Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Destined to become a standard text in public management, for all the right reasons"

John Alford and I have had great feedback on our book Rethinking Public Service Delivery: Managing with External Providers. The first published review is out now, via the Institute of Public Administration Australia (Victoria) site and reproduced here. Last week we made it into the Top 10 (albeit briefly!!) for Hot New Releases on Amazon.

 John Alford and Janine O’Flynn (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

Alford and O’Flynn have written an admirable book on the contemporary reality of public service delivery. For most public services effective delivery involves engaging external providers.
The work is broad in scope, erudition and example. It is practical in its intent as ‘unequivocally a book about management’ (p4) and true to that sober spirit, it is usable for practitioners. It is well organised and a pleasure to read for a subject so apparently dry. It elegantly – and cunningly, as the authors’ plain language masks their theoretical sophistication – subverts the view that external arrangements can be governed only by contract for material reward or by sanction. Ultimately, it challenges the inward-looking, superior, attitude of too many bureaucrats – the attitude that the savages outside (businesses, not-for-profits, the public) can only be bought or commanded, and must be governed accordingly.
Alford and O’Flynn may eschew that last characterisation as over-blown. They take care to demonstrate empirically against the managerial standard of costs and benefits how external providers are most effectively engaged, and to provide practicable advice as to what works best. Their disarming conclusion is: ‘there is no one best way’ in public delivery, ‘it depends’ on the circumstances.
At the risk of over-simplifying an extended yet lucid argument, their thesis is that:
  •             services differ in the nature of delivery, in their complexity, and the ease of output specification;
  •             the key questions for policy design are who decides, who produces, and of whom and how is coordination necessary;
  •             even if institutions or interests only respond to material reward or legal sanction, people are also motivated by ‘purposive values’ and social belonging - by a sense of the public good – so the means of securing engagement may vary; and
  •             ‘strategic’ and ‘relationship’ costs and benefits count, not just finances and efficacy.

Critical to the thesis is that ‘[t]o the extent that they receive private value, [public sector] clients seem analogous to private sector customers, but they are quite dissimilar in important ways’(p 177):as beneficiaries, obligatees or regulatees, as citizens, and so often and so much as ‘co-producers’ in a ‘public value chain’. Co-production is a concept which Alford has developed in a number of previous works, but never as simply and convincingly as here.
It is at this point that the thesis edges closest to a theory of democratic government, a theory overdue for reinstatement: that governing is different in kind because engagement is intrinsic and that in one way or another, consent is critical. But the book does not articulate this point as it ploughs its sober managerial field.
Along the way, Alford and O’Flynn offer astute guidance on diverse public management challenges:
  •             mobilising volunteers, and recognising the ‘relationship costs’ in doing so;
  •             how to avoid corrupting the particular value-add of not-for-profits; factoring in varying business cultures and drivers; and
  •             PPPs, noting that arrangements where government is solely the ‘decider’ and business solely the contract ‘provider’ are not partnerships in any business sense.

This is a point often lost on Treasury departments who specify contract terms so tight and allocate risk so fearfully as to rule out any additional public value generated in the creative pursuit of commercial opportunities.
Alford and O’Flynn’s concluding guidance on the capabilities required for establishing and sustaining external delivery is coherent and concrete.
This book is replete with tables and figures applying the argument ‘it depends’ on the circumstances, by way of easy-to-follow decision-making guidance for public managers.
It is destined to become a standard text in public management, for all the right reasons.
Available through Palgrave-Macmillan
Neil Edwards is an IPAA Victoria Fellow and Chairman of the Airservices Board of Training at Airservices Australia. He has held a number of senior public service positions at state and Commonwealth levels, working in Australia and Canada.

No comments:

Post a Comment