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Searching for the ‘new new’ public management

henrykippinThis blog is dedicated to the long forgotten, much maligned and politically irrelevant art of public management. A bit strong? Maybe. But one could be forgiven for thinking along those lines given what is an increasingly obvious disconnection between policy thinking and public management practice within government and opposition.

As Michael Gove’s former advisor Dominic Cummings might gleefully say, government is guilty as charged.

Case in point one: the ongoing ructions at the Department of Work and Pensions over mismanagement (or unrealistic expectations?) of the universal credit programme.

Case two: increasing tensions over implementation we hear bubbling up within the ministry of justice’s transforming rehabilitation programme.

Case three: emerging and seemingly fundamental schisms within the free schools programme (see Joe Hallgarten’s good blog for more on this).

Opposition is guilty too, with few I have spoken to seeing much connection between Jon Cruddas’s ambitious and bold policy agenda and any kind of equally ambitious plan for public administration. Maybe that is in the pipeline. More likely – given Francis Maude’s public travails with civil service modernisation and the Institute for Government’s insights on preparation (or lack of) for transition – is that creative policy thinking and applied management practice will remain uneasy bedfellows.

This is admittedly complex territory. Forward thinking public leaders attempt to shift what is, to paraphrase the Canadian thinker and practitioner Jocelyn Bourgon, a system ‘not quite of the past, but not yet of the future’. At a recent event in Whitehall, the editor of the Economist John Mickelthwaite spoke of a ‘global race to reshape the state’. I think this ascribes far too much clarity of purpose (if not ideology) but you get the picture. The big question is whether this is ever possible without bringing those people managing change along with you on the journey.

We need new variations on system change

that have participation and engagement at their heart.

Part of the problem is that central government (and those within its orbit) are looking for change levers that are not there. Complex social problems and systems unfit for purpose cannot be pulled into the future from the treasury downwards. New public management (NPM) is apparently dead (though showing worrying signs of rigor mortis), so we need new variations on system change that have participation and engagement at their heart. Academic Patrick Dunleavy has remarked that it is unclear to where and whom the NPM torch has passed. It is probably right that there are no simple answers to his question, and those that do exist seem to be fairly local in formulation.

So what are the characteristics of the ‘new new’ public management that is emerging at a local level?

First, a form of leadership that is outward facing, deliberately cross-sector, and humble about its role in stimulating social and public action. In place of the NPM tenets of performance management against compartmentalised input-driven service delivery, we are seeing a focus on working with others to create coalitions for change. President Obama might call this leading from behind. Indeed, non-linear problems require a non-linear way of leading and doing. This is as true in Stockport as the Sahel.

Second, a public management that is not technocratic or ‘objective’, but that brings the politics back in, and even self-consciously creates new ways to disrupt bureaucratic processes that have streamlined service delivery but marginalised democracy and citizen voice. This is hard. It means exposing the inner workings of organisations to difficult questions and unpalatable choices. But the alternative is a political system that will remain as impotent locally as it is irrelevant nationally. Challenging both politics and administration on this basis is vital, but councils like Sunderland and Oldham are showing that it can be done.

Third, a nod to what Bill Eggers and colleagues have called the ‘solution revolution’; that is, an openness of new ways of understanding and addressing need and demand that go way beyond the services. Often this means brokering relationships with business and civil society on a different basis – designing, for example, collaborative ways to address debt, access to finance, transport costs or poor social networks (see Tower Hamlets, Leeds, Lambeth and Lewisham for examples). Sometimes government will be best placed to do this, and sometimes others will. It is about opening up to new ways of seeing the roots of service problems, and being equally open to collaborative ways of addressing them upstream.

In his brilliant new book on the aid industry, Ben Ramalingam asks whether development professionals can ‘move from being people who know the answers to people who know what questions to ask.’  I think the relationship between policy and management could do with asking some of these questions- stripping back certainty and accepting that social change through a different lens may produce a different set of management implications.

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