Autonomy and managerial reforms in Europe: Let or make public managers manage?

AuthorPhilippe Bezes,Gilles Jeannot
Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
Autonomy and managerial reforms in Europe: Let
or make public managers manage?
Philippe Bezes
| Gilles Jeannot
Centre d'études européennes (CEE), CNRS,
Sciences Po, Paris, France
Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et
Sociétés (LATTS), Ecole des ponts, Université
Paris-Est, France
Gilles Jeannot, Laboratoire Techniques,
Territoires et Sociétés (LATTS), Ecole des
ponts, 6 avenue Blaise Pascal, Marne-la-
Vallee, France
Funding information
European Union's Seventh Framework
Programme under grant agreement
No. 266887 (Project COCOPS), Socio-
economic Sciences & Humanities. http://www.
Drawing on a survey of top executives in central governments in
11 European countries (N= 5,190), this study explores variations
in the extent and scale of managerial autonomy across and within
European states. The article is based on a comparative, multidi-
mensional and relational approach to autonomy. Confirming pre-
dictions of qualitative studies, it shows that these variations can
partly be explained by the intensity of New Public Management
(NPM) reforms and provides a typology of European countries
connecting the intensity of neo-managerial reforms (measured by
the declared use of management tools) to the degree of manage-
rial autonomy. Our findings support Donald Kettl's hypothesis dif-
ferentiating countries where the let the manager managemodel
prevails, as in the Northern countries, by contrast with those, such
as the United Kingdom, dominated by the make the manager
manageprogramme. The promise of managerial autonomy has
also not been delivered to the same extent across and within
Autonomy, along with other principles, has been a key feature of administrative reform movements since the 1980s
(Aucoin 1990; Pollitt 1993; Yesilkagit 2004; Olsen 2009). With the stated objective of making public organizations
more businesslike, the ostensible purpose was to move away from an exclusively top-down and hierarchical style
of management towards greater flexibility in decisions on policy, use of organizational resources, staff recruitment
and rewards, and the allocation of funds. The belief, often drawn from the literature on management in the private
sector or from business administration, was that giving managers greater autonomy would lead to more effective
accomplishment of the desired outcomes, to improvements in productivity and to a sharper focus on the missions,
the personnel and the customers of public organizations (Aucoin 1990, p. 122). Clarke and Newman (1997, p. 56)
observed that this freedom to make decisions about the use of organisational resources to achieve desired out-
comesis both an ideological demand and a practical issue of organisational power. Because of the emphasis that
public management reforms placed on managerial autonomy, it has become an important determinant of
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12361
Public Administration. 2018;96:322. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 3
organizational performance and accountability. Over the last three decades, OECD countries have undergone a
range of NPM and post-NPM reforms that sought to enhance or constrain the autonomy of managers in the public
It is therefore not surprising that measuring autonomy and understanding the links between ongoing reforms
and autonomy was considered to be the essence of a comparative approach to reforms in different countries. This
was an aspiration that Donald Kettl (1997, 2000) embraced very early on. According to him, in some countries
(Australia, Sweden), reformers advocated a let managers manageapproach, with the dominant assumption being
that managers knew the right things to do, but that bureaucratic rules, procedures, and structures in place created
barriers to doing it. Enhancing managerial autonomy and empowering managers thus formed a major component of
the reforms, giving top bureaucrats more flexibility to solve problems and adapt, while simultaneously reinforcing
the priority on customer service and committing public managers to the task of serving citizens. By contrast, other
countries (New Zealand, the United Kingdom) aggressively pursued a philosophy of making the managers man-
age”’, the central aim of which was to change the incentives of government managers by subjecting them to market
forcesthrough strong devices of control and a range of instruments: contracts, performance management devices,
contracting out, performance-related pay or competition (Kettl 1997, p. 448).
Beyond this initial intention, however, the extent to which managers in the public sector in fact experience
autonomy as a result of the combined effect of these reforms remains unclear (Maggetti and Verhoest 2014). First,
while there is no doubt that the aim of administrative reforms and their orientations is to influence levels of auton-
omy, the historical legacy of institutional features of public bureaucracies, often called administration traditions
(Painter and Pierre 2010), may also favouror conversely restrictthe objectives of reforms and hence the develop-
ment of autonomy. National institutional contexts influence the design of public management (Christensen and
Lægreid 2002; O'Toole and Meier 2015). The historically decentralized forms of some Nordic states or the institu-
tional tendency towards the politicization of senior public positions in Southern European countries can reinforce or
hinder the development of neo-managerial reforms in favour of autonomy.
Second, administrative and public management reforms may also pursue contradictory objectives: while often
emphasized as a priority, managerial autonomy has not been the sole direction of reform and has been challenged
by other priorities such as enhanced political control and accountability, trends that are said to have undermined
the autonomy programme(Aucoin 1990; Hoggett 1996; Clarke and Newman 1997; Scott and Le Galès 2010).
NPM tools such as quality systems or performance management have also often been said to lead to government
re-regulation (Hood et al. 1999) through performance indicators and audits, and to impose discipline at all levels of
public organizations. In the broad academic literature, while qualitative country studies provide rich empirical but
anecdotal evidence of how levels of autonomy may be related to reforms, systematic comparable large-N cross-
country measurements of the multidimensional concept of autonomy are largely absent. Our study offers empirical
results to fill this gap.
Based on a survey of over 5,000 managers in public sectors in 11 European countries (N= 5,190) and covering
three distinct types of organizations within central government (central administrations, regional field ministerial
units, agencies), our research design proposes an integrated measure of autonomy that takes into account the com-
plexities highlighted by the existing research and a partial but integrated measurement of the intensity of adminis-
trative reforms in different European countries based on the use of public management tools. Discussing how the
two aggregated factors are related, we find a nuanced picture: managerial autonomy varies not only across
European countries in its extent, but also in its dimensions within European countries. Confirming the predictions of
qualitative studies, we show that this variation can be partially explained by the intensity of NPM reforms, yet that,
at the same time, managerial autonomy can emerge even in the absence of NPM tools. The article then offers a
typology of European countries based on how these two factors may be related.
After a brief summary of the results (and limitations) of existing research (section 2), we will present the analyti-
cal and methodological contributions of the survey (section 3), as well as its main findings (section 4), and then

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT