The challenge of public governance in a networked economy


  • Picture of Abigail Melville
    Abigail Melville
    Secretary of CCIN Policy Commission on Community Resilience, Jobs and Growth

The job of public management has changed. It’s not about “delivering services”, it’s about “influencing systems” that support citizens. So we need a completely different way of thinking.

Public managers and leaders have a tough job. Trying to manage in the face of escalating demand and slashed budgets would be tough enough. But the job itself has changed radically. Public management in 1997 was about delivering services. (Remember Tony Blair’s mantra of “delivery, delivery, delivery”?) This is no longer true.

We have recognised that you cannot “deliver” improved life chances. Indeed, increased demand for services can be seen as a sign of failure. Our focus is increasingly on prevention and early intervention. People should be supported to help themselves with the challenges of life.

So what is the job now? Here is a short list of things local government leaders want to achieve:

-          Shaping a sense of place and civic pride

-          Developing resilient communicates with social capital

-          Nurturing a culture of responsibility and self-help

-          Engaging business and enterprise to create jobs

-          Reducing demand for health and social care

-          Shifting power to communities and civic organisations

-          Using social media and new technology to engage citizens in an ongoing conversation.

I have met some fantastic public sector professionals who are trying to do all these things. They are big thinking, energetic innovators with a strong sense of the values of public service and cooperative working. They are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a public manager. But they are flying blind.

This is a completely different kind of job from the traditional Weberian bureaucrat or New Public Manager. External pressures to innovate and join up services around citizens grow and yet the design of public bureaucracies remain largely unchanged from a model designed for the age of the industrial revolution and the British Empire. Large private companies seem to offer the solutions, yet by industrialising service delivery they often lock in system problems, many of which are created by top down performance frameworks.

So how do managers and leaders make judgements about what to do in this new world? Where are the navigational tools? Should we develop private sector partnerships and shared services to provide efficient seamless processes? Should we localise and nurture new social enterprises to harness citizen commitment? Are these alternative approaches or do they both have a place?

The paradigm of New Public Management (NPM) is broken, yet we are not quite sure what to put in its place. Pursuit of efficiency was the driving force behind NPM and the collection of public sector management techniques it has come to encapsulate since the 1980s. Efficiency has remained a key concern for public sector managers and local authorities as successive governments have sought to manage down costs in the face of mounting demand and public expectations.  This has been heightened during the recent period of ‘austerity’ and efficiency savings will continue to account for the bulk of cost reduction over the course of next Parliament.

However, while efficiency and ‘doing more with less’ is perhaps the central political theme of the decade, public managers are also being pressed to create public value and nurture social productivity;  to network and broker partnerships; to utilise big data and social networks; to engage civic activism, and ensure public service outcomes.  Pressures to innovate and join up services around citizens grow, while the design of public bureaucracies remain largely unchanged. Top-down and technocratic approaches are still imbued in the structures, processes and cultural norms of public sector management.

We may now be embarking on a huge programme of devolution which opens up possibilities for change, breaking down mechanical, hierarchical bureaucratic practices and replacing them with new systems that empower public sector managers to respond dynamically to the needs and opportunities of their places. These new systems will have to harness technologies, open data and social media, grounding public sector management within the communities they serve, rather than reinforcing Whitehall-style command and control and top-down systems of accountability in Town and County Halls around the country.

As we ask political leaders and public managers to ‘let go’ and empower the community, how do they know where to give up control while ensuring accountable, sustainable places and public services?  What are the legitimate functions of public sector managers?  How can citizens hold services to account when they are shared across boundaries or delivered by social enterprises? How can leaders be held accountable for outcomes which are co-produced and achieved by citizen led social action?

Economists are starting to wave goodbye to rational economic man, developing new models that integrate the longstanding insights of the behavioural sciences.  In public management we need similarly to develop new models of policy development, investment and accountability that allow places to become self-sustainable and thrive. We need to develop a workable framework for modern governance upon which practitioners in different sectors, at central and local level, can agree. Different theories, perspectives and insights will be analysed, organised and tested as to their utility in providing useful guidance to public managers. We think important perspectives include - adaptive systems, learning theory, behavioural psychology, digital governance, network theory, institutions, politics and power.

This framework will have to articulate the key roles that emerge as crucial in this new world. The sorts of roles that local authorities and public managers are being asked to take on include: community leaders, conflict resolvers, community organisers, network builders, convenors, shapers, designers, commissioners, market makers, brokers, regulators, scrutineers, providers, communicators, civic entrepreneurs, digital developers, intelligence analysts, data managers, mentors and personal advisers.

Finally, to achieve this shift into a post NPM world, we need to develop a curriculum of skills, tools and approaches to support the development of accountable public leaders and managers working in different sectors and institutions across the public and community sector. This will include how to measure success in this new world and how to establish data standards and protocols which enable the promise of big data and smart government to be realised.

So the job is no longer about “delivering services”. In fact, delivering services is probably the last thing to be done. Instead, we need to find a way defining and holding to account public governance in a networked economy. At the RSA, we are starting to explore options for what this might look like and we really want to know what you think.

Work in local government, in the community or local business sectors? Tell us your experience of the changing ideas and practices public management.

Abigail Melville is a former councillor, local government manager and policy adviser. She leads the RSA’s work with the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network.

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles