PUBLIC SECTOR – Embracing the Masses – Public servants and the public’s voice

The notion of citizenship must be placed at the heart of new governance model for public servants, says David Coats, British champion of the “public value” model developed by Professor Mark Moore at the Kennedy School of Government in the United States.
Public value puts premium on listening to “the public” in the drive for better performance and moves on from the “new public management” introduced to New Zealand in the 1980s and ’90s and characterised by markets, competitions and targets, with focus on outputs rather than outcomes.
The public value model is not unfamiliar to state service managers in this country, or to teachers of public administration. It is taught at the Australia New Zealand School of Government (State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble is member of its board) and at Victoria University’s School of Government. Senior state-sector staff are sent to courses at those schools at which Moore and others who share his ideas have taught.
But would adopting public value approach call for further structural upheaval? Not according to Coats, associate director, policy, at British think tank, The Work Foundation.
The Public Service Association (PSA) brought him to New Zealand earlier this year for series of public meetings to help foster debate about workplace productivity and the state-sector structure, culture and process that could improve it. He discerned an appetite for change among public servants and politicians in Wellington, but it was an appetite for incremental change with particular focus on getting closer to citizens.
Coats tells Management he found New Zealand’s public service significantly different from the British public service, essentially because the process of reform and restructuring – “the institutional revolution”, as he characterises it – happened rapidly here in the 1980s and ’90s. In Britain, the process has been gradual.
But while New Zealand’s reforms probably were “text-book implementation of new public management theory”, Coats says, some challenges facing government and public servants are similar.
Despite increasing investment in public services, there is still declining public trust. “That’s something that came through to me,” he says of his visit to New Zealand. “Just as the opposition here [in Britain] are asking where’s the money gone, similar question is being asked… by the National Party in New Zealand.”
Public services in both countries are essentially still bureaucracies that aren’t close enough to the citizens who use them – another common theme. “What struck me is that people around the State Services Commission understood that, and so the ideas that I was promoting about public value resonated with them,” Coats says. “They understood the need to get public servants to embrace citizen perspective.”
He believes the need to find better ways of talking to the people who use public services requires political change as well as change to the way in which public managers manage.
Another institutional revolution would be hugely damaging, however, and he sees no call for that. On the other hand, “it is very clear that there is desire for change”.
So what’s to be done?
In paper prepared for the PSA, Coats says the size and scope of the public realm have been central issues in public debates of the past 20 years. The nature of public management has also become question of political controversy. “We seem to have witnessed the triumph of the argument that ‘markets are smart and governments are dumb’,” he says. “As result the focus has been on making public services more like private businesses.” Where services can be subjected to regime of competition and contestability then they should be. If competition is not an option, regime of targets, audit and inspection should be imposed to ‘mimic’ the operation of markets.
The centre-left response to this critique of public management has been to develop programme for the reinvention of government, search for “third way” that starts from the premise that government is not the enemy, but accepts that public services are structurally inefficient.
Coats regards both approaches as flawed because they give inadequate emphasis to features that make public services distinctive – claims of rights by citizens to services that are publicly provided because they are authorised and funded following the outcome of democratic process. This does not mean that markets must be rejected in all public services, “but we must be clear about the circumstances in which the operation of markets will undermine the public service ethos”.
Fundamentally, Coats explains in his paper, public value recognises that public services are different from the realm of markets, competition and choice. He refers to Mark Moore’s several criteria of management effectiveness. Among them, the efforts of public sector managers should be evaluated not in the economic marketplace of individual consumers but in the political marketplace of citizens and the collective decisions of representative democratic institutions.
Public value should be seen as the correlation of shareholder value in the private sector, its practical application depends on well-developed conception of deliberative governance where engagement with the public is process of refining public preferences. The idea that citizens are more than consumers and ought to be able to influence the design and delivery of services can help managers to develop targets that relate to outcomes the public genuinely value.
Coats tells Management the desire for change in New Zealand is as much on the trade union side as among public service employers.
“People are in the market for new ideas,” he says. “They felt that the agenda pursued in the ’80s and ’90s had pretty much exhausted itself. Other things needed to be done differently if public services were going to make progress and be seen as legitimate by citizens, if people were willing to pay taxes for them in the future.”
Mark Prebble – who was involved with the “new public management” restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s – says the introduction of accrual accounting, clearer contracting, tighter accountability, and so on, led to improvements in state sector management practice. “But like any other change, we should never think that we’ve done it, and that’s all there is to it,” the State Services commissioner says.
As public policy adviser and practitioner, Prebble regards state sector management as question of how to help support the government of the day do the job as best it can. “Don’t forget, you are actually working with the government of the day to address wicked issues,” he says.
Wicked issues?
“If it were straightforward issue, where you really can see that one way is more efficient than another way, well, quite lot of the time consenting adults do that,” Prebble explains. “We call it the market. The essence of government is that… government has the power to make people pay.” It also has the power of coercion. Public servants therefore have responsibility to do their work properly and appropriately, “and those responsibilities are not fully defined by doing things efficiently”.
Prebble favours doing things efficiently (“it’s vital”) but says it’s over to the government to decide what the public want and his job to help as best he can.
During his term as state services commissioner, development goals have been set to help shape system of world-class professional state services serving the government of the day, and meeting the needs of New Zealanders.
This means having good staff and training and equipping them well. It also involves good coordination across state agencies. Any good multinational corporate would do the same.
Being trusted and trustworthy is another fundamental goal. The Enron collapse showed what happens to untrustworthy companies, but there many examples around the world of untrustworthy governments remaining, and it’s the people who su

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