Features: January 16th, 2009

By Michael Duggett

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

The New Public Management approach to managing public services emerged in the 1990’s and was seen as the way to drive out frustrating bureaucracy, cut waste and sharpen management. Its proponents argued that the cultural change it produced would enhance public sector performance and deliver value for money. Its influence was world wide. Time has revealed that the high expectations have not been met. The search is now on for a slimmer, thinned-down, version of New Public Management to progress reform in the 21st century.

Normally I leave to the Economist, or to the academic journals or to the airport books that confident American scholars write, the discussion of global trends in government and public administration. It is the sort of thing that an ordinary civil servant is wise to steer clear of since ‘grand theory’, the province of academics, risks being quickly out of fashion. However, for six years, from the spring of 2001 until the end of 2006, it was my job to think about whether it was possible to say anything meaningful at all about trends in governance across all the international member states of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS) that I had been seconded from the British civil service to run in Brussels. With up to 100 member-countries, this bilingual institute is now quite ancient, 75 years old in 2005, but it is still alive and kicking. Its mission, beneath the rather continental-style title, is to make government better everywhere.

The foreign country

The past is a foreign country, as has been said, but despite H. G. Wells and Stephen Spielberg it cannot actually be visited, whereas your actual foreign countries can. And from those countries one can learn a lot about how trends are happening. In the almost 50 States I visited while at the IIAS, the issue that seemed most often to exercise the professors, ministers, officials and consultants revolved around the New Public Management (N PM). Not everywhere, and in different guises, but whereas one would expect members of the international community of scholars, researchers and consultants to be familiar with it, these were and are the kind of people that attend international and IIAS conferences after all, I also found many practitioners, civil servants and others who were aware, not just in Brussels and London but in Kyiv and Monterrey. Aware that they were part of a kind of global debate where a theory, as Karl Popper recommends for any theory, was in fact being tested.


The NPM emerged most famously in Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (Oxford, 1998). The key themes were:
• Enhancing public sector performance and delivering value for money.
• Modernizing accountability and control.
• bringing in transparency and e-government techniques.
• Restructuring governmental organization with varyingly autonomous agencies.
• Installing market-type mechanisms, privatization or out-sourcing.
• Modernizing public sector employment along private sector lines.
And there is an excellent summary of this theory and an important discussion of it by the OECD in the September 2006 edition of the International Review of Administrative Sciences.


If the father of the concept now lives in All Souls College, Oxford, it is probably true to say that it also had a very obvious mother whose statue now lives in the Westminster Parliament’s Members’ Lobby; and that the penchant for snappy slogans had its apotheosis in her ‘government should only do what only government can do’. When the public service reformers of the 1990s in the Next Steps Team and the many other units and task-forces both before and after 1997, whose work Hood transmuted into the gold of theory, carried out their reforming programme, with urgency and a sense of missionary zeal that had to be seen to be believed, that was the slogan at the core of their activities. as Donald F. Kettl puts it in the September 2006 of the International Review of Administrative Sciences: ‘The NPM drove high-energy focused reforms in a small number of Westminster nations…it stimulated sweeping action that stretched its neat formulas to breaking point’.

Bullet trains

After the Berlin Wall fell there were no global competitors to the doctrine and some powerful protagonists. The particular policy prescriptions, of which privatization of public sector assets was only the most eminent and obvious, swept all before them. In a forthcoming festschrift dedicated to the Canadian scholar Ken Kernaghan (Professionalism and Public Service: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Kernaghan, university of Toronto Press, august 2008), I have examined the way that ‘privatization’ rushed across the world’s plains of public management like, as the Australian Roger Wettenhall has put it, a bullet train. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, private enterprises, nationalized in the first period of independence by assertive states, were sold off en masse during the 1980s and 1990s. In Jamaica, the divestment committee sold off 90 per cent of the former state enterprises during the 1980s. Even Belgium, for example, partially French-speaking Belgium, introduced the ‘copernicus’ reforms which proposed to appoint ‘top managers’ to bring in a new culture and a new style to the ‘service publique’. If such a country joined the process, then who could stand back?

The great experiment

The state was the platform and the battlefield for the NPM reforms. All aspects of the state, the central civil service, the service delivery bodies, the local authorities, the federal provinces, the security and health and all conceivable arms. Again and again I had a sense, when visiting different states, that they had done their best through all the 1990s to do what the doctrine required. They all knew the basic ideas. They had sold off state assets, downsized, attempted performance-related pay, created agencies, put staff on contracts, introduced charters, appointed e-government envoys or units, set up targets. Many a permanent secretary or director general would point me proudly towards a new civil service law. A Slovenian state secretary would speak of ‘modernizing the public service’, in Harvard English, in his ex-soviet society in the same terms as his counterpart in Whitehall. The OECD in Paris, and the ‘Washington consensus’ organizations, and most consultancy companies recommended many such reforms in states where probably they ought to have known better.


However, after 2001 this new set of institutions itself became a status quo, a past to be subjected to change. There was, almost universally, a gradual reaction against the bullet train, and its bullet points. This came not only from the parts of the world where any theory originating in Anglo-Saxon countries is suspect—and where the nouvelle gestion publique has been only imperfectly translated, or in states where political leaderships were nervous about the loss of control it might imply, but more generally. NPM has to some degree shared the fate of many theories. It has been found out ( ‘hollowed out’?) by the very process of implementing it. To put it in Popperian terms, the hypothesis that the NPM would make government better has been subjected to falsification.

The reaction

In general, the reaction was based upon the fact that the reforms suggested by the theory did not turn out to fit local facts, local culture or local traditions. Jocelyne Bourgon, herself a great reforming head of the Canadian civil service, has advised would-be French reformers not to import alien ideas but to trust themselves. In general, the francophone world has had little truck with the NPM unless carefully rebadged, the copernicus programme fell foul of political change in belgium but its use of English words did not help in some quarters. As Kettl has put it, NPM’s ‘crisp prescriptions…certainly did not fit all nations’. at the United Nations, increasingly a player in formulating a global perspective on public administration matters, there has been a sense of many developing countries defining NPM as something almost neo-colonial, Washington-driven, which has been tried and found wanting.


In one new EU member, the new structures brought into legislation after the fall of the previous system were not seen to have delivered what was hoped and have been rolled back, the new civil service department reabsorbed, the new people appointed on contract removed and replaced by newer people on contract in tune with new governments. Because often the NPM thought only in one dimension, that of management efficiency, it forgot or chose not to address the political dimension.


Has the NPM failed, then? In the September 2006 edition of International Review of Administrative Sciences, Rune Premfors argued that it is not so much that the implementation has failed, which has been the argument of advocates of NPM especially in the academic or consultancy world, but that the model itself is fundamentally at fault. And that the idea that all the world must inevitably go down one best path is as much an illusion in public management as it has proved in other areas. He prefers ‘structured pluralism’ and a greater sensitivity to context.


Undeniably the NPM model set out certain hypotheses that have been disproved in practice. Some semi-autonomous agencies have manifestly failed to deliver a better service than was anticipated. Performance-related pay has continued to be contested and at a global level, as Bourgon has asserted, is probably now receding in regard to some public services. Privatized state services have not everywhere delivered better results that those that have remained in public hands, travel from London to Paris by train. Perhaps e-government has sometimes been oversold. But it is surely a remarkable testament to the NPM that over all the OECD countries the state took less (40.1%) of the wealth in 2005 than it did in 1986 (40.5%).

Process of governance

Some of the changes brought about partly in a consequence of the NPM have improved the process of governance. The arrogance and inhumanity of 19th-century bureaucracies, let alone the deformed bureaucracies of the 20th-century ‘nomenklatura’ era, have disappeared. When Gordon Brown, in his speech to the National School of Government’s ‘Reforming public services’ conference in June 2006, set out delivering ‘value for money’ as a key and universal theme for governments across the globe he was surely describing a fact, and stating a truth that applies everywhere as populations become more literate, numerate and educated. That, ‘vfm, has been at the heart of the NPM for practitioners, and the audit offices, ever since it began, and the most living thing left in the doctrine. If reaffirming an old adage, as old as Gladstone, is an odd epitaph for something so in love with the novel, so be it.


As Kettl argued in the September 2006 edition of the International Review of Administrative Sciences: ‘the gap between the movement’s bold rhetoric and its much more sobering results shows no signs of closing’. So it might be prudent not to abandon the task but to lower the rhetoric. Contextualization of the NPM is the way forward.

The new slimmer, thinned-down, reform discourse must adopt some of the conviction, the passion, of the NPM without its certainties; the sense of pace without its lack of perspective; and keep its systemic, holistic, analytical power while choosing a less apocalyptic tone.

Though practitioners have on the whole been the victims of NPM theory, accused of failing to meet targets by, on occasion, the target-free, in future they should seek a voice and a view on changes to the services they know best.
If that can be done it may be a good epitaph to the NPM to say that while people may not actually talk any more of improving management in government, management in government has improved, all the same.

Final look forward

The new agendas are getting harder to see. Both the certainties of the NPM period and those of the period of reaction against it seem legitimately questionable. Jocelyne Bourgon, a genuine international guru in a field that has seen too many, set to deliver the first National School of Government lecture at the forthcoming Public Administration Committee conference in York, where PMPA is playing a key role, is speaking of a new public administration; and although we have yet to see the concrete shape of such a vision this is timely. For the moment, more people are listening, and watching, than talking.

Michael Duggett is a career civil servant with the National School of Government. From 2001 to 2006 he served in Brussels as director general of the IIAS.