Recovering the Craft of Public Administration

Roderick A. W. Rhodes

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First published: 08 December 2015

Citations: 77

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Public sector reform has rarely dropped off the political agenda of Western governments, yet the old craft skills of traditional public administration remain of paramount importance. The pendulum has swung too far toward the new and the fashionable reforms associated with New Public Management and the New Public Governance. It needs to swing back toward bureaucracy and the traditional skills of bureaucrats as part of the repertoire of governing. This article discusses the skills of counseling, stewardship, practical wisdom, probity, judgment, diplomacy, and political nous. Although these skills are of wide relevance, the article focuses on their relevance in Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. It concludes that the next bout of reforms needs to recover the traditional craft skills. It is not a question of traditional skills versus the new skills of New Public Management or New Public Governance; it is a question of what works, of what skills fit in a particular context.

Practitioner Points

· We need to abandon the public service reform syndrome in which reform succeeds reform, with no time for the intended changes to take place, no evaluation, and no clear evidence of either success or failure, and take stock of where we have come from before embarking on another round of reform.

· The traditional craft skills of public administration remain relevant today because of the primacy of politics in the work of top political-administrators.

· The craft skills include counseling, stewardship, prudence, probity, judgment, diplomacy, and political nous.

· It is not a question of traditional skills versus the skills of the New Public Management or the skills needed to manage networks but of the right mix of skills for a specific context.

For the past 40 years, many governments have had an obsessive concern with reforming the public service. We have seen a shift from the New Public Management (NPM) to the New Public Governance (NPG). Reform has succeeded reform, with no time for the intended changes to take effect, no evaluation, and no clear evidence of either success or failure. Rather, we are left with the dilemmas created by the overlapping residues of past reforms. So, we need to take stock of where we have come from. We need to look back to look forward. We need to ask, what is the role of the public servant in the era of NPM and NPG?

Westminster governments were enthusiastic reformers of their public services. Indeed, they are all categorized as “core NPM states” by Pollitt and Bouckaert ( 2011 , 124). An important result of the reforms was to push to one side the traditional craft skills of senior public servants. These skills, however, continue to have much utility. We need to recognize that the old craft skills of traditional public administration remain important. The first section of this article provides a baseline for this discussion by describing the main characteristics of traditional public administration and the reforms associated with NPM and NPG. The next section defines the craft. The following section discusses the craft skills of counseling, stewardship, practical wisdom, probity, judgment, diplomacy, and political nous. Finally, the article discusses ways of systematically recovering craft skills and comments on the wider relevance of the notion of craft.

It is not a central aim of this article to criticize either NPM or NPG. It is not a question of traditional skills versus the skills of New Public Management or network governance. Rather, we need to strike a better balance between the old and the new. It is a question of what works, of which skills fit in a particular context. The pendulum has swung too far for too long toward the new and the fashionable. It needs to swing back toward bureaucracy and the traditional skills of bureaucrats as part of the repertoire of governing.

This article focuses on public service reform in Westminster governments, although its relevance is not limited to them. However, it is not possible to cover all Western governments. This group of nations bear a strong family resemblance (Rhodes, Wanna, and Weller 2009 , 9), and they were at the heart of the reforms. They are comparable. The phrase “civil or public servant” refers to public sector employees of national government departments. The phrase “Westminster” refers to Britain and the old dominion countries of the British Commonwealth such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Westminster is a family of ideas including responsible cabinet government, ministerial responsibility to parliament, a professional nonpartisan public service, and the unity of the executive and legislature. A professional, nonpartisan public service is a central notion in any definition of Westminster (see, e.g., Rhodes, Wanna, and Weller 2009 , 10, and citations).

Because the terminology varies among countries, the label “politicians and public servants” has been standardized throughout the article. I focus on senior politicians and public servants. In Britain, the top official is called the permanent secretary; in Australia, the departmental secretary; and in Canada, the deputy minister. For convenience and simplicity, the short form “secretary” is used throughout. Similarly, the term for the politician at the head of the department or agency varies. The term “minister” is used throughout. However, both ministers and secretaries are interdependent with overlapping roles and responsibilities, each role one side of the same coin. So, following Heclo and Wildavsky ( 1974 , 2, 36), they are also referred to as “political administrators” to stress their interdependence.

From Traditional Public Administration to the New Public Governance

Table 1 summarizes the shift from traditional public administration to the New Public Management to the latest wave of reform, the New Public Governance.

Table 1. Public Administration, New Public Management, and New Public Governance Compared

Paradigm/Key Elements Theoretical Roots State Tradition Unit of Analysis Key Focus Resource Allocation Mechanism Core Beliefs
Public administration Political science and public policy Unitary/federal Political-administrative system Policy advice and implementation Hierarchy Public sector ethos
New Public Management Rational choice theory and management studies Regulatory Organization Management of organizational resources and performance Markets Efficiency, competition, and the market
New Public Governance New Institutionalism and network theory Differentiated Network Negotiation of values, meanings, and relationships Networks Trust and reciprocity

· Sources: Compiled from Osborne ( 2010 ) and Rhodes ( 1998 ). For a similar table showing that this analysis is relevant to the United States, see Bryson, Crosby, and Bloomberg (2014).

Traditional Public Administration

We turned our backs on traditional public administration; it was seen as the problem, not the solution. Of course, the bureaucracies of yesteryear had their faults, and the reformers had a case (see, e.g., Osborne and Gaebler 1992 ; Pollitt 1993 ). For example, in Britain, the Fulton Committee inaugurated the era of reform with its diagnoses that the civil service “is still fundamentally the product of the nineteenth-century” and that the “structure and practices of the Service have not kept up with the changing tasks” (1968, 9). Most notoriously, it claimed that “the Service is still essentially based on the philosophy of the amateur (or ‘generalist’ or ‘all-rounder’) and that this “cult is obsolete at all levels and in all parts of the Service” (1968, 11). Margaret Thatcher subscribed to this view (Hennessy 1989 , part IV). Yet the defining characteristics of traditional public administration are not red tape, cost, and inefficiency. Rather, the phrase refers to classic bureaucrats working in a hierarchy of authority and conserving the state tradition. In table 1 , their task is to provide policy advice for their political masters and oversee the implementation of the politician’s decision. Politicians, political staffers, and even some public servants continue to hold important misconceptions about the past of our public services. They forget that bureaucracy persists because it provides “consistent, stable administration,” “equity in processes,” “expertise,” and “accountability” (Meier and Hill 2005 , 67; see also Goodsell 2004 ).

According to a former head of the British Home Civil Service, Sir Edward Bridges, the generalist has four “skills or qualities.” First, he or she must have “long experience of a particular field.” Second, the individual must have the specialized skills or arts of the administrator, for example, spotting “the strong and weak points in any situation.” Third, the civil servant should “study difficult subjects intensively and objectively, with the same disinterested desire to find the truth at all costs.” Finally, the civil servant must “combine the capacity for taking a somewhat coldly judicial attitude with the warmer qualities essential to managing large numbers of staff” (Bridges 1950, 50, 52, 55–57). Turning to more recent times, Simon James, a former civil servant, summarizes the required skills as “the capacity to absorb detail at speed, to analyze the unfamiliar problem at short notice, to clarify and summarize it, to present options and consequences lucidly, and to tender sound advice in precise and clear papers” (1992, 26; see also Wilson 2003 ). Traditional public administration continues to be characterized as an art and a craft as much as it is a science, and public servants are generalists—that is, a profession based on craft knowledge.

Traditional public administration continues to be characterized as an art and a craft as much as it is a science, and public servants are generalists—that is, a profession based on craft knowledge.

The New Public Management

The past 40 years have seen three waves of NPM reforms (for a more detailed account, see Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011 , chap. 1; Rhodes 2011 , 23–33). As seen in table 1 , the first wave of NPM was managerialism or hands-on professional management, explicit standards and measures of performance, managing by results, and value for money. That was only the beginning. In the second wave, governments embraced marketization or neoliberal beliefs about competition and markets. It introduced ideas about restructuring the incentive structures of public service provision through contracting out and quasi markets. The third wave of NPM focused on service delivery and citizen choice. Nothing has gone away. We have geological strata of reforms. Thus, Hood and Lodge suggest that we have created a “civil service reform syndrome” in which “initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, leaving behind residues of varying size and style” (2007, 59). As one secretary said, “the inoculation theory of reform does not work—you are not immune after one bout.” Although the extent of the reforms varies from country to country, and the Westminster countries were among the most enthusiastic, public service reform is ubiquitous. Pollitt and Bouckaert conclude that NPM “has become a key element in many … countries. It has internationalized… . In short, it has arrived” (2011, 9).

What are the implications for public servants of NPM reform? The search for better management remains at the forefront of civil service reform, and better management means the practices of the private sector. Two examples out of the embarrassing number available will be enough. The U.K. coalition government’s Civil Service Reform Plan focused on skills and competencies. The focus was on management—for example, “the Civil Service needs staff with commissioning and contracting skills; and project management capabilities need a serious upgrade” (Her Majesty’s Government 2012 , 9). Australia had the Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration ( 2010 ) and the Leadership and Core Skills Strategy and Integrated Leadership System (APSC 2014 ). In both countries, leadership is often invoked and refers to managing government departments.

This obsession with NPM has had adverse effects on traditional skills. For example, Pollitt ( 2008 , 173) gives his recipe for losing institutional memory: rotate staff rapidly, change the information technology often, restructure every two years, reward management over other skills, and adopt each new management fad. All three departments in Rhodes’s ( 2011 , chap. 7) study of British government met most of these criteria. He found poor record keeping, the annual postings of the best staff, and high staff turnover. Add internal reorganizations, managerial reform, and especially the successive waves of the delivery agenda, and it can be no surprise that ministers complained about the loss of memory. And ministers come and go, rarely lasting more than two years. From her observational fieldwork in the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Wilkinson concludes that corporate memory is the preserve of the bureaucracy; without it, “policymakers lose the knowledge of their constitutional context, departmental history, and awareness of which policies have succeeded and failed in the past” (2009, 14).

The nearer reform gets to the political sphere, the vaguer the discussion. Thus, better policy making boils down to a call for greater “contestability” in policy advice—that is, for advice from competing sources. Under the label “what works,” the government seeks more evidence-based policy making (Her Majesty’s Government 2012 , chap. 2). It does not discuss the respective roles of secretaries and ministers. When the Civil Service Plan report touches on the tasks of political-administrators, it can strike a politically naive tone. Thus, upon implementation, it suggests that ministers, who will be in office for two years or less, will delay a policy announcement while it is thought through and civil servants are retrained (2012, 18). The comment “implausible” springs to one’s lips unbidden. It is all too easy to hear the impatience in the minister’s voice. Indeed, NPM has not had much effect on the behavior of ministers. Pollitt and Bouckaert conclude that “there is an absence of convincing evidence” (2011, 180–81).

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