing and contracting out gained prominence.

Attack on the public sector

Attacks on the public sector occurred in the early 1980s on its size and capability. The size was argued over, in that the public sector was too large and therefore consumed many resources. This was then followed by cuts to Government spending.

The old public administration was seen to be slow and driven by rules rather than performance. It was also seen to be unresponsive to its users. The inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the delivery of public service has led to the search for alternatives.

In response to criticisms, many formerly governmental activities were returned to the private sector. While privatisation was contentious in the UK during the 1980s, it has since become widely accepted. In some countries, any service which could be provided by the private sector was likely to be turned over to private providers.

Changes in economic theory
Impact of change in the private sector – globalisation as an economic force

Another pressure has been the spread of global markets. Competition has been forcing the public sector to reshape itself in most countries in order to keep up with emerging global economies and modern I.T. These factors have led to changing conventional ideas about the public sector. A concern with national competitiveness leads fairly naturally to a need for reform to the public sector.

A further imperative for public sector change has been the rapid change in the private sector and the realisation that the management and efficiency of the public sector affects the private economy and national competitiveness.

Changes in technology

The role of the public sector in OECD nations has undergone a reassessment since the mid 1970s. Questions about government have been raised, such as should some of the provision of goods and services be handed over to the private sector? As well as whether the government should regulate and subsides to the extent it currently does?

The public sector however, affects the whole society as well as the economy. Private businesses for example would not work without a legal framework that enforces contracts. Decisions made in the private sector are affected by taxes, standards, regulations and employment conditions. Finally, the public sector is also a purchaser of services and goods from the private sector.

One of the crucial roles the public sector has to play is to determine ‘real living standards’ which for most people, depends on government services such as:

Quality of schools
Community care
The environment
Public transport
Law and order
Town planning
Welfare services

There was an extensive debate in the 1980s about privatising public enterprises, starting in the UK.


Since the late 1980s, due to the culmination of a reform process that has occurred in many countries, it has been argued that public management has replaced the traditional model of administration.

Farnham (1999:252) spoke of the relation to the Blair Government in the UK, saying that, “New Labour thus appears to be building on the New Right legacy and has no wish to return to former systems of traditional public administration or high public spending”.

Reform therefore continued in most countries after it had started, even when government were elected from either Left or Right.

There have therefore been two separate changes according to Hughes (2003:15). A trend towards the ‘marketization’ of the public sector has been the first, in order to shift public activities to the private sector. The second is a trend away from bureaucracy as an organising principle within the public sector.

The two changes are in some ways linked, in that “the main reason for the marketization is the presumed failure of bureaucracy and the provision by markets is the main avenue pursued as an alternative to bureaucracy”. (Hughes 2003:15)

The new paradigm governing the management of the public sector has emerged, one that moves the public sector away from administration towards management. The earlier, rigidly bureaucratic model of administration is now discredited both theoretically and practically.

The aim of improvement is the reason for reform, however it could be argued that the capability of management has deteriorated as a result of change and reform. Ethics, accountability, the theoretical basis of the new model and larger questions concerning the role and organisation of the public services have all raised questions that need to be addressed.

Financial, structure and planning techniques have been the main focus of improvement, however the core of the reforms has been to move the public services from servicing a welfare state to a public service with a primary objective being the fostering of a globally competitive economy. (Nolan, 2003:185)

The corporatisation of the public sector has been seen as a replacement of democratic government values with those of managerialism and market discipline, as well as a replacement of its principles.

It has been made clear throughout the literature that the traditional model of administration is outdated and has now been replaced by a new model of public management.

Hughes (2003:256) tell us of the critics views on the public management reforms, in that they are seen as an attack on democracy, an ideological movement, and finally that all they have achieved is a derogation of morale within the public services where change has already been tried.

Due to the traditional model of administration having many weaknesses, many have argued that the model no longer deserved to be the model describing and prescribing the relationship between governments, the public services and the public.

We have highlighted many changes as a result of the public sector reform process, such as cut backs in expenditure, a drive for efficiency and various forms of privatisation.

Instead of there being reforms to the public sector, new public management represents a transformation of the public sector and its relationship with government and society.

The main reason for the fall of the traditional model of administration is basically because it no longer worked and this was widely perceived. Some of the basic beliefs of the model were challenged by the government who realised failure first. Hughes (2003:51) tells us that government,

“began to hire people trained in management rather than administrators as well as borrowing management techniques from the private sector”

The dividing line between the activities of the two sectors began to be pushed aside, and once change began, the characteristics of the traditional model of administration started to disappear completely.

Behn, R.D (2001) Rethinking Democratic Accountability, Brooking Institution Press. Washington DC
Farnham, D (1999) ‘Human Resources Management and Employment Relations, in Horton, S and Farnham, D (eds) Public Management in Britain, Macmillian, London
Hicks, U.K (1958) Public Finance, James Nesbit. Walwyn
Hood, C (1991) A public management for all seasons? Public Administration
Hood, C (1995) The New Public Management in the 1980s: Variations on a theme, Elsevier Science Ltd. Great Britain
Hughes, O.E (2003) Public Management and Administration: An introduction, Palgrave Macmillan. Hampshire
Kamenka, E (1989) Bureaucracy, Basil Blackwell. Oxford
Larbi, G.A (2003) United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Discussion Paper 112
Nolan, B.C (2001) Public Sector Reform, Palgrave. Hampshire
OECD (1998) Public Management Reform and Economic and Social Development, PUMA. Paris: OECD
Peters, B.G (2001) The future of governing, “2nd ed, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas
Pollitt, C and Bouckaert, G (2004) Public Management Reform: a comparative analysis, Oxford University Press. Oxford : Pfeiffer, J.P (2004) Traditional Public Administration versus the New Public Management: Accountability versus Efficiency. George Mason University