Public Management's Uncertain Future

There are some worrisome signs that the near future could be even rockier than the recent past. There are also some serious causes for hope.
November 5, 2006
By John D. Donahue  |  Contributor
John D. Donahue is a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Case Program and the SLATE teaching initiative.

The past couple of decades have been rough times for public management. Budget crunches, bureaucrat-bashing and toxic politics get in the way of doing good work. What's next? There are some worrisome signs that the near future could be even rockier than the recent past. There are also some serious causes for hope. And there's one big conundrum.

Bad News: The highest-profile danger signs are on the fiscal front. City and state budgets are in reasonably good shape, for the moment. But federal finances suffer from potentially -- or, more accurately, eventually -- ruinous contradictions. Public debt is swelling just when it should be shrinking (to brace for the entitlement tsunami of aging boomers). An unsustainable trend, as economist Herbert Stein liked to say, won't be sustained. Whether by deliberate policy or wrenching crisis, the gap between Washington 's income and outgo will narrow. When it does, austerity will ripple through the intergovernmental system. It will take a while to work our way out of the fiscal hole, and managers at all levels of government will have to do even more with even less.

Another bit of bad news, alluded to in my previous column, is the deepening divide between the public and private worlds of work. Skyrocketing private sector awards for top performers are draining talent away from government. The big wave of able idealists signing on for public service a generation ago is receding, due to retirement, death or disillusionment. It will be tough to replace them with candidates approaching the same caliber.

Good News: While it's easy to miss amid the squalid atmosphere of the recent elections, we may be entering an era of more grown-up politics. City and state voters have been rewarding problem-solvers and punishing mudslingers when choosing their mayors and governors. There are some early signs at the federal level that voters are getting sick of invective and innuendo and ready for debates about competence. If the trend continues, the upside for public managers could be enormous. When politics is a partisan snakepit, the quality of management is almost irrelevant to elected officials. When effectiveness becomes a first-order issue for the electorate, management matters a lot.

We're also seeing a rebound in citizens' views about public workers. September 11 marked a watershed, as vivid images of heroism cancelled out a thousand slanders. But upgraded reputations aren't limited to soldiers and cops and firefighters. A recent Harris poll found civil servants in general are now more trusted than bankers, congressmen, journalists, lawyers, newscasters, stockbrokers ... or pollsters. (Though they're less trusted than professors. Go figure.)

Most subtly, but maybe most importantly, public managers are learning how to improvise and innovate their way around today's constraints on government. A richer repertoire for getting public work done is gradually taking shape. Much of this improved repertoire features cooperation across units of government or collaboration with businesses and nonprofits outside of government. Practitioners' experiments with intergovernmental networks and public-private collaboration, despite the inevitable failures and setbacks, are slowly but surely producing a toolkit of techniques for creating public value despite tight budgets and short staffs.

Who Knows? The conundrum has to do with the tension between core elements of the good news and the bad news. On the one hand, the growing importance of contracts, networks and collaboration means government can function without vast numbers of public workers. But the workers who fill these leaner ranks have to be really, really good. Orchestrating intergovernmental cooperation and cross-sectoral collaboration calls for analytic and managerial skills of the very highest order.

Will compensation reforms, bolstered by big boosts in status and other non-financial lures, shore up public personnel systems and secure the quality of management that modern governance requires? Or will a talent drought stifle promising experiments in new models for accomplishing government's missions? The next chapter for public management can be written either way.