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Assessing public service reforms in the age of neoliberalism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn June I completed a seminar on Public Sector Reform in the MPA program of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.  The aim was to review and assess the main elements of public sector reforms during the age of neoliberalism (roughly 1978 to 2008.)   We had a great discussion.  The question for the final short paper was: The ‘crisis of governability’ of the 1970s produced a new paradigm about the role and organization of government that guided reform over the next three decades. What do you think is the most important legacy of this period?

Excerpts from the responses:

“The most important legacy of the reform period is the transition of government role to ‘steerer’ rather than ‘rower’. The reform trend of the 1980s caused governments to look inward and assess the efficiency of their ability to deliver services. As a result, governments have developed ways to focus on their mission critical tasks and to transfer service implementation to the on-the-ground experts who can fully devote attention to quality of service.”

“Many of the reforms that were introduced resulted in a significant erosion in the accountability of government. Despite the number of new structures and mechanisms that have been put in place to improve the transparency and accountability of government, their implementation has not been sufficiently effective as a result of decreased internal capacity, loss of technical and program-specific information, and overemphasis on quantitative performance measures. This loss of accountability may prove to be the most significant legacy of this period of reforms.”

“A generation after a massive restructuring of the relationship between government and citizens was launched, the logic and means of that restructuring are now often the only answer at the table, and a generation of citizens and public servants has grown up in an environment where there are no serious policy alternatives to what has become the overwhelmingly present norm. The omnipresence of neoliberal frameworks of governance is a testament to the success of those who brought them about.”

“Often promoted among constituencies as a way of rationalizing a public service alleged to be too large and bureaucratic, and spending perceived to be out of control, what these reforms did accomplish was to make government programs and services more complex to oversee, riskier and less flexible, more unwieldy, and in greater need of coordination than ever before . . . These reform initiatives, a supposed remedy for the ‘crisis of governability’ that emerged in the 1970s, created a new crisis. It is this outcome – a crisis of governance – that may be considered the most important legacy from this period.”

“My concerns reside in the democratic deficit created by shifting power to technocrat experts, the excessive influence of the financial sectors over governments and witnessing the shrinking of the middle class as a result of the increase in income inequities between high and low income levels.”

“Central banking has been significantly transformed over the past 30 years and is still one of the most widely discussed institutional reforms within the economic and policy literature. Prior to 2007, acceptance for the requirement of central bank independence can be thought of as orthodoxy. Today, the main argument for independence (that long-term decisions be made without the involvement of short-term politics), appears to be gone.”

“In examining reforms during this time three clear principles emerged that when present led to success and when absent led to failure. Communication with the public and key stakeholders, and attention to detail with regards to oversight and governance of the reformed structure, and political and public support are common themes throughout many reforms that lead to a picture of success.”

“The crisis of governability of the 1970’s led the way for reforms shaped by neoliberal principles of free markets and reduced government intervention including, in the Canadian context, central bank reforms and reforms influenced by Program Review. These reforms, although successful, constrained traditional democratic principles of transparency and accountability. The future implications are unclear. Even after the recent economic crisis, neoliberal thought is still influential in Canadian institutions, interests and ideas, as shown by the increases in private financing of government infrastructure, contracting out and continued central bank independence.”

“The general success of liberalization appears to be mixed . . . Overall, there does not appear to be a cookie-cutter solution that can be applied in the same way without understanding of local context and appropriate policy windows.  In short, timing may still be everything.”

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