Quote of the week
“…too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it.”
— Margaret Thatcher
The commentaries on Margaret Thatcher, who died this week at 87, have focused on her determination and ideological convictions. One area that she tackled as prime minister in which both these qualities came to play was civil service reform, and she is credited with being one of the leaders in the New Public Management (NPM) movement.
NPM was a movement designed to increase the efficiency of the public service by bringing in private sector expertise and approaches. As defined by the OECD, NPM aimed to make government “lean and more competitive while, at the same time, trying to make public administration more responsive to citizens’ needs by offering value for money, choice flexibility, and transparency.”
Thatcher believed that government had become too pervasive in the lives of citizens, arguing that “no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” It is interesting that David Cameron, the current U.K. PM, echoed her sentiments and those of people who believe that there is too much public sector interference in citizens’ lives when he said that government should no longer be considered the “default” when it comes to solving problems.
In 1979, Thatcher formed the Efficiency Unit to fight the age old battles of waste and inefficiency in government. As well, it was to lead the fight to reduce bureaucracy and cut down the size of the civil service. Derek Rayner from Marks and Spencer was brought in to run it. It led a review process that looked for areas to create efficiencies and reduce costs that had mixed results in terms of real savings.
The issue of NPM has resurfaced in the press. In his new book, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why, Donald Savoie argues that it was wrong to try to impose private sector management approaches on the public sector, arguing that they were “ill-conceived, misguided and costly to taxpayers.”
Savoie’s point is that NPM (private sector) management principles based on reaching a bottom line cannot work in a politically-charged environment where administration is based on “opinion, debate and blame avoidance.”
Savoie is not alone in arguing that NPM has past its prime. Nonetheless, we can credit the Iron Lady for forcing a generation to rethink how government works and to look for new ways of improving public administration through NPM.