We can create an all-star team of public governance paradigms


Jacob Torfing looks at creating an all-star team of public governance paradigms. 

Thought experiment: if we take the best elements from seven different public governance paradigms and put them together to form an all-star team, we might be able to create a better public sector. Let’s give it a shot. 


Focus on public governance paradigms

In recent decades, there has been an intense debate about effective public governance. A large part of the debate has sought to compare competing public governance paradigms, defined as more or less cohesive ideas and suggestions about how the public sector should be organized, governed and led.

New public governance paradigms are developed in response to problems and insufficiencies in earlier paradigms that are no longer delivering the benefits and gains they used to deliver. Often, new paradigms become the new fad and fashion. They blossom, create a series of welcomed changes and are gradually consolidated, before finally their unintended consequences and failure to solve emerging challenges are revealed. Public governance paradigms may wax and wane, but they do not die. Instead, they add a new layer of public governance on top of the previous layers. Hence, public governance paradigms are not only competing but also co-existing.


From synthesis to all-star team

Researchers and practitioners have spent lots of time discussing which public governance paradigms most efficiently and effectively solve the many pressing problems and tasks confronting the public sector. The public and private actors in and around the public sector have different preferences. Some want to maintain old and well-tested forms of public governance, while others are eager to try new things and explore the benefits of the latest fad. 

More recently, there has been an attempt to create a new synthesis between different public governance paradigms that have each defined different key functions such as compliance, performance, emergence and resilience that the public sector should undertake at one and the same time (Bourgon, 2011). We do not believe in a new big harmonious synthesis, where everything fits together. After all, the public governance paradigms are pretty different on most aspects. However, it might be possible to exploit the complementarities between the different paradigms to improve the functioning and outcomes of the public sector.

My new book Public Governance Paradigms: Competing and Co-existing, co-authored with my Danish colleagues Lotte Bøgh Andersen, Carsten Greve and Kurt Klaudi Klausen, presents and compares seven public governance paradigms. Here I engage in a thought experiment and ask how the best elements from all of these public governance paradigms can be put together to form an all-star team. 


  1. New Public Management seeks to strengthen strategic management

While a number of Northern European countries have been skeptical about that part of New Public Management that aims to ‘marketize’ the public sector through privatization, contracting out and commercialization of the remaining part of the public sector, they have been willing to adopt the recommendation of a greater emphasis on strategic management in and of the public sector. Hence, it is widely recognized there is a lack of visionary and strategic development in classical forms of bureaucracy in which leadership is reduced to ensuring compliance with rules and laws. Without strategic leadership the public sector is left to a purposeless drift and this we cannot afford in times where globalization, new technologies and unmet needs and demands is knocking at the door. We need bold political and managerial leadership in order to improve performance and enhance innovation in the public sector,


  1. The return of bureaucracy in the Neo-Weberian state

According to the neo-Weberian state paradigm, strategic management of public organizations should safeguard and nourish classical bureaucratic values such as democratic legitimacy, legality, equity, neutrality, pertinence and fairness, which the increased use of market competition in New Public Management has been accused of undermining. The value-based strategic management should be combined with greater responsiveness vis-à-vis users, citizens and other external actors based on new exit and voice options. This will help to create a ‘smiley-state’ that enhances the satisfaction of service users and other beneficiaries.


  1. Public Value Management emphasizes the distinctiveness of the public sector

The emphasis on strategic management and bureaucratic core values provides the backcloth for public managers active and engaged contribution to the creation of public value, defined as what creates value for the public and what the public values. Mark Moore’s Public Value Management paradigm insists that the public sector is not a parasite squandering values created by the private sector. It is a value creator in its own right as it creates its own distinctive public value. In this perspective, public managers cannot be reduced to passive rule followers, but are recast as creative and entrepreneurial explorers, who driven by public service motivation aim to create increased value for individual citizens and society at large. They develop new public value propositions, involve elected politicians and relevant stakeholders in the authorization of their propositions, and trim their organization to deliver new and better outcomes.


  1. New Public Governance expands the range of actors engaged in public value co-creation

From a New Public Governance perspective it is not only public managers and employees who can contribute to public value creation. New research argues that the focus on public value creation is a game changer because it reveals that scores of users, citizens, volunteers, civil society actors, private firms, academic experts and consultants, each in their different ways, can contribute to the development of public value outcomes. They all possess valuable experiences, knowledge, ideas and resources that can be mobilized and contribute to the development of new and better public solutions.

Networks and partnerships between public, private and third sector actors facilitate knowledge-sharing, enhance coordination in an increasingly fragmented world and co-create solutions that reflect real needs, disrupt common wisdom and habitual practices, and enjoy broad-based support. New solutions are often developed based on an empathetic exploration of the experiences of service users and the development and testing of prototypes that are upscaled to work in practice and deliver desirable results.


  1. Professional rule combined with co-production

Bureaucracy ensures that public employees are hired based on their formal qualifications, competences and merits. In countries where bureaucracy is combined with professional rule the public sector professionals are given a wide-ranging autonomy to regulate their daily work life in return for deploying their professional knowledge and competences to create high-quality welfare services. However, there is clear and eminent danger that professional groups become self-absorbed and egocentric, believe that only they know what good service quality is, and develop a paternalistic attitude to the clients and users they serve. Therefore, it is important to force them to open up, engage in collaboration with other professional groups and involves users and citizens actively in coproduction of public services.


  1. Digital Era Governance facilitates holistic and needs-based service solutions

The growth and spread of the internet and social media enhance the possibilities for involving users, citizens, volunteers and other relevant and affected actors in co-production of services and co-creation on innovative public value outcomes. At the same time, the Digital Era Governance paradigm describes how public employees can draw on real-time data and use digital communication platforms to create more holistic and needs-based service solutions. Digital technologies can also be used to create smarter cities that are sustainable and low carbon.


  1. From New Public Management to co-created governance 

It is important not only to evaluate public service on whether bureaucratic rules have been followed meticulously. New Public Management makes an important point when insisting that, ultimately, it is the result and impact of public solutions that matters. Performance management based on measurement, evaluation and sanctioning of results and impacts help public managers and employees to see whether the public tasks have been solved efficiently and effectively or there is a need for adjustments. However, documentation of results and performance measurements tend to be self-accelerating and may end up crowding out public service motivation, spur sub-optimizing behavior and lead to goal displacement since only what is measured gets done. To avoid these unintended negative effects, it is important that those who are subjected to measurement and performance management are involved in the design. Co-creation of governance systems will help to ensure that documentation and measurement are perceived as meaningful, possible to influence and supportive of professional norms and values.


Let’s be creative and exploit new opportunities

An all-star team combining elements from all seven public governance paradigms is likely to top the league table. Of course, this is just pure speculation since we have no empirical evidence in support for our conjectures, at least not in the hybrid form of public governance advocated above. Nevertheless, creative thinking that aims to mix and match and exploit the possibilities of bricolage may help us to improve the public sector in the future. So let’s dig into public governance paradigms and see what we find and what we may combine in a pragmatic search for efficient and effective public governance.



Bourgon, J. (2011). A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.


Torfing Public

Public Governance Paradigms
Competing and Co-Existing

Jacob Torfing, Roskilde University, Denmark and Nord University, Norway

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