The Importance of Boring Old Public Management

public-mgt-blog-picChristopher Pollitt explains.

The mass media are full of political theatre but usually say little about the management and administration of public programmes. Management may get attention when something goes wrong (‘Accident and Emergency departments in crisis!’; ‘Passport office chaos!’) but most of the time administrative issues are seemingly too boring to attract much journalistic attention.

This lack of interest in managerial issues is often echoed among politicians themselves. They are busy feeding the 24/7 news cycle with stories of personalities, innovations, transformations, disasters, plots and crises. Organising things is not their forté – most politicians have little experience of running large, complex organisations, and in career terms they have little to gain from investing much time in learning how to do so.

Yet anyone who has studied public programmes in action and in detail will soon realize that the political launch of a new initiative is no more than the beginning of what is often a long and rocky road. What citizens actually experience, from education, healthcare, policing, social services, the taxation authorities or the collection of refuse, is determined by a whole host of factors, of which the original political shaping of policy is only one. To put it another way, political decisions are only one of the inputs that determine both outputs and outcomes. Organising implementation is often crucial. Do the organisations charged with delivering a new policy or programme have the staff, the skills, the resources, the experience and the culture to undertake what is required of them? Do they even have the necessary authority, or will they find themselves blocked and frustrated by corporations or groups who can use highly-paid lawyers to delay, dilute or evade the implementation of public policy? Or again, can the different organisations involved in dealing with big problems such as climate change or ageing populations or immigration co-operate with each other, or will they pull in different directions or find themselves hamstrung by laws and regulations which inhibit a ‘joined-up’ effort?

The indifference of much of the media and many of our politicians towards boring old administration rubs off on the academic world.

Public management and public administration have seldom been viewed as ‘sexy’ subjects for study, and in most western countries the numbers studying political science are much larger than those studying public management. By contrast business management has been very popular – for three decades or more – as the huge proliferation of MBA courses has shown. Sometimes academic public management has actually been absorbed into business schools, where it is commonly treated as a bit of a backwater, seriously in need of a more dynamic, business-like approach.

After a professional lifetime working as a civil servant, a public management academic, and an advisor/consultant to public sector organisations in several countries, I find all the above both disappointing and frustrating. I would make just three main points.

First, anyone who thinks that public management is dull should get out more. Managing the healing of the sick; the teaching of our children; the quality of our air and water; the assessment of thousands of asylum seekers or the planning of our urban and rural environments – how could these things be boring? The public organisations that deal with fires, floods, crime, transport, the police, education, healthcare, social care or immigration desperately need good managers who can cope with extremely complex and dynamic environments. They need people who can do the budgetting, the technology, the leadership of staff, the politics and the interface with increasingly vocal and well-informed citizens. Increasingly, they need people who can do these things not only in their own countries, but who can co-ordinate, co-operate and negotiate with opposite numbers in international organisations and in other countries. Trade, crime, public health, climate change and technological change – all these things and many more can no longer be handled (if they ever could) within the boundaries of a single country. Finally, public organisations need managers who, as they do all these things, embody and exemplify what is sometimes called ‘the public service ethic’ or ‘public service motivation’. These are not rule-worshipping, tea-drinking bureaucrats (and, historically, as some key works of administrative history have shown, they never were). They are creative, highly skilled professionals working under pressure on tasks of immense consequence for their communities.

Second, anyone who thinks that public management is just a backward version of business management should look through the vast amount of academic theorizing and research that has been conducted on this issue. My reading of that body of work is that, while there are many processes that are common to some business settings and some public service settings, there are also factors which may be significantly different. In at least some key parts of the public sector one hopes to see particular priorities and values which are much less salient in the business environment. These include a sense of public accountability, an awareness of the diversity of public and political opinion, a strong commitment to impartiality and an unwavering habit of integrity. Having said that, there is also a huge variety of organisational types and contexts in both the public and the private sector. Furthermore there is no sharp border line, but rather an extensive zone of hybrid organisations (a zone that has grown in many countries over the past 30 years or so). So sweeping generalizations about how the public sector is this (or the private sector is that) are likely to be confronted with many exceptions. Even the oft-repeated assertion that the private sector is more efficient than the public should be treated with great caution – a fair comparison is actually very difficult to make (and there is no shortage of examples of both private sector inefficiency and public sector efficiency and innovation).

Third, whilst journalists and politicians may often regard the detailed administration of public services as tiresomely dull, there is plenty of evidence that most of the rest of us citizens do not. In many countries citizens have repeatedly demonstrated intense interest in the quality of local schools and hospitals, the effectiveness of the local police, the safety of our roads, the cleanliness and general appearance of public spaces, and so on. This interest has been manifested at elections, but also in petitions, demonstrations and other forms of participation. As indicated earlier, such issues are not determined by broad policies alone (important though those certainly are). They are also affected by the lengthy list of factors mentioned in the third paragraph of this blog – by administrative factors. And these factors can be the subject of independent study and analysis. Lessons can (cautiously) be learned. Public servants can be better trained. And the public can most certainly be better informed.

Along the way, of course, painful choices will have to be faced, and age-old dilemmas grappled with afresh. But no-one said it would be easy.Pollitt EAI Public copy

These are some of the concerns that have shaped my career and, more specifically, have influenced the writing of my new book Advanced Introduction to Public Management and Administration. My highest hope is that at least some of its readers will be infected with the idea that this is not just another academic treatise but an introduction to a fascinating and socially vital field – something close to the heart of our concept of a civilised society.


Christopher Pollitt is Emeritus Professor at the Public Governance Institute, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

He has undertaken extensive consultancy and advice work for a wide variety of organisations, including the European Commission, the OECD, the World Bank, H.M Treasury, and five national governments.

Christopher is author of more than 60 refereed scientific articles and author or editor of many scholarly books. He is one of a small number of Europeans who are Fellows of the US National Academy of Public Administration.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

One Comment on “The Importance of Boring Old Public Management”

  1. fdocenteno Says:

    Economic public policy sets the tone & practice of much administrative/operational activities, most if not all of which is done behind closed doors. Hence, we really need true transparency & accountability for the consequences of such policy-making. It’s quite boring & frustrating when the public & involved CED practitioners are left in the dark, which neither the academic class nor the pundits care to address such situation. Then, for the sake of formality & legitimization, we are asked for “public input” after the key decisions have already been made.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: