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Theories of Managerialism

Beth Simone Noveck—

In recent decades, especially since Reagan and Thatcher, some scholars and practitioners have argued that the way to fix government is to copy the techniques of the private sector, especially the use of more data to deliver better performance. In line with rising interest in private-sector solutions to public problems, and the concomitant growth of public-sector consulting practices of private management and strategy consultancies, theories of managerialism, total quality management, market-based public administration, entrepreneurial government, and new public management speak of treating government more like a business than a bureaucracy. These approaches value efficiency and cost savings above effectiveness, legitimacy, and equity.

The new public management approach seeks to import business practices into government. It lauds cost-benefit analysis, top-down targets, and data-driven measurement. Public-management classics, such as Reinventing Government, criticize a bureaucratic paradigm that prizes process over performance, and rules and regulations over outcomes. Instead, government managers are meant to serve citizens the way businesses serve customers, with greater efficiency designed to increase customer satisfaction. New public management celebrates competition inside and outside government and emphasizes taking personal responsibility and achieving results over following orders. New public management has had a far-reaching influence on public management.

Undoubtedly, these efficiency-focused approaches have helped to improve some outcomes. But widespread resulting failures have led some scholars to declare the new public management mind-set to be “dead in the water.” The spread of a new public management mind-set and practices has certainly not increased trust in government.

Whether because new public management’s efficiency principles remain at the level of rhetoric rather than real practice or because these entrepreneurial and privatizing techniques are top-down and eschew engagement with citizens, these approaches cast members of the public as customers rather than collaborators. Managerialism’s highly quantitative and hierarchical approach, while perhaps useful for improving the efficiency of transactional services, is a poor match for the challenge and uncertainty of complex public problem solving and policy making.

Managerialism works well when objectives are clear and when there is a well-understood problem. But its defenders measure success by cost effectiveness and money saved, avoiding the more fundamental equitable and ethical questions of whether such success criteria make sense. Especially in instances when the problem is not well understood and success demands a more nuanced and deliberative discussion about mission and values, such cost-benefit approaches are inadequate to many contemporary challenges or to a vision of public problem solving as advancing a politics of care and compassion.

Public value theory, another neoliberal classic of public administration, authored in the mid-nineties, also borrows from business to improve government. The idea takes inspiration from the axiom that just as privately-owned companies must create shareholder value to survive, government managers must create value for the public through the application of the principles of management. Government managers have to feel responsible and accountable for creating value for citizens. But unlike new public management, value does not derive solely from delivering a service to a satisfied customer. After all, no one is happy about appearing in court, getting arrested by the police, or participating in a contact-tracing program. Instead, value is measured on the basis not of individual satisfaction but of value to citizens as part of a community.

As in the private sector, public-sector managers have to determine how to create public value within the realpolitik context of what is politically and operationally feasible, which might include limiting the role of government altogether in favor of privatization. The rhetorical mantra of public value has had widespread appeal as a description of the enhanced functioning of government and the behavior of managers. But it, too, advanced the largely conservative and antigovernment ethos popular at the time it was penned.

All these managerialist theories elevate the role of business but not of citizens and are devoid of any focus on equity and inclusion. Even if advocates of these approaches do not elevate those who govern into Platonic guardians, who ultimately decide what is best for the public, and ascribe some of that role to politicians, in every case, these managerial approaches lack an adequate normative interest in a truly substantive and equitable role for the public, especially a diverse public, in decision-making. They may define how managers work today—and public value theory does take some account of the role of public deliberation—but the “public” is a largely fictional construct. Although citizens are meant to articulate what “value” means to them, public value theory does not envision the meaningful and robust forms of equitable public engagement we know are possible and imperative today.

These elitist theories all fail to take citizens’ expertise seriously or to reimagine how managers could collaborate with the public to become more effective and legitimate, not simply more efficient, problem solvers.

From Solving Public Problems by Beth Simone Noveck. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Beth Simone Noveck directs The Governance Lab (The GovLab) and its MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance. She is a professor of technology, culture, and society at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. @bethnoveck and http://solvingpublicproblems.org/.


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