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date: 16 August 2017

New Public Management

Summary and Keywords

New Public Management (NPM) reforms have been around in many countries for over the past 30 years. NPM is an ambiguous, multifaceted, and expanded concept. There is not a single driving force behind it, but rather a mixture of structural and polity features, national historical-institutional contexts, external pressures, and deliberate choices from political and administrative executives. NPM is not the only show in town, and contextual features matter. There is no convergence toward one common NPM model, but significant variations exist between countries, government levels, policy areas, tasks, and over time. Its effects have been found to be ambiguous, inconclusive, and contested. Generally, there is a lack of reliable data on results and implications, and there is some way to go before one can claim evidence-based policymaking in this field. There is more knowledge regarding NPM’s effects on processes and activities than on outcome, and reliable comparative data on variations over time and across countries are missing. NPM has enhanced managerial accountability and accountability to users and customers, but has this success been at the expense of political accountability? New trends in reforms, such as whole-of-government, have been added to NPM, thereby making public administration more complex and hybrid.

Keywords: New Public Management, convergence, divergence, administrative reforms, whole-of-government, accountability

New Public Management—An Expanding and Loose Concept

The term “New Public Management (NPM)” describes the administrative reforms that have been operative in the public sector in many countries since the mid-1980s (Lægreid, 2015). NPM is a loose and multifaceted doctrine that encompasses a range of different administrative tools (Hood, 1991). It is characterized as a “shopping basket,” meaning that it is a collection of different means and measures not all pointing in the same direction and not all included in all baskets (Pollitt, 1995). Ewan Ferlie (1996) distinguishes between four different NPM models: the efficiency drive; downsizing and decentralization; the search for excellence; and public service orientation. NPM promises to integrate these themes, linking efficiency and accountability. One can also distinguish between NPM as a big general model and its specific tools and measures (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). Not all tools can be exclusively associated with one model, and there is no one-to-one relationship between specific techniques and the general model. So many new characteristics and tools have been added to the list of NPM that for some the term has become so loose as to lose meaning (Hood, 2005).

The main components of NPM are disaggregation, competition, and use of incentives (Dunleavy et al., 2006), and one of its primary characteristics is the adoption by public organizations of the management and organizational forms used by private companies. This attribute challenges two traditional doctrines of public administration (Dunleavy & Hood, 1994): that public-sector organizations are “insulated” from the private sector in terms of personnel, structure, and business methods; and that they operate in accordance with a precise set of rules limiting the discretion of public officials. In contrast, the NPM movement subscribes to the generic principle that the formal organization of the public and the private sectors should be similar and that managers of public-sector organizations should have enough leeway in their daily work to be able to make efficient use of allocated resources.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that NPM is not founded on a coherent theoretical foundation. Tensions arising from its hybrid character, which combines economic organization theory and management theory, are well known (Aucoin, 1990). They result from the contradiction between the centralizing tendencies inherent in contractualism and the devolutionary tendencies of managerialism. Thus, by advocating decentralization (“let the managers manage”) and centralization and incentives (“make the managers manage”), NPM simultaneously prescribes both more autonomy and more central control.

Multiple Driving Forces Behind NPM

No single factor explains the emergence and popularity of NPM. Pollitt and Bouckaert’s (2011) model points to socioeconomic factors, aspects of the political system, crises and unexpected events, elite decision making, and features of the administrative system to explain variations in administrative reforms such as NPM across countries. The institutional dynamics of the reforms can be interpreted as a complex mixture of environmental pressure, polity features, and historical-institutional context (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001, 2007a). These factors can both enhance and obstruct reforms and define how much leeway political leaders have in making choices about them. One school of thought maintains that different countries have different polity features and political-administrative structures that help explain how they handle national problems and reform processes. From an instrumental point of view, the reforms may generally be seen as conscious organizational design by political and administrative executives.

A second view holds that reforms are primarily a product of the national historical-institutional context. Different countries have different historical-cultural traditions, and their reforms are “path dependent”—that is, national reforms have unique features. Thus, the cultural context of reform is important. How successfully a reform wave like NPM is applied in a public organization has to do with cultural compatibility (Brunsson & Olsen, 1993). Historical traditions in public administration constrain the reform trajectory. Whether countries have a legalistic “Rechtsstaat” tradition focusing on law, justice and rights, a politicized tradition, a consensual and corporatist tradition matters for the reform paths they choose. Traditions are important, but they do not determine reform choices, and they need to be understood as one of several factors affecting the way administrative reforms develop (Painter & Peters, 2010).

A third view regards NPM primarily as a response to external pressure. A country may adopt internationally based norms about how a civil service system should be organized simply because these norms now constitute the dominant doctrine that has diffused all over the world. This process implies isomorphic elements, creating pressure for similar reforms in many countries and representing a kind of “taken-for-grantedness” attitude concerning which organizational forms are appropriate. They function as “window-dressing,” enhancing legitimacy without actually affecting practice (Brunsson, 1989). A variant of this view is that NPM, virus-like, penetrates national administration over a long period of time through stages of mutation, translation, infection, replication, and incubation (Røvik, 2016; Hyndman & Lapsley, 2016). Overall, the policymakers have not become immune to its attraction. Different ideas are, however, added over time as the NPM virus adapts and mutates and tends to be wrapped up within broad “branded” policy initiatives.

The picture of NPM reforms is thus a heterogeneous one and is not a “one-size-fits-all” model. External reform programs are filtered, interpreted, translated and modified by a combination of two nationally based processes. One of the processes is a country’s political-administrative history, culture, and traditions. The other is national polity features, as expressed in constitutional and structural factors. Within these constraints, political and managerial executives have varying leeway to launch NPM reforms through an active administrative policy. In some countries, diffusion of NPM ideas may primarily be the result of outside factors, whereas in others the reform process might be more a product of national initiatives that have subsequently acquired an NPM label (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001, 2007a; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011; Verhoest et al., 2010). NPM processes seem to pose great challenges concerning rational calculation. The complexity of different and changing environments for reform, different cultures and structures, multiple goals, intentions, interests, problems, and solutions makes organizational thinking questionable. The ability of political and administrative leaders to control the processes is constrained by negotiations, cultural resistance, and environmental pressures.

Divergence More Than Convergence

The question of whether NPM is about convergence or divergence has been debated. Although NPM represents a global change of paradigm, this convergence thesis is contested (Pollitt, 2001). Undoubtedly, NPM has left its mark. Many of the ideas and practices associated with NPM when it was launched in the 1980s have moved from fashion to mainstream (Hood, 2011). Yet, measured against its self-proclaimed universal relevance, NPM clearly has not become the predominant public management paradigm. In many countries, it has led to major changes in the public sector (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). At the same time, the spread of NPM is a complex process, with each country following its own reform trajectory within a broader framework (Bouckaert et al., 2010). For example, NPM has not become the only public management paradigm in developing countries, even if it has acquired some transformative power. Hierarchical bureaucracies have not been replaced with NPM features (Manning, 2001). There is a lot of diversity regarding adaptation of NPM reforms in developing countries, and effective implementation is a main concern (Cheung, 2011; Turner, 2002). In Europe, NPM may have developed from an active to an enabling state, but its development has been diverse and has not followed a straight path in different countries (Page & Wright, 2007).

There is no clear convergence toward one single organizational form (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). Rather, reform agents often pick and choose partly competing reform elements. Administrative reforms are normally a political exercise that is not informed by a coherent theory, and in practice we face a complex combination of old public administration, New Public Management, and post-NPM features, often containing elements that point in different directions (Christensen & Lægreid, 2007b). NPM ideas have been implemented to different degrees, at different rates, and with differing emphases in different countries. Generally, the degree of variation between countries and between policy areas increases when one moves away from the world of ideas and policy programs toward specific decisions, and the variation increases even more so when the implementation and impact of the reforms are considered (Pollitt, 2001). One can argue about whether NPM has led to a convergence of administrative systems in different countries, yet there is much to suggest that ideas and policy programs resemble one another more than the corresponding practices do.

Some major NPM reform ideas have spread around the world quite easily, whereas more specific reform measures have shown patterns of divergence. One main reason may be national variations in polity features, political and administrative cultures, and environments. The combination of factors furthering NPM reforms is more likely to occur in Anglo-Saxon countries where one finds a strong executive, cultural compatibility, and often strong environmental pressure for NPM reform (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001). At the other extreme, weaker control of processes, cultural incompatibility, and low environmental pressure may lead to reforms that are less NPM-oriented.

Although different countries present their reforms in similar terms and support some of the same general administrative doctrines, closer scrutiny reveals considerable variation (Christensen & Lægreid, 2012a). Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) distinguish between two main models. First are the fast-paced NPM marketizers—Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, which Pollitt and Bouckaert label the core NPM group. The second group is made up of slow-moving systems consisting of the Continental European and Scandinavian modernizers. They claim that the Scandinavian countries represent a distinct reform model labeled the neo-Weberian state. They share a more positive attitude toward the state and a less positive attitude toward private-sector models and underline the role of representative democracy and administrative law. Compared to traditional bureaucracies, they are more focused on citizens’ needs, citizens’ participation, performance and results, and professionalization of public service. Citizen orientation and participation are more characteristic of the Northern countries than of Mediterranean countries. Compared with the Northern countries, the Southern ones, whose state traditions are based on the Napoleonic legacy, were latecomers to reforms, and there is a great North–South divide in Europe when it comes to administrative reforms (Greve, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2016; Hammerschmid et al., 2016; Ongaro, 2009).

There are also differences between government levels. The United States and Germany have been more reluctant to introduce NPM reforms at the federal level than at lower government levels. Another way to look at convergence and divergence is to examine the political salience of different tasks. The more politically important tasks are, the less NPM measures tend to be used because the political leadership will want to have hands-on political control. There are also variations between policy areas. It seems to be easier to implement NPM reforms in more technical and economic policy areas than in the “softer” welfare state areas.

There are also differences over time. In Europe, NPM-type reforms such as contracting out, privatization, and agencification have in recent years become less important, often supplemented by whole-of-government style reforms based on e-government, transparency, citizen engagement, and coordination (Greve, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2016; Hammerschmid et al., 2016). Management-related tools such as performance management and treatment of citizens as customers, however, have remained important.

Thus, there is no consistent movement toward a new isomorphic model of civil service systems. Variations in reform practice from one country to another and between policy areas are the rule rather than the exception. Different countries face different contexts, risks, and problems and start out with different values and norms. They have different starting points, are at different stages of reform, and face different external and internal constraints. Most governments still share some main elements of the traditional system of public administration, but some strong common modernization trends have emerged in public services across groups of countries. One of these trends has been a reduction in the differences between the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, the story is not only about convergence or divergence but also about a complex mixture of robustness and flexibility.

Ambiguous, Inconclusive, and Contested Effects

Although NPM has been around for 30 years, few comprehensive evaluations have been done. Especially lacking are empirical studies of changes in the role of government and citizens following NPM reforms (Van de Walle & Hammerschmid, 2011). We know more about changes in processes and activities than about the effects on output, and we have very little knowledge of the impact on outcomes (Pollitt & Dan, 2013). But generally scholarly attention has moved somewhat from descriptive mapping and a priori critiques to analyses of the paradoxes and unintended side effects of NPM reforms (Hood & Peters, 2004) where “soft theory” meets “hard cases” (Hesse, Hood, & Peters, 2003). Generally, the trend has been toward collecting more systematical data on how NPM works in practice (Hood, 2005).

One lesson is that the effects of NPM are context-dependent rather than general. The main hypothesis of NPM reforms is that they will lead to increased efficiency without having negative side effects on other goals and concerns. So far, this hypothesis has yet to be confirmed as evidence-based fact. While it may be correct under specific conditions, it cannot be said to apply generally to NPM reforms everywhere, in all policy areas, and at all times. Effects are often assumed or promised, but there are few systematic and reliable studies of whether they actually happen, so hard evidence is often lacking. Attention tends to be more focused on strategies, plans, and selective success stories than on systematic analyses of results (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011).

Another lesson is that the impacts of NPM reforms depend on the degree of autonomy, politicization, and involvements. Thus, context matters, and it is difficult to generalize about NPM. In the Nordic countries, for example, the autonomy of the central bureaucracy is high, the degree of politicization is low, and the involvement of public employees in the reform process is high These features tend to enhance the perceived positive effects of reforms, including NPM reforms such as management measures (Greve, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2016; Hammerschmid et al., 2016). To isolate the effects of NPM measures from other reforms and changes that are happening simultaneously is, however, difficult.

The evidence-based knowledge about the effects and implications of different administrative reforms is still rather patchy and contested. Means–end knowledge and the ability to engage in ex ante rational calculation of impacts and effects of different organizational forms are rather weak among reform agents. Fast-paced reforms are often symbol-ridden. Different organizational forms matter and affect the way public organizations operate and work in practice. But normally there is no one-to-one relationship between organizational design and performance.

One implication is that there is a need to go beyond the narrow concept of performance measured in terms of economy and efficiency and to include the broader democratic implications for power relations, trust, accountability, and legitimacy in the equation. In most democratic systems, values such as impartiality, predictability, rule of law, political loyalty, political control, participation, responsiveness, professional competence, and equity are also important elements of performance (Christensen & Lægreid, 2007a). Not only effects on main goals but also side effects and dysfunctions have to be taken into account (Hesse, Hood, & Peters, 2003).

An important lesson that has been learned from studies of NPM is that most governments do not learn sufficiently from previous administrative reforms in their own country or in other countries. Alleged successes often have more influence than elements of reform failure. Therefore, many ambiguities are involved in learning from the experiences of administrative reforms. What is more, politicians are generally more interested in launching new reforms than in learning from previous ones, partly because reforms look more attractive ex ante than ex post (Brunsson & Olsen, 1993).

One cannot therefore just graft private-sector management tools, organizational forms, and steering mechanisms onto public-sector organizations and expect successful implementation and results. Policymakers may be well advised not to simply copy new reform solutions but instead to adapt them to local contexts. Holistic or generic models have clear limitations. One of the big flaws of NPM was probably the claim that a clear dividing line existed between policymaking and formulation on the one hand and policy implementation on the other (Kettl, 2006).

The considerable variation in the design of NPM reforms between countries, tasks, sectors, and government levels will have different consequences for effects studies. In some countries, such as those in Southern Europe, administrative reforms hardly ever seem to have significant effects (Kickert, 2011). In developing countries, evidence of the impacts of NPM is “perplexingly equivocal (Polidano, 2001) and success seems relatively rare (Manning, 2001). Enhanced autonomization, performance reviews and performance budgeting require capacity that is often missing (Kettl, 2000). Discussions of the effects of reform must therefore strive for exceedingly precise terminology and must not be conducted at a general level.

In sum, it is hard to say unequivocally what the effects of NPM reforms are; indeed, they are often disputed and uncertain. After several decades of NPM, we know surprisingly little about its effects (Christensen & Lægreid, 2011). One reason is that the reform movement has made before-and-after evaluations difficult. Reliable cross-national and longitudinal data are often missing. One way to measure efficiency gains is to look at the major macroeconomic performance of a country. However, it is not easy to establish whether improvements in performance are the result of NPM because many other factors play a role. Nevertheless, few studies have demonstrated a favorable macroeconomic effect of NPM (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011).

Thus, there is little hard evidence about the effect on NPM’s main goal of cost cuts and improved efficiency (Pollitt & Dan, 2013). The findings are mixed, and variations in effects are to a great extent dependent on context. Studies done on the cost-cutting effects of NPM do not find convincing positive results (Hood & Dixon, 2015). The main finding is that after 30 years of NPM, the UK does not have “a government that works better and costs less,” as promised by the reform agents. In fact, the government now works slightly worse with respect to fairness and costs a bit more than before. The running costs are higher, and there are more complaints. Overall, the findings support NPM skeptics more than NPM advocates, but they do not confirm the most radical expectations of either side. There has, for example, been a decline in trust in government but not a general collapse. Also, Dunleavy and Carrera (2013) report that NPM strategies such as contraction out, privatization, and changing the borders between public and private sector have only weak positive effects on long-term productivity in the public sector. There might be some improvement in the technical efficiency of agencification, performance management, competition, public-private partnerships or consumerism, but almost nothing is known about effects on allocative and distributive efficiency (Andrews, 2011). Privatization and contracting out might have some positive efficiency effects in the short run in some policy areas, but might also have negative side effects on equity (Hodge, 2000; Boyne et al., 2003). But generally evidence of efficiency gains has been spotty and incomplete, and systematic quantitative empirical investigations over time have been lacking. Thus, there is little hard evidence of whether NPM’s main goal of cost reduction and improved efficiency has actually been realized.

Studies of the effects of agencification are also inconclusive (James & van Thiel, 2011; Lægreid & Verhoest, 2010), and the expected positive effects of semiautonomous agencies are difficult to find (Overman, 2016). The same can be said about the effects on citizens’ satisfaction and trust, which is a very complex issue (van de Walle, 2011). There also seem to be quite a few perverse gaming effects (Hood, 2006). One claim of the NPM reform was that it would strengthen political control, but the bulk of comparative studies on the effects of NPM reforms seem to stress that the control of the political executive has decreased (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001, 2007a; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). The demand for independent, apolitical bodies did not work as expected, and calls for democratic accountability have become stronger.

Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) emphasize that there are multiple difficulties in assessing the results of administrative reforms in general, with government effectiveness especially difficult to evaluate. Generally, more long-term evidence of the effects of NPM is needed. Some of the most significant effects may actually have been in the way we talk about public-sector organizations. The reforms have produced a new discourse and reform climate, changing attitudes, activities, and procedures rather than outcomes. Many studies conclude that major reforms are often launched with little or no attention to evaluation; the paradox is that “the international management reform movement has not needed results to fuel its onward march” (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011, p. 58).

NPM and Accountability—Contested Relationship

The quest for stronger accountability was a driver of many NPM reforms. A key premise was that effective vertical managerial accountability would produce better performance (Boston & Gill, 2011). But the empirical evidence for such a result is inconclusive (Lægreid & Verhoest, 2010), and evidence of whether performance measurement leads to better accountability is scarce (van Dooren, Bouckaert, & Halligan 2010). Pollitt (2011), examining the proposition that performance management systems will improve agency accountability to citizens and political representatives, concludes that the measurement of performance has not enhanced political accountability. The relationship between accountability and performance is contested, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it has become necessary to operate with a multidimensional accountability concept that goes beyond hierarchical accountability (Lægreid, 2014). This is especially the case in the transition periods and unsettled situations that often characterize NPM reform periods (Olsen, 2014).

The NPM reforms have complicated the already broad notion of accountability in the public sector (Mulgan, 2014). Rather than reducing or increasing accountability, NPM implies a transfer from one set of accountability relationships to another (Olsen, 2010). NPM reforms tend to concentrate more on individual accountability and less on collective accountability and have tended to change the accountability focus from processes and compliance with rules and input to output and results. Managerial accountability and accountability to users and customers have become more prominent.

NPM reforms imply tensions, dilemmas, and ambiguities related to accountability issues. They have generated a renewed tension between flexibility and political accountability. How to guarantee political accountability when politically sensitive questions are left to experts in autonomous agencies is a matter of concern. Generally, managerial accountability works best in the least politically salient areas of public service, even if many politicians use NPM measures on politically salient tasks. Political accountability and traditional Rechtstaat accountability relationships are still important but have now been supplemented by newer NPM accountability relations. Rather than asking whether government officials are more or less accountable after NPM reforms, one should focus on what kind of accountability the participants perceive as appropriate (Romzek, 2000). Emphasizing outcomes and outputs at the expense of input and processes does not necessarily mean more or less accountability. Rather, it means that different accountability relationships should be addressed. NPM argues for more efficiency and accountability for performance without paying much attention to political accountability and accountability for fairness, resilience, and robustness (Behn, 2001).

The emergence of NPM reforms thus seems to have made accountability a more ambiguous and complex issue. By highlighting the importance of people as consumers, NPM has introduced the dual accountability of civil servants to politicians and users. It represents a shift in focus concerning accountability, from a broadly defined public interest to a more narrowly defined set of personal interests. A political theory is needed that can explain how applying customer service techniques and giving civil servants more authority to make policy decisions about service delivery is consistent with democratic accountability (Behn, 2001).

Beyond NPM—Increased Complexity and Hybridity

NPM’s preoccupation with the issue of vertical coordination and control has led to fragmentation of the public sector by assuming that each and every organization has its own objectives and targets that can be assessed by organization-specific performance indicators. This assumption works well as long as the tasks follow the boundaries of public-sector organizations, but it fails for cross-border tasks that transcend organizations, policy areas, and government levels. Thus, the contextual features have to be taken into account. Tasks like societal security, climate change, poverty, unemployment, and immigration can only be handled by organizations working together. NPM has little to offer when it comes to horizontal interorganizational coordination. For this reason the need for a more integrated administrative policy has grown in recent years.

Reforms that have emerged more recently have been variously labeled post-NPM, whole-of-government, joined-up government, new public governance, and so on. A central question that arises concerns what happens when the different reform waves meet each other. Will NPM prevail, be modified and pushed back, or combined with newer reform measures? An important consideration is whether NPM has peaked, thus requiring us to look beyond NPM (Christensen & Lægreid, 2007b). In many developing countries, NPM reforms rooted in neoliberal market ideology are facing legitimacy crises (Cheung, 2011). The question of peaking is relative, however. Different countries begin from different starting points; some are front runners and others are laggards, indicating that for some NPM peaked 20 years ago while others peaked later.

One view is that that NPM is dead and that we are moving into the digital era (Dunleavy et al., 2006). A second view is that the death of NPM is exaggerated and that it is still alive and kicking (Pollitt, 2016) and that it will continue to be a major force in the near future, especially in response to strong pressures for cost savings. The story continues but has been translated into a modernization theme (Hyndman & Lapsley, 2016). A third view is that new reforms are complementing or supplementing NPM rather than replacing it (Christensen & Lægreid, 2011). The second and third views are more plausible than the first one. Whole-of-government reforms have emerged, first, as a reaction to the loss of political control, second, in reaction to NPM’s failure to deliver on economic measures, and third, because of the “fear factor”—that is, terrorism, pandemics, tsunamis, climate threats, and financial recessions—all of which have created a greater need for control. There have been strong demands for more integration and cross-boundary coordinating capacity, which is reflected in various features of the new reforms.

Administrative reforms have not taken place along a single dimension; in practice, the picture is one of mixed models and increased complexity. It is fair to say that NPM is still very much alive in many countries, and NPM reforms have normally not been replaced by new reforms but rather are revised or supplemented. The old public administration model has considerable capacity to adapt and is both robust and flexible, even after a long period of NPM reforms and emerging post-NPM reforms.

In contrast to the NPM reforms espousing organizational disaggregation, the recent reforms have been characterized by aggregation and joined-up government (Halligan, 2011). While NPM had a more internal focus on improving efficiency, post-NPM governance has inspired reforms that are mainly interorganizational oriented (Christensen & Lægreid, 2012b) Vertical control and levers of control are increasingly being applied, while a whole-of-government approach uses new coordination instruments and cross-sector programs and projects to modify horizontal fragmentation (Lodge & Gill, 2011).

Whole-of-government initiatives are important for handling the “wicked issues” that transcend the boundaries between organizational policy areas and administrative levels (Christensen & Lægreid, 2007b). NPM reforms primarily addressed the principal-agent issues of how superior bodies can control subordinate organizations within the same ministerial area, but these reforms have little to offer in learning how to handle problems and tasks that straddle organizational boundaries. The challenge is to find organizational arrangements that can enhance cross-border collaboration and horizontal coordination.

Rather than purifying a single model, the need is for a repertoire of models for political-administrative institutions that will help meet the future challenges of public management, administration, and governance. Designing a holistic and integrated public administration is not easy. Nor may such a public administration even be a good idea, for research shows that public administration systems actually are a “mixed” order of partly overlapping, partly contradictory complementary and competing organizational forms and are hence necessarily compound in nature (Olsen, 2010). Public administration is multifunctional and multitasked and has to balance different administrative values. Complex political-administrative problems require complex solutions. The main challenge is how to combine and balance these different elements in such a way that they can supplement or complement each other. Today there is no dominant model. Instead, several key concepts such as NPM, New Public Governance, and the neo-Weberian state are on the agenda (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011).

Market mechanisms, efficiency, and performance management are still core issues, but network arrangements and partnerships are becoming more prominent. In addition, the administrative apparatus is becoming more professional and more responsive to citizens, but authority is still largely exercised through a hierarchy of impartial officials. Managerialism remains important in public administration. It has been layered with other reform trends and has produced a more hybrid and complex pattern. Austerity has, however, reintroduced traditional cost cuts and has revealed that political elements are needed to tackle the challenges (Pollitt, 2016). The political agenda is important, and neoliberal thinking and ideology might not be appropriate to handle the challenges of financial crises or the migration crises. In summary, reform movements can be said to be characterized by combining, complexity, layering, and hybridization rather than by a linear process toward more NPM or a pendulum swing (Christensen & Lægreid, 2011). Public administration faces increasingly complex conditions, reflected in multifunctional organizational forms, and the administrative reforms in the public sector can be understood as compound reforms that combine different organizational principles based on multiple factors working together in a complex mix. Compound administrative reforms are multidimensional and represent combinations of competing, inconsistent, and contradictory organizational principles and structures that coexist and balance interests and values (Olsen, 2010). It is not a question of NPM or post-NPM but of how the mixtures of these forms change and how the trade-off between central capacity building and autonomization is altered.


NPM is a complex subject reflecting varied international experiences that make generalizations problematic. It is difficult to make general policy recommendations that are valid across countries, policy areas, and over time. While most of the discussion has revolved around differences between countries, differences between policy areas might also be significant. Owing to the variations in contexts, tasks, and historical-institutional legacies that different countries face, the holistic and generic approach has many limitations. One policy recommendation is that reformers should be preoccupied not only with the governance capacity of public-sector organizations but also with governance legitimacy and trust relations. Gradual reorganization and more limited reforms will more easily allow the broader participation of different stakeholders and potentially increase the legitimacy of the reforms. The main challenge is to find organizational forms that enhance both the representativeness and the capacity of governance. Often, there is a trade-off between the two. Reforms intended to enhance one aspect tend to harm the other. The big question is whether it is possible to design administrative reforms in a way that strengthens both representativeness and capacity.

Another lesson is that reform agents often face the problem of overselling because to get a reform accepted they often have to promise more than they can deliver. They are also puzzled by the implementation problem versus the model problem. When the results fail to materialize, the answer is often that one has to try harder. The solution is to take a more sophisticated approach, to improve the training of political and administrative executives, or to replace them. Another strategy is to ask if there is something wrong with the model—maybe the model should be adjusted to make it a better fit with the administrative reality. Public-sector organizations cannot just copy private-sector management tools and organizational forms and expect successful implementation and results. After all, public-sector organizations differ significantly from private-sector organizations in that they are more multifunctional, they have political executives as leaders, and they do not operate in a market. So the policy advice is that administrative reforms need to be adapted to local contexts, implying that holistic models have clear limitations. When means–end knowledge of reforms is poor, a cautious, experimental, and incremental reform style is more promising than big bang reforms.

Another concern is the efficiency problem versus the expectation problem. Often, dissatisfaction with public-sector organizations has more to do with unrealistically high expectations among users, clients, and citizens regarding the capability of public-sector organizations than with low efficiency. So maybe we need a policy that will lower expectations rather than increase efficiency.

NPM research has shifted from descriptive mapping and normative and analytical critique toward analyses of the paradoxes of NPM (Hood & Peters, 2004). However, still needed are more tests of the limits of NPM in terms of different administrative values. Probably the greatest need is for reliable empirical data on the effects and implications of NPM across countries, policy areas, government levels, and over time, both regarding the effects on the main goals of efficiency and economy and the side effects on democratic legitimacy, fairness, accountability, and resilience.


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