The Concept of ‘New Public Management’

The last two decades to 2006 have been associated with a fundamental shift in the principles of public sector management in all industrialised countries.[2] This had, in turn, been a product of a general reinvention of the role of government, its agencies, the means by which services are delivered, and employment practices within public sector organisations.[3] At its core, this has been associated with a move away from a traditional model of public administration towards variants of the ‘new public sector management’ model.[4]

The traditional model of public administration, based on the doctrine of the separation of powers, was associated with the delegation of a specific set of functions to public administrators in the implementation of policy and the expenditure of public funds.[5] A central principle associated with this model was the idea that public service employees were independent from the political process.[6] Their role was encapsulated by the maxim of providing advice ‘without fear or favour’. This capacity for independent advice was assured through the idea of a career in the public service and explicit norms of behaviour and professional conduct.[7] It has also been presumed that public service employees were less likely to be motivated by extrinsic rewards, more likely to identify with value of service to the public and the provision of public goods, and have a strong commitment to principles of justice, fairness and equity in discharging their duties.[8]

This traditional model of public administration was associated with an expansive view of the role of government, which prevailed throughout much of the twentieth century. This view produced a significant role for government in regulating economic and social relations, owning productive assets and producing goods and services, in a range of areas in the period until the mid to late 1970s. From that time, the role of government and public sector organisations came under sustained scrutiny, with the result that governments privatised production of many goods and services previously seen as the natural domain of government, such as essential services; withdrew from the direct control of production of goods and services funded by the public purse through corporatisation and outsourcing; and encouraged the contestability of markets in which the government had previously been a monopoly producer.

This general reorientation of the role of government has been associated with changes to internal organisational attributes and management practices within public sector organisations. This ‘new public management’ has shifted the focus from public service to service delivery. The principles associated with new public management have been informed by the idea that public service needs to be more responsive to both the preferences of beneficiaries, citizens who pay for service provision through tax, and politicians who represent the collective will and make policy choices.[9] From this perspective, ministers are seen as analogous to customers,[10] and citizens to consumers.[11] New public management has been informed by economic doctrines that have advocated privatisation, contestability in the delivery of public goods and services and, where possible, the provision of these goods and services through the private sector.[12] For the core public service, this has also been associated with significant reforms to public employment systems and the norms of what constitutes professional public service.[13]

For Australian public service employees, this shift has involved the displacement of core legislative protections associated with independence by ‘value statements’ and ‘codes of ethical conduct’, along with protective legislation for whistleblowers.[14] More generally, this shift has occurred within the context of a decentralisation of managerial responsibilities for workforce planning and human resource management to individual departments and agencies. For middle managers, this has meant a significant increase in responsibility for both ensuring probity in managerial practice and dealing with the ethical issues and conflicts that arise in dealing with ministers and stakeholders, the responsible expenditure of public money and the fair and just delivery of services to the community.[15]