Managing Government, Governing Management

16 June 2016

Government certainly needs to be managed, but management also needs to be governed. It cannot just be let loose on public services, especially in the form of the “New Public Management” that imitates fashionable business practices. Governments no more need to be run like businesses than businesses need to be run like governments.

This New Public Management is hardly new: it began with the Thatcher government, in the U.K. of the 1980s. Yet for many influential people today, the old New Public Management remains the “one best way” to manage government.

Wax statue of Margaret Thatcher by YortW, CC BY 2.0

There is no one best way to manage everything. These practices have done their share of damage to many government departments, and beyond. Many corporations and NGOs have also suffered from what can reduce to a contemporary form of bureaucracy that discourages innovation, damages cultures, and disengages employees.

In essence, the New Public Management seeks to (a) isolate public services, so that (b)  each can be run by an individual manager, who is (c) held accountable for quantitate measures of performance, while (d) treating the recipient of these services as “customers.” Let’s take a look at all this.

Am I a customer of my government, or a citizen and a subject?  I am no customer of my government, thank you, buying services at arm’s length in the marketplace of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do I really need to be called a “customer” to be treated decently?

I am in fact a citizen, who has every right to expect more than a mere customer. This is my government, after all. I am also a subject—whether formally in kingdoms or de facto elsewhere—who has responsibilities to my state. For example, while I may choose to empty my tray at McDonald’s, in our public parks I am expected to keep things tidy. How about soldiers drafted in wartime: are they customers of the government they are expected to serve? And criminals: are they customers of the justice system? True I may be a customer of the state lottery, but frankly, government has no business encouraging me to gamble.

Some activities are in government because caveat emptor cannot possibly apply. Regulation for example. And policing: blacks are citizens of the United States who should not have to beware of their own police. Other activities are funded by government, if not necessarily be delivered by it, to ensure  equality and decency of service. Think of the many health care and educational activities delivered by not-for-profit institutions on behalf of government. (Imagine caveat emptor applied to open heart surgery.)

Can government services be isolated from each other, as well as from political influences, so they can be managed by their managers?   Sure sometimes—again the state lottery. But how about diplomacy?

Let the managers manage” is the motto, just like in business. It sounds good. Isolate the services so that managers themselves can manage them while being held accountable for the results.  (And don’t forget to call these managers CEOs.) Talk about centralization—or more exactly, decentralization from the central state apparatus in order to centralize the department.

Johnson & Johnson can have one brand manager for Tylenol and another for Anusol. But can a government have one brand manager for waging a war and another for diplomatic negotiations to end it? Individuals may be assigned to these activities, but can their responsibilities be isolated? Government activities are wide-ranging, covering so much of life itself, yet can be intricately intertwined, as in life itself.

Nor can the policy-making of many public services be easily separated from the  administration of them. Sure the politicians need to be kept from meddling, especially where there can be graft. But can they remain aloof, for example, when the police are accused of abuse?

This separation of policy-making from administration parallels the belief in business that strategies are formulated at the “top” so that everyone else can implement down below. The superstructure plans and the microstructures execute. It’s all very tidy. Except that the interesting strategies are learned, not planned—sometimes throughout the organization, namely back and forth between managers and other people on the ground. In government this separation is built in, and reinforced by the New Public Management. Yet it can stifle innovation and flexibility.

Free Press and Prentice-Hall International, 1994. Amazon

Can we really rely on performance measures in government?  Measurement has been adopted with a religious fervor in the New Public Management. Look what it has done to the education of our children. I defy anyone to measure adequately what a child learns in a classroom (and you to measure what you are learning in this TWOG). 

Sure we need to measure what we can, just so long as we don’t pretend that everything that matters can be measured. Much that matters in government is not in business precisely because it has no easy measures of performance.

I have been railing on about the dangers of obsessive measuring in a number of these TWOGs. In government, the need to measure everything in sight may now be doing as much harm as corruption. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is the popular motto. When enough people believe it, we shall have to close down government.

The “balanced scoreboard” is based on the mistaken belief that we can level the playing field across social and economic considerations by measuring both. But that scoreboard can never be balanced because things social are often much harder to measure than things economic. (Once a year I repeat one of my favorite TWOGs about this, called “What could possibly be wrong with efficiency?” Coming soon.) What we need in government, and elsewhere, are balanced brains.

So the next time some civil servant calls you a customer or imposes some artificial measure on you, the next time you meet a “CEO” of some government agency, the next time some candidate for political office claims that government needs to be run more like a business (heard that lately?), tell them that if they wish to manage government effectively, they shall have to respect government for what it is—while governing its management.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. An earlier article by the same title makes a few of these points and others. See also our book Managing PubliclyFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.