Social and Public Policy

As the leading publisher in Social and Public Policy, we publish in the core social sciences to highlight social issues, advance debate and positively influence policy and practice. 

Our list leads the way on conversations around inequality and social injustice featuring authors such as Peter Townsend, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Danny Dorling, Pete Alcock, John Hills and Bob Jessop. Series including the International Library of Policy Analysis and Research in Comparative and Global Social Policy bring international, high-quality scholarship together in order to address globally shared challenges.

Our key journals in this field are the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, an internationally unique forum for leading research on the themes of poverty and social justice, Policy & Politics, a world-leading journal that is committed to advancing our understanding of the dynamics of policy making and implementation, and Evidence & Policy, dedicated to comprehensive and critical assessment of the relationship between researchers and the evidence they produce and the concerns of policy makers and practitioners.

Social and Public Policy

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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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This chapter has three objectives. The first is to show that while co-production was originally tied to service production, co-creation has broader applications in the field of public governance and involves a broader range of actors and activities. The second objective is to demonstrate how the co-creation concept both builds on and extends the concept of collaborative governance, thus adding new dimensions to an already well-established literature. The final objective is to show how a strategic turn to co-creation introduces a new type of ‘generative governance’ aimed at solving complex problems by constructing platforms enabling the formation of arenas for co-creation that bring together a plethora of public and private actors, including citizens, in creative problem-solving processes. The three objectives are achieved through prospective theoretical analysis aimed at providing a conceptual foundation for analysing cutting-edge societal developments that are not yet commonplace.

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Collaborative governance is believed to lead to more innovative solutions to complex problems in public services. This chapter analyses whether this hypothesis applies in the case of decentralisation of labour market policy to regional networks of various actors in the Netherlands. We first develop a theoretical argument that integrates theories of collaborative governance with theories of innovation, distinguishing between a wide and a small option for innovation in relation to the structure, process and output/outcome of collaborative governance. Our findings show that, despite a variety of partnerships and ambitions across the regions, new and bold solutions to complex problems are scarce. In particular, wide innovation, which creates public value beyond the existing policy frameworks and services, is limited in practice. The chapter advances the theory by specifying barriers and conditions for network innovation in the public sector, and provides some suggestions for further research.

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The chapters in this edited collection add to a rapidly developing literature on co-creation in public services management. This final chapter focuses what might otherwise be a wide ranging discussion by addressing core themes proposed in the volume’s introduction. We consider:

• basic definitions of co-production and co-creation; the claim of a possible move from lower order co-production to higher level co-creation;

• the link with different models of strategic management, why strategic management is important and which models are promising;

• the potential role of digitalisation in the move to co-production and co-creation;

• the possible link with co-creation informed innovation which contributes to the pursuit of public value outcomes.

We examine the potential role of strategic management along with the nature of any ‘metagovernance’ of associated policy networks. The conclusion makes general observations and considers future research direction.

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