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Having explored some micro-foundations of public management reform in the previous chapter, we now turn to the more ‘macro’ perspective provided by organisational sociology. Although sociologists care deeply about human agency, their additional concern to situate this amid the powerful but latent social structures that constitute society at large contrasts markedly with the methodological individualism of cognitive psychology. In particular, this chapter focuses on the ‘institutional theory of organisations’, which explains reform as a compromise between one overt and one latent influence on organisational behaviour. The former is the familiar, instrumental purpose of enhancing technical performance and goal attainment; the latter, hidden but no less causative, relates to furthering the organisation’s social approval – or legitimacy – among powerful constituencies. The chapter begins by defining legitimacy and explaining its influence over organisations. Next, it shows how the twin considerations of efficiency and legitimacy interact – at times reinforcing one another, at times forcing trade-offs. Finally, the chapter explores practical implications for improving public management reform based on this sociological account, including the potential use of legitimacy as a check on organisational misdeeds and the caution needed around ‘flashy’ reform ideas.

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This brief introduction situates public management reform amid the two principal alternative mechanisms for building management capability for the state: changes effected by public managers individually responding to problems and opportunities on a discretionary, case-by-case basis (termed the ‘laissez-faire’ approach); and change as an involuntary reaction to sudden and severe adversity, such as war or natural disaster (termed ‘shock and awe’). The advantages and limitations of laissez faire and shock and awe are discussed, before top-down public management reform is presented as a response to these, involving deliberate policymaking by a central authority determining how public services should be organised and managed across multiple sites simultaneously. The argument of, and structure for, the remainder of the book is then previewed.

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Applying cognitive psychology to questions of public management reform provides an opportunity to examine its ‘micro-foundations’. Rather than asking how disembodied socio-economic forces initiate or condition reform processes, we look, far more granularly, at the choices of individual decision-makers. Further, by rooting our analysis in cognition rather than preferences, we replace the microeconomist’s concern for utility and incentives with the psychologist’s focus on information processing, perception, and judgement. After briefly outlining the merits and challenges of adopting such an approach to understanding and improving reform, this chapter explains the concepts of heuristics (information-processing shortcuts) and biases (non-random errors resulting from heuristics) that psychology provides for analysing cognition. It then shows how two common biases – the tendency to overlook evidence contrary to existing beliefs (‘confirmation bias’), and the tendency to notice, diagnose, and respond to bad news more than good (‘negativity bias’) – can help to explain several widely recognised reform pathologies. These include wrongly equating dissimilar organisations, over-reforming in high-performing contexts, and devising pendular reforms that circle back and forth between opposing doctrines. The conclusion suggests an empirical research agenda to test these ideas and discusses how ‘de-biasing’ might improve reform design.

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This final chapter concludes the study and considers what the future of research and practice in public management reform could entail. First, the main theoretical and practical arguments are synthesised from the three disciplinary chapters. We compare the units of analysis in psychological, sociological, and economic accounts of reform; review what each perspective regards as the key opportunities and risks when policymakers seek to build public management capability by top-down intervention; and compare their recommended strategies for securing better outcomes. Second, we discuss three over-arching themes developed across the prior chapters: (i) that decision-makers are predisposed to reform action over inaction; (ii) that bettering reform outcomes means not simply improving old habits, but making profoundly different policy choices to begin with; and (iii) that the policymaker’s humility is essential, lest reform do more harm than good. Lastly, the chapter addresses the merits and limitations of taking an inter-disciplinary approach to reform, particularly in light of the current predominance of ‘paradigms’ in this field of research.

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What is public management reform? Why do governments desire to reshape the organisation and management of public services so often? And how successful are these reform efforts, typically? This chapter addresses each question in turn. It first argues that to manage is to make productive the resources required to pursue organisational objectives; and that ‘public’ management occurs when those objectives relate to the politically identified needs of communities, rather than the market-revealed wants of consumers. ‘Public management reform’ thus involves policymaking by a central authority in respect of how the resources needed for public service delivery are made productive in subordinate organisations. Next, the chapter suggests that, in practice, management reform also substitutes for various other important but harder-to-realise enablers of public services, like better policy design or increased resources, even if ill-suited to some of these ‘surrogate’ duties. Finally, using published systematic reviews, the chapter surveys evidence on effectiveness of five widespread public management reforms – administrative decentralisation within national governments (or ‘agencification’), changes to the size of local government units through amalgamation and inter-municipal cooperation, public service outsourcing, and performance management. These reveal significant under-performance in each case.

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This chapter draws upon two foundational concepts from economics to consider issues relating to resource allocation in public management reform. ‘Opportunity costs’ arise because productive resources are multipurpose but scarce. Each can achieve many different ends, but investing in one objective means foregoing others, producing an implicit loss in utility. ‘Transaction costs’, by contrast, relate to the work involved in making and enforcing the agreements necessary to coordinate economic exchanges – between workers and managers, or collaborating organisations, or contracting parties. Each actor seeks to hedge against the risks of exchange (for instance, by negotiating and monitoring lengthy contracts), and in so doing incurs transaction costs that subtract from the total benefits of cooperation. Both opportunity and transaction costs are ‘quiet’ costs, in that they are hard to measure and easily overlooked. Yet, as the chapter explores, failing to account for opportunities foregone, or for the frictions of multi-party exchange, can lead to poor estimates of reform value and unchecked growth in the rate at which scarce public resources are diverted from production towards ‘arranging for’ that production.

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Why do top-down reforms to public services so often over-promise and under-deliver?

Using five concepts from psychology, economics and organisational sociology, Thomas Elston addresses this pressing question of good governance.

Focusing on the practical challenge of how to undertake better public management reforms, he questions the assumption that failure typically occurs because of poor reform implementation. Instead, he shows how reforms are often badly designed from the outset, being fashion-led, more focused more on fixing errors than exploiting opportunities and ignoring implicit costs of change.

This concise, practically-orientated work employs diverse examples to propose ways to improve the design of public sector reform programmes – and the services that citizens receive.

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In this chapter, I begin with a more detailed outline of the philosophical and theoretical foundations of photovoice before discussing the research foci and questions that photovoice studies may explore. The chapter concludes with a consideration of participants, as well as their recruitment and engagement in photovoice.

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This chapter reflects in the methodological problems when studying secret state practices. Theoretical reflection is necessarily limited by the difficulty of accessing empirical data. While for some, the answer has been to build stronger research partnership with police institutions themselves, this chapter questions the reliability and ethics of such an approach. It uses the example of the former undercover officer Bob Lambert who later took on lectureships at universities without disclosing the details of his deployments. Rather, the tendency for police organisations to protect their reputations and to limit the disclosure of internal material should be treated as a form of data itself. The chapter is therefore a call for ‘deviant knowledge’ (Walters, 2003) and activist research.

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in Spycops

This chapter draws on the work of Gary Marx (1984) and William Walters (2021) to analyse the Undercover Policing Inquiry as a holder of ‘dirty data’ and its processes as maintaining secrecy through ‘devices of dis/closure’. It seeks to go beyond a reading of the Inquiry as simply maintaining the police’s secrets. Disclosure and secrecy are here seen as being in a more complex relationship with each other. Public inquiries employ various tools, or ‘devices of dis/closure’ in Walters’s terms, to mediate competing political, moral and technical demands for data management. Reflecting on each of these, the chapter examines how the Inquiry responded to the conflict between the state and non-state participants and how victims of undercover police abuse pressured both the police and the Inquiry to allow them to access their intelligence files.

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