AuthorBouckaert, Geert
  1. Changing public sector reforms to change the public sector [1]

    In looking at reform histories, as complex trajectories and as public sector reform policies, a range of literatures become relevant to understand the past, and even more to anticipate the (possible) futures of trajectories and reforms. These futures cannot just be replications of the past, or extrapolations of current positions, but need a serious reflection of changing circumstances to avoid providing past solutions which do not fit the current and future problems (Bouckaert and Jann, 2020; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2017).

    Complexities should be recognized in reforming systems in their design, decision, implementation, and evaluation. This implies that the reform modeling is not just and simply one problem which has one solution, with a one-to-one direct and causal link between the problem and the solution. The level of wickedness of problems implies not just risks but even more uncertainties about elements, links, and status of variables. However, there is also wickedness of solutions which includes the ultimate objectives and goals, societal values, complexity of deliberation and decision making processes to define shared objectives, goals and (ideological) choices of instruments to realize 'omega' or visions for our Whole of Society (WoS) or Whole of Government (WoG).

    In this sense, public sector reform is similar and more complex than the discipline of 'clay pigeon shooting' since all variables are moving, not just the clay, but also the hunter, the gun, and the atmosphere, just like problems, decision-making processes, 'solutions', and their implementation are moving simultaneously and in an interactive way.

    In general, public sector reforms are directed to making systems more fit for purpose, now and in the future, even when ideological or political agendas may interfere or correlate with these reforms. In general, problems should trigger solutions, however, it is also the case that 'solutions' are triggering new problems. There are several reasons for this. First, not all 'solutions' are talking to 'their' problems. Some 'problems' are not really evidence based diagnoses, or generally accepted and shared 'problems' by all stakeholders. Also, in some cases, 'solutions' are copy-pasted from the past, or from other systems such as the private sector, or from culturally and politically very different systems. In this case the 'solution' is not answering the 'problem' and will cause new and other problems. Even when the potential causal link between problem and solution is clear and undisputed, it could be that implementing the 'solution' is a source of problems. The 'solution' is not timely, under-resourced, lacking leadership and co-ordination, or not focused on its target groups. Even when the problem-solution tandem is right and well implemented, it could go wrong when the 'solution' becomes such an objective by itself that it gets overstated and disconnected from the problem.

    When, at the end of the 1970s there was a perceived lack of performance of the public sector, with a related deficit of responsibility and accountability, transparency, or firm control to get performance, the 'solution', according to NPM, was considered to be the creation of agencies with more autonomy, more specialization, and measurement of performance in a context of market-type-mechanisms for delivery. For some time, there was a belief that this would save and solve the problem of lack of performance.

    However, this approach resulted in a situation where the solution turned into a problem. Dysfunctional autonomy resulted in a centrifugal movement of agencies which focused more on outputs than on outcomes, with considerable transaction costs to set up all ultimately and initially disconnected agencies which were not saved by performance measurement systems. Gaming became an issue for measurement and how it affected behavior, especially when contracts were getting very tangible.

    These new problems were supposed to be solved by new or re-newed co-ordination mechanisms such as HTM (hierarchy type mechanisms), MTM (market type mechanisms), and NTM (network type mechanisms). This co-ordination could recreate effective policy capacity. Also, audit was becoming a panacea for problematic steering and control. For some time, there was a belief that this would save and solve the preceding problems.

    However, these 'solutions' resulted in new problems such as pure re-centralisation for hierarchies, or private monopolies for markets, or symbolic, cosmetic and weak networks. Responding to audit weaknesses with more audits resulted in an 'audit-tsunami'. Focusing on performance resulted in new red tape. Bringing in contracts, agreements, memorandums of understanding, or mandates within the public sector resulted in a new problem: organized distrust within the public sector.

    These new problems were supposed to be solved by re-establishing trust, or to re-equilibrate performance based control systems with trust based control systems. This obviously needs a change of behavior and practices, which means to take a distance from the principles and agents type of interactions. Principal-agent theory is based on organized distrust within the public sector. Re-establishing trust implies re-framing the nature of these interactions within the public sector. Reconnecting to a Neo-Weberian State model could be a promising trajectory to re-establish relationships within the 'Whole of Government'.

    There are some lessons learned from these zigzag trajectories of change and reform. First, hierarchies remain very useful and indispensable to govern the public...

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