Panel 14: Effects, what effects?

On the (un)intended effects of public sector reforms

Chaired by: Sebastian Jilke (MA) (EUR), Sjors Overman (MSc) (RU), Sorin Dan (MA) (KU Leuven) & Astrid Molenveld (MSc) (KU Leuven),, &

1. Outline of the topic

This panel aims to bring together scholars to discuss papers that evaluate and compare the empirical effects of public sector reforms and their implications for public administration theory. The study of public sector reforms, such as how to organize the delivery of public services, has been a long-standing topic in public administration research (Hirschman 1970; Lyons and Lowery 1989; Ostrom 1996; Rothstein 1998; more recently see Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011). Ideas about how public services should be organized and look like have changed fundamentally in several aspects. In this respect, a shift from hierarchical steering mechanisms to market-based solutions has been put off in past decades. Many of these reforms have been placed under the label New Public Management (NPM) (Hood, 1991). Characterized by market solutions, deregulation, single purpose organizations and structural devolution, these reforms have important consequences for public administration and citizens at large.

Public sector reforms were frequently initiated and justified by reference to capacity building, effectiveness and efficiency (e.g. Bilodeau, Laurin, & Vining, 2006; Soss, Fording, & Schram, 2011). Based on a public choice logic, these goals should be attained through the creation of (quasi-)markets and the introduction of competition into public services. The underlying theoretical assumptions are twofold. It is based on the breakdown of service monopolies, which inhibit efficiency (Niskanen, 1971). At the same time, fragmenting big bureaucracies is supposed to solve coordination problems (Williamson, 1967). Furthermore, transforming public into (semi-) private organizations should also lead to more innovative service delivery and productive employees (Pollitt et al., 2001). Other potential effects of public service reforms such as the creation of semi-autonomous agencies include increasing accountability (Hodge & Coghill, 2007), a more responsive government, possibly leading to higher citizen satisfaction (Davies, 2007), or an enhanced political control and central steering over policy implementation (Goodwin & Grix, 2011).

On the other side it is, however, argued that the resulting marketization and fragmentation of public sectors had associated negative unintended effects on equity and equal access that further impact public sectors’ ability to build and sustain social cohesion within and across states (Hammerschmid and Van de Walle 2011). For citizens, changing the delivery and supply arrangements of services formerly provided by the state through public monopolies meant that they were no longer regarded as mere citizens, but as vocal and empowered consumers (Aberbach and Christensen 2005; Clarke et al. 2007). Citizens were put in a position to autonomously make choices as to which service providers best matched their needs and demands. This is sought to improve citizens’ overall welfare (Le Grand 2007). However, while some citizens-as-consumers may be able to capture their surplus by choosing the best performing provider, some argue that more vulnerable groups will be locked-in with poor performing services (Wilson and Waddams Price 2010; also Hirschman 1970). Many authors have discussed the anti-democratic implications of NPM inspired reforms (Behn 1998; Box et al. 2001; Gottfried 2001), especially their propensity to establish a ‘supermarket state’ model, where the wealthiest, best-informed and most assertive customer gets the best quality service (Christensen and Lægreid 2002; Olsen 1988).

Moreover, there is some empirical evidence for the claim that NPM alleged reforms can have negative external effects. Some researchers have, indeed, found a positive effect of privatization on efficiency and organizational stability (Pagoulatos, 2001; Warner & Bel, 2008), while others have noticed this goes at the expense of inequality, inaccessibility, lower political participation by citizens, and political conflict (Borzutzky, 2005; Hira, Huxtable, & Leger, 2005; Maloney, 2001). Authors who have focused on effects of the transfer of tasks within government, such as decentralization or agencification as opposed to contracting out or privatization, are fewer and did not find similarly negative results. For instance, school autonomy in the USA is found to improve participation of parents (Bifulco, 2006), just as decentralizing the power over natural resources to lower tier governments is found to increase equality of access (Clement, 2009). But clear evidence remains scarce and empirical cross-country comparisons remain few and far between.

Although there exist abundant studies covering public sector reforms, these include only a limited coverage of European countries, lack a cross-national comparison and have a limited empirical base. A number of substantive gaps in the literature can be identified. We know very little about the actual (un)intended effects public sector reforms had on public administrations and society at large (Pollitt and Dan 2011). There is also a lack of attention to new efforts towards coordination, cohesion and equity. In general, the discipline would greatly benefit from a larger proportion of empirical contributions that gather evidence for the intended and unintended effects of public sector reforms of past decades.

2. Linkage between panel and NIG subtheme

The proposed panel is strongly embedded within the NIG Public Management subtheme. Public management reform is a well-recognized theme within Dutch and Flemish public administration research. Core elements of this subtheme include evaluation of impacts of public management reform, agencification and joined-up government, and the international comparative analysis of state and administrative reform. The panel touches upon all of these elements. Public sector reforms have changed government structures, interactions between government and citizens and ideas about the role of public service delivery in modern society. Large waves and different varieties of public sector reforms were already witnessed in the 1980s and 90s (Pollitt, Van Thiel, & Homburg, 2007). Strikingly, new waves of reform have occurred since, while evidence for the effects of the reforms is still lacking. A discussion of the effects is highly relevant in both the academic and the practical debate.

3. Type of papers

In this panel we seek papers that are theoretically well informed empirical contributions (qualitative or quantitative), looking at the intended and/or unintended effects of public sector reforms. The panel is open to discussions in various policy fields including, but not limited to, traditional welfare services (e.g. social care, health, education, employment), public safety, infrastructure services, or central government in general. We particularly welcome papers that assess public sector reforms in European countries using comparative research designs, however, also single country studies are welcomed.


Bifulco, R. (2006). Institutional Change and Coproduction of Public Services: The Effect of Charter Schools on Parental Involvement. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 16(4), 553–576. doi:10.1093/jopart/muj001

Bilodeau, N., Laurin, C., & Vining, A. (2006). “Choice of Organizational Form Makes a Real Difference”: The Impact of Corporatization on Government Agencies in Canada. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 17(1), 119–147. doi:10.1093/jopart/mul014

Borzutzky, S. (2005). From Chicago to Santiago: neoliberalism and social security privatization in Chile. Governance, 18(4), 655–674.

Clement, F. (2009). Analysing decentralised natural resource governance: proposition for a “politicised” institutional analysis and development framework. Policy Sciences, 43(2), 129–156. doi:10.1007/s11077-009-9100-8

Davies, C. (2007). Grounding governance in dialogue? Discourse, practice and the potential for a new public sector organizational form in Britain. Public Administration, 85(1), 47–66.

Goodwin, M., & Grix, J. (2011). Bringing Structures Back in: The “Governance Narrative”, the “Decentred Approach” and “Asymmetrical Network Governance” in the Education and Sport Policy Communities. Public Administration, 89(2), 537–556. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.2011.01921.x

Hira, A., Huxtable, D., & Leger, A. (2005). Deregulation and participation: an international survey of participation in electricity regulation. Governance, 18(1), 53–88.

Hodge, G. A., & Coghill, K. (2007). Accountability in the privatized state. Governance, 20(4), 675–702.

Hood, C. (1991). A Public Management for All Seasons? Public Administration, 69(1), 3–19. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.1991.tb00779.x

Maloney, W. A. (2001). Regulation in an Episodic Policy-Making Environment: The Water Industry in England and Wales. Public administration, 79(3), 625–642.

Niskanen, W. A. (1971). Bureaucracy and representative government. Chicago: Aldine, Atherton.

Pagoulatos, G. (2001). The Enemy Within: Intragovernmental Politics and Organizational Failure in Greek Privatization. Public Administration, 79(1), 125.

Pollitt, C., Bathgate, K., Caulfield, J., Smullen, A., & Talbot, C. (2001). Agency fever? Analysis of an international policy fashion. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 3(3), 271–290. doi:10.1080/13876980108412663

Pollitt, C., Van Thiel, S., & Homburg, V. (2007). New public management in Europe: adaptation and alternatives. Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 5

Soss, J., Fording, R., & Schram, S. F. (2011). The Organization of Discipline: From Performance Management to Perversity and Punishment. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(Supplement 2), i203–i232. doi:10.1093/jopart/muq095

Warner, M. E., & Bel, G. (2008). COMPETITION OR MONOPOLY? COMPARING PRIVATIZATION OF LOCAL PUBLIC SERVICES IN THE US AND SPAIN. Public Administration, 86(3), 723–735. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.2008.00700.x

Williamson, O. E. (1967). Hierarchical Control and Optimum Firm Size. Journal of Political Economy, 75(2), 123–138.