From Old Public Administration to the New Public Service by Mark Robinson — A Summary

Title: From Old Public Administration to the New Public Service — Implications for Public Sector Reform in Developing Countries
Author: Mark Robinson
Publication: UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (2015)


Public sector reform needs to account for the increasingly complex, wicked and global policy problems and move away from the traditional public administration paradigm. A selective and modeled approach to reform keeping in mind the different contexts and interests of the citizens is the need of the hour.

Models of Public Administration and Approaches to Public Sector Reforms

There are three chief approaches to public administration. The Old Public Administration, the New Public Management and the New Public Governance. Each of these is associated with a distinct philosophy and conceptual framework.

The traditional approach to public administration is predicated on a top-down and elitist approach in which public officials are instilled with values of hierarchy, independence, and integrity, and are insulated from politicians and citizens. In contrast, the New Public Management approach is based on public choice theory and the principal-agent approach in which public officials require oversight and supervision to constrain their self-interested behaviour and thereby prevent inefficiency and corruption. The New Public Service perspective, rooted in democratic theory, emphasizes the accountability of officials to citizens, whereby officials serve and respond to citizens rather than steering society.

Pubic Service Reform Probems

The Old Public Administration

Drawing on the ideas of Weber, the traditional approach was built on the twin principles of hierarchy and meritocracy. It centralised control, standardised rules and separated policy making from policy implementation. The watchword was efficiency.

This approach dominated bureaucracies around the world. But many post-colonial states suffered a decline in the effectiveness due to a dilution of the principle of merit based appointments. Reform policies, however, stuck to the old paradigm as it was positively connected with economic growth. Instead, reforms sought to streamline the bureaucracy in order to make it smaller, cheaper and more efficient and not to supplant it with a new model.

The New Public Management

The New Public Management approach rose as a reaction to the limitation of the traditional approach. Its key elements were competition, delegation, performance and responsiveness. New management principles of the private sector were introduced. Core services were often outsourced to private hands.

This approach took hold in advanced countries during the mid-80s and partially in less developed countries by the dawn of the new millennium. NPM reforms have mostly been only partial. And wherever they have been implemented — semi-autonomous tax agencies; private contractors for health, education and sanitation; citizen’s charters — the results have been mixed at best. Also, problems of reduced accountability, policy incoherence and conceptual confusion have plagued NPM.

The New Public Governance

The New Public Governance approach is not yet a coherent paradigm. But there are commonalities to the approaches that comprise it. NPG stresses public interest and places citizens at the centre as co-producers of services and the delivery of services.

NPG incorporates a number of features ...: the state is both plural in that public service delivery is undertaken by multiple inter-dependent actors and pluralist in that multiple processes and inputs shape policy making.

The New Public Service

The New Public Service approach with its focus on citizens, community and civil society and its reliance on active and involved citizens is the most coherent among the approaches that comprise NPG. Public managers are expected to negotiate rather than control, governments are expected to be accountable and public servants are expected to be principled.

However, NPS is, due to its emphasis on citizen interest, highly normative and value-driven. It is still far from a comprehensive paradigm making other strands of NPG important.

The whole-of-government approach … (which emphasises) strengthened central oversight and increased horizontal collaboration … as a necessary corrective to the problems of fragmentation generated by NPM.

The second strand, rooted in the transformative potential of digital governance, focuses on the efficiency gains that could be realized by the use of new technology to improve service delivery and the potential of new technologies for opening up government information to public access and scrutiny to increase transparency and accountability.

A third strand focuses on the motivation of public officials — intrinsic motivations associated with a public-sector ethos and extrinsic motivations that focus on rewards and incentives — arguing that changes in organizational arrangements need to be complemented by greater attention to the values and incentives that govern behaviour and performance.

Old Public Administration New Public Management New Public Service

Globalisation, Complexity and Wicked Problems

NPG approaches interested in the operational context of public agencies are greatly influenced by the changing external context brought about by globalisation. The pace and significance of globalisation has necessitated greater emphasis on transnational governance.

Koppell (2010) identifies three ascendant institutional forms and practices that transcend the boundaries that traditionally define the study of public administration: First, organizations that mix characteristics of governmental and non-governmental entities now play a central role in the delivery of public goods and services in almost every policy arena. Second, market mechanisms in the regulation and allocation of scarce resources seem to be favoured in numerous policy areas. Third, cross-border cooperation and, in some cases, reliance on institutions that span nation states is an increasingly common response to transnational public policy challenges.

Many public policy problems are wicked in that they cut across policy areas and political boundaries. These problems require multi-faceted solutions arrived at through collaboration across organisations and disciplines. Singularity must make way for customisation and rigidity must make way for flexibility.

Implications for Public Sector Reform

Most approaches for reform have tended towards structural and organisational changes within the traditional paradigm in order to make it more effective. And this focus on strengthening centralised agencies is advisable for developing countries.

In practice, however, a hybrid of different models has been implemented in many developing countries without properly addressing the fundamental structural problems arising out of a weak and corrupt bureaucracy. The results have been uninspiring at best leading to a back-to-basics approach for countries that lack administrative capacity and are marked by political instability.

Next Steps?

[These are extracts.]

Three conclusions flow from the discussion. First, public sector reform efforts should be sensitive to context and draw on various approaches; no single model of public management offers a magic bullet to deep-set problems of public administration.

Second, only those countries that have established the basic organizational requirement of a functioning public administration will be in a position to experiment with New Public Management reforms to increase internal competition and the accountability of service providers.

Third, and by extension, a heterodox approach that draws selectively on a range of public management traditions will be more appropriate for many developing countries than an approach to reform grounded in models that have evolved in the political and economic conditions of advanced industrialized countries.


Published by


I am chronic procrastinator.