From New Public Management to the New Public Work
Rethinking the role, purpose and performance of government and the public sector.
There is a growing discussion about the development of a new framework to explain the role, purpose and performance of government and the public sector.
That discussion is fuelled by a sense that the “new public management”, (NPM) which has been a dominant framework in many countries, including Australia, since the 1980s, has run its race.
For some, this is linked to a similar sense that the neo-liberal model of political economy, in which NPM is grounded, is similarly being challenged by a very different and rapidly changing world.
This essay sketches out some emerging ideas about the work and value of government and the public sector which informs the work of Public Purpose.
I’m still working through these ideas, which are very much work-in-progress, which I discuss regularly with leaders, thinkers and practitioners in and around government from across Australia and around the world.
This essay is an overview of some thinking about what might replace the “new public management” with some ideas that I’ve brought together under the working title of the “new public work”.
The purpose of government is human flourishing – the chance for everyone to live their best lives. The role of government is to create conditions in which that becomes more predictably and reliably possible for more people by amplifying human ingenuity and dignity. It implies a persistent focus on improving equality, safety and wellbeing.
The function of government is to develop policies, regulations and services that ensure fair and equal access to the benefits and opportunities of sustainable prosperity.
In contemporary conditions, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, that means an equal and sustained focus on “commerce”, “climate” and “care”.
Commerce covers all of the things that governments can do to grow strong, resilient and productive economies that confront the risks and exploit opportunities for sustainable growth, innovation, good jobs and the chance to create and share wealth. It includes a mix of sound regulation for effective markets, a creative role for public investment and action, respecting and encouraging the role and value 0f business and commerce and a predisposition to innovate.
Climate involves a comprehensive and coherent mix of policy, regulation and behaviour change to counter the impact of climate change and accelerate the transition to a green economy.
Care focuses on new models and practices of care and caring that have relationships, dignity and agency at their heart. In the light of the COVID-19 experience, it also means entrenching an ethic of care, of connectedness and a proper regard for others and a respect for the common good.
None of these three domains – commerce, climate and care –can deliver their full contribution to the ultimate purpose of human flourishing without advancing together.
They don’t work in isolation and too often we seem to work very hard to keep them separate and distinct.
What comes after New Public Management?
If the purpose of government is human flourishing through equal and fair access to sustainable prosperity, and its function is to align policies and action on commerce, climate and care, how should the role and performance of government and the public sector be defined and assessed?
For the past 40 years, the answer to that question has largely been framed by the values and practices of the “new public management” or NPM.
NPM is based on the idea that if we apply the tools, techniques, culture and practice of corporate management to the work of government and the public sector, improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and productivity will follow.
When NPM emerged, the charge was that the public sector had become slow, inefficient and too cumbersome. A mindset of innovation and reform was missing or at least was not being given the energy and resources it needed. Something had to be done to shake the system up, and corporate management became the place to look for ideas.
It’s the way of these things that each wave of reform is in some measure a reaction to what came before, and so it was for NPM which confronted the weaknesses of a public management framework that, stretching back to the early period of modernisation in the 19th century, has become characterised by cronyism, elite indifference and a predisposition for process over outcomes.
New public management emerged in Australia, New Zealand and the UK during the 1980s, often attributed to the influence of neo-liberal reforms of especially Margaret Thatcher in England but extended and grown by other leaders across political divides.
NPM came to define a way of running the public service according to assumptions that included:
- Experiments with market or quasi-market tools and frameworks, often using some form of price signal or financial incentives, to lift efficiency and service quality
- A focus on value for money, evaluation for outcomes and impact (as opposed to inputs, outputs and process) and a range of business or business-like methods for assessing and rewarding executive performance
- The growing use of different forms of contracting and outsourcing to the private sector (business, philanthropy and NGOs) to achieve service delivery efficiencies and quality improvement
- The use of “commissioning” models, which included, but were not the same as, contestability and contracting.
- A clearer separation between “purchaser” (central budget-holding agencies) and “provider” (either other line agencies within the public service or other organisations outside government)
After some 40 years, the critique of NPM suggests efficiency, productivity and service quality haven’t been as consistently and incontrovertibly delivered as its proponents promised or claimed.
As well, treating citizens as customers and reducing the relationship between government and citizens to transactional “delivery” has eroded the moral and political concept of citizenship. There are wider rights and obligations at the heart of the democratic compact than NPM seemed willing to accommodate; considerations of equality, fairness and democratic accountability have become diminished or sidelined.
More significantly, recent discussion suggests that NPM’s management model is unsuited to the more complex social challenges governments face that demand relational and persistent modes of collaboration and engagement.
Beyond the contest about how effective the new public management framework has been, the wider criticism is that new public management has lost sight of its purpose and relevance, and therefore its value.
Chasing ambitions of efficiency, reform and productivity became the point. Joined to ideologies of “small” government, it prompted a process, sometimes gradual, sometimes rapid, of austerity and reduced investment in the longer term development of the sector.
Contentious reforms to disinvest in public capabilities across many policy domains have led to not just a smaller but a weaker and, many would argue, less effective public sector. Successive waves of cost cutting and a palpable loss of respect for its work and values have resulted in an institution debilitated by declining confidence and lost capability.
As well, the argument is that the neo-liberal framework from whose instincts the new public management takes its tone, is also in decline. The pandemic experience especially, but in truth a set of broader trends and changes well entrenched before the pandemic hit, has asked some fundamental questions about the role and function of government, its purpose and about its role and performance. NPM doesn’t seem to be source of helpful or convincing answers.
NPM as a theory of the business
New public management has been a powerful frame within which to think about, to design and to evaluate the work of the public sector. It offered a relatively simple and accessible set of ideas that created a sense of coherence and direction about government and the public sector
Part of its appeal was that NPM provided the public sector’s “theory of the business”. In Peter Drucker’s terms, it explained and reinforced assumptions about the alignment of mission, context and capabilities. It offered clear answers about the purpose and role of government, about the conditions in which government worked and about a set of capabilities that were needed to do its work. In its own terms, it all lined up.
Those assumptions are being tested by big shifts in external conditions, fuelled especially by digital transformation but mixed too with changing cultural and societal expectations, changes in the economy and in ideas and practices about organisational leadership and institutional capacity and resilience.
The mix of complex, interdependent risks and opportunities in a very different and rapidly changing world is straining for responses that test the reflexes of NPM beyond their limits.
So now we are in search of a new theory of the business, something with the same level of clarity and accessibility that can take up the mantle of explanatory and motivating power of the new public management, but for contemporary and emerging conditions.
The new public work
There are pieces of an emerging post-NPM puzzle that suggest not only that the earlier paradigm has run its race, but also what elements might combine to shape a new one.
The truth is that all systems wear out. NPM has worn out. And whatever comes next, whatever it is called and however it is construed, will wear out too.
That suggests designing it with obsolescence in mind, accepting the need to think hard about reflexes of self-correction, monitoring and constant adjustment. The longevity and value of any set of arrangements or ‘model’ like NPM are a function of the extent to which they can be persistently and regularly “transformed” to adjust to changing circumstances and conditions.
What is being described here as the new public work has a strong resonance with the ideas and practices that are beginning to emerge as “human learning systems”, which is emerging as “a public management paradigm – a coherent and mutually supportive set of foundational beliefs and practices that enable public service to better support human freedom and flourishing”
The description labelled here as the “new public work” offers one way of discerning a pattern that might be a useful contribution to the debate about what government is for, what it is meant to be doing and how it should be working.
The pieces of a new puzzle already emerging, and which I’ve labelled here the new public work, might be defining a new theory of the business for government and the work of the public sector.
The new public work conceives, designs, funds, delivers and evaluates the systems and services that shape, and often determine, the quality of the lives we lead in common. It is the work that defines the quality and performance of the shared or public context in which our individual and collective lives are grounded.
If it ever was, this is work that is not the exclusive responsibility of government and the public sector. In fact, one of the interesting questions is how new combinations of expertise, experience and resources from across sectoral boundaries come together to define and deliver public purpose and public value. Government isn’t the only place that public work is done.
Features of the new public work
The new public work is a combination of these features:
- The public sector remains central to dealing with the risks and opportunities of a changing world: the intrinsic value of the public realm to the health and welfare of societies, and the value of the public sector as an important institutional actor, needs to be rescued and steadily reinforced.
- Government has to go beyond transactions to solve for complex problems related to modern life: of course government will always involve transactional elements, like rolling out a national vaccination program or paying pensions and benefits. But it embraces more complex responsibilities and obligations too; these more complex relational dimensions of modern life are giving rise to many of the more difficult problems to which, on their own, governments and the public sector cannot produce convincing and sustainable solutions.
- The essence of the new public work is collective and highly distributed in multi-disciplinary teams: public work calls on a mix of skills, expertise and experience that cannot be expected to come from any single sector, least of all only from within government itself.
- Public work also invests in new ways to think about and test possible futures based on progressive and formative thinking; it draws on wide input and open methods of research, engagement and collective imagination.
Notions of the public good that frame policy and public investment need to make more effort to understand the changing needs of all types of communities. The limits of public management is leading to a shift to an integrated community service delivery model which will be a serious challenge to aspects of public sector leadership, structure, culture and practice.
The new public work feeds off, and invests in, rising stocks of trust and legitimacy primarily by improving engagement, participation and collaboration with “amplified” individuals seeking agency and influence.
It also adopts an approach that “open sources” the problem, not just the technology or the possible solutions. It seeks to grow the number of people and communities with problem-solving capabilities that match their local needs and circumstances rather than scaling the impact of centrally-mandated “solutions” and services.
As well, the new public work is “public” by virtue of its reach and its impact on the lives we lead in common as well as by the degree to which it can be held to account to and with the public – to all of us, in other words.
Its instinct is to change systems by solving problems. It relies on easier access to information, data and knowledge, open by design and shared by default. It crosses boundaries of geography and institutional domains to combine different kinds of expertise, especially from those experiencing the consequences of the problems and opportunities that are being worked on. Its work uses a mix of digital and physical networks for that span boundaries of place and time.
It blends hierarchy and networks. Hierarchy is fine in the right setting; networks are often indispensable, but sometimes their inability to decide and act can be part of the problem.
The new public work combines very different actors and players with a mix of creativity and competence which go well beyond the institutional limits of the public sector itself. It draws more heavily on the pragmatic and unassuming wisdom of ordinary life. It relies on, and prompts, growing digital capability, assets, practices and a culture of connectedness, speed and openness.
It is work that relies on, and helps to develop, public purpose assets and capabilities like trust, security and wellbeing, as well as physical and digital public infrastructure (roads, ports, broadband, trusted identity solutions for online services and transactions), without which it would be harder to live our best lives with a proper regard to others and the common good.
This is about new ways to achieve the things that we can only achieve together – health and wellness, reducing inequality (of race, gender, geography and wealth), a lifetime of successful transitions between learning and work, livable and resilient cities and towns, a green and sustainable economy (jobs, housing, energy, agriculture, infrastructure) and much else besides that make us strong, fair and resilient.
It is also about better ways to confront the conditions in which its work has to be done, including fractures in public trust, challenges for productivity and economic resilience, new contests of power and influence fuelled by clashing values and ideology and new tests to turn the results we want into policy and practice that works and that we can afford.
The new public work builds and sustains coalitions of support, including experiments in different forms of “people power”, for long term, often difficult and contested reforms.
Finally, the new public work resonates with and draws on the habits and tools of social innovation with its reflexive reach for a combination of human-centred thinking, design and delivery. Like social innovation, it draws on a combination of science, research, collective intelligence and the wisdom and insight of ordinary life.
There’s a lot of discussion already happening and more doubtless to come in response to varying degrees of frustration about the shortcomings of the new public management’s theory and practice.
The new public work, as it’s been sketched here, might be one piece of the new puzzle if it isn’t the new puzzle itself.
Perhaps these ideas will coalesce into a recognizable pattern that can gradually take over from the new public management as a satisfying and helpful explanation of the mission, context and capabilities for governing and government. In other words, the beginnings of a new theory of the business.
In the end, though, like any theory of the business, the test is whether it is a useful way to explain purpose and strategy to those doing the work. If it’s useful, the new public work, or something like it, will give in current conditions that same sense of coherence and clarity about role, purpose and impact of government and the public sector that new public management offered.
It will offer some guidance about how human flourishing through fair and equitable access to sustainable prosperity turns into steadily better practice and noticeably better results.
One way of exploring these ideas further is to shift from this brief explanatory sketch to some current and emerging examples.
If the new public work is a useful way to think about what comes after the new public management, what does it look like? Are there examples already emerging and what do they look like in practice? What are the distinctive habits and practices of the new public work we can see and experience?
That will be the subject of the second essay in this series over the coming weeks…
[To be continued…]
 Some of this material is drawn from a book I co-authored with Simon Cooper and published in 2019 – Are We There Yet? The Digital Transformation of Government and the Public Sector in Australia Longueville Media 2019