Public services affect lives and life chances significantly. From the quality of a country’s education system, to the housing, infrastructure and employment available to its citizens, to the care offered to the sick or vulnerable, to the size of the national debt – public services have a major role to play.

Reforming public services is, therefore, never far from the political agenda.  And, in particular, reforming their organisation and management – the ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ of service delivery – has been a special priority among many governments for several decades, if not longer.

In a concise and practical book published today, Thomas Elston, Associate Professor in Public Administration, argues that, though politically appealing and at times necessary, management reform has become an over-used and frequently ineffective tool for improving public services. “Especially in cases where public sector performance is already fairly high,” says Thomas, “the blunt instrument of reorganisation and top-down reform often prove counterproductive – disrupting services, distracting frontline professionals, and diverting funds from core priorities, all for little or no measurable benefit in organisational performance.” 

While this poor track record is well documented in prior research in public administration, its root causes and potential fixes have received far less attention. “It is not simply that good ideas for public management reform struggle at the implementation stage,” argues Thomas. “Rather, errors in data analysis, problem diagnosis and inference arise much earlier in the policy-making process – when ideas for reform are being generated in the first place. Small mistakes and misjudgements early on often prove highly consequential, setting reforms on an ill-fated trajectory irrespective of the many challenges that arise during implementation.”

In his new and interdisciplinary book, Understanding and Improving Public Management Reforms (Policy Press), Thomas attributes these difficulties to the psychology of decision-making, the social institutions that condition what types of reform ideas are and are not deemed valuable, and the ease with which the “quiet costs” of organisational change are overlooked.  What is more, he argues that psychology, sociology and economics provide workable solutions to many of these challenges – from easy-to-use tools to ‘de-bias’ decision-making to techniques for enhancing the robustness of reform business cases. 

Most of all, Thomas argues for greater caution when diagnosing public service problems as necessarily organisational in nature or as largely fixable by management reform alone. “No one can deny the importance of effective management,” says Thomas, “but public management reform is too often a “default” response to a far more complex set of challenges, substituting for other kinds of public policymaking that are probably far more suited to the task at hand.”

Thomas Elston is Associate Professor of Public Administration at the Blavatnik School of Government. His first book, Understanding and Improving Public Management Reforms, is published today, 30 April 2024, by Policy Press.