By Christopher Pollitt and Geert Bouckaert
The relationship between poltics, public management, and public opinion is a contentious area, and one in which systemic data are at best patchy. Having made these caveats, we will attempt to draw out a few broad propositions from the evidence advanced above.
First, public management reforms have altered the relationships between elected and appointed officials, in a number of countries and in a number of ways. In this sense, at least, they are not ‘neutral’. It seems likely that these changes have been greatest in the core NPM countries, somewhat less in the northern group of European countries, and smallest in the central European group. Second, there is an absence of convincing evidence concerning the willingness or ability of executive politicians to become the the ‘strategic managers’ of their portfolios. The kindest thing that could be said about the reform models that cast politicians in such roles would be that they are unproven and seem to fly in the face of known incentives to behave in a more traditional ‘political’ fashion. Third, managers do appear to have gained extra authority in a number of ways but at the same time political control has been vigorously reasserted in many of the twelve countries. There is no necessary contradiction between these two developments – the public sector is large and diverse enough for both to be happening at the same time. In specific cases, however, there may be a quite definite tension. Fourth, any suggestion that public management can be radically depoliticized [...] is either a misunderstanding or flies in the face of evidence from many countries. The allocation of, say, health care resources or decisions about educational standards or major public infrastructure projects are all inherently ‘political’ decisions, whether they are taken by powerful politicians or tough public managers (or, indeed, medical doctors or teachers). The public will often see the political authority as ultimately responsible – or, at least, sharing responsibility – however much ministers may protest that these are technical or professional decisions which have been taken by the appropriate officials. Fifth, there is a certain ambiguity in much of the rhetoric around strengthening accountability and increasing transparency, in so far as the executive politicians have used the new politics/administration split to redefine policy weaknesses as managerial failures. This enables political leaders to shuffle off direct responsibilities for things going wrong – or, at least, to try to. Furthermore, it appears that legislatures have been slow to take up and use the increased flow of performance data which greater transparency and the contemporary emphasis on outputs and outcomes afford. [...] one might say that even when a ‘real result’ manages to climb over the conceptual, methodological, and political barriers, and escapes into the wider public world, it is often left wandering around looking for an audience. Sixth, few of the specific reforms appear to have been undertaken in direct response to ‘public opinion’ – although some such rationale has quite often been claimed. Privatization, the introduction of market mechanisms, downsizing, and the promotion of PI systems are the products of elite, not popular, agendas (even if public opinion has subsequently accepted some of these innovations and begun to make use of them). The sector of greatest tension would appear to be the welfare state, the basic elements of which remain enduringly popular in most countries but the expense of which inevitably draws it into the line of fire of the cost-cutters and downsizers [...] Seventh, any simple picture of public opinion as being ‘for’ or ‘against’ ‘big government’ is misleading. Such evidence as is available shows that, however limited the public’s knowledge may be of the specifics of reform, popluar attitudes towards government are multifaceted and, in some respects, quite sophisticated.