At the beginning of last year, we were sitting together in a small meeting room, thinking about the big ideas that are shaping the governments of the future (as one does). Since CPI’s foundation in 2015, we had been on a journey to understand public impact – how governments can achieve better outcomes for people. As part of this quest, we had explored what makes policies successful, how governments can use Artificial Intelligence and what role legitimacy plays

We had also come across many approaches and ideas that are shaping how governments do things – behavioural insights, evidence-based policy and nudging – to name a few. However, throughout this journey, we were left with a feeling that all of these things were tweaks, single approaches that – while often fruitful – didn’t ladder up to a larger picture of what the government of the future would (or should) look like. We realised that what we wanted to explore was the paradigm, the ‘world view’ underlying the ways that governments operate. 

The current paradigm: New Public Management

We knew what in terms of prevalent government paradigms, there was a very influential book called Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. This book, first published in 1992, set out the theory of New Public Management (NPM), an approach to creating a more ‘entrepreneurial’ government which has been very influential in government for almost the past three decades. The key principle behind these ideas was that “public services [were] designed and delivered to work like a business transaction and act like a market”. Government was seen as a large machine, with levers that could be pulled and buttons to be pushed in order to increase both the effectiveness and efficiency of the public sector. 

The result of an afternoon of geekiness: Reinventing Government as a museum relic.

But is it still relevant for governments today and is it actually achieving public impact? This is what we set out to explore next. We talked to people around the world that were working in government, at different levels, to understand if NPM was still shaping their work and whether they thought this was the future. We took a particular focus during the interview process on the UK, which was both the breeding ground for NPM thinking and is often seen as having the most embedded NPM system today.

What we found was that much of what modern governments do was, in fact, shaped by the ideas of NPM. Control is still at the centre of much government action. Governments do often think of citizens as passive customers and use performance metrics, targets and hierarchy to strive for more efficient, effective services. While this understanding of government as a giant machine waiting to be optimised (what we call the ‘delivery mindset’) makes sense for some services that are meant to be transactional, our conversations with people revealed that NPM approaches are problematic in more complex services.

Complexity: NPM’s greatest foe

Complex services such as education and health and social care often require approaches that are bespoke and person-centred and so trying to tightly control them from ‘the top’ can be harmful. For example, we found that there is widespread evidence of how the overuse of command and control management by public administrations has led to data manipulation and gaming behaviour. Case studies include schools getting rid of low-performing students in an attempt to preserve their standing in league tables and police officers choosing not to record certain crimes in order to achieve crime statistics targets. 

Not only can this lead to less effective public services – and make it harder for governments to build the citizen relationships so essential for their legitimacy, but it also negatively impacts the public servants themselves by undermining their professional judgement and increasing bureaucracy, which leads to increased stress levels.

Convinced now that NPM could not be the paradigm for the future of government, we naturally started exploring what the alternatives to this might be. We found that many people and organisations around the world had started to do things differently. 

  • We visited Gloucester in the West of England, where the council has put community and place at the heart of all their public services. 
  • We talked to council employees in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, who have launched a manifesto to make relationships the core of all their social policies. 
  • We talked to civil servants in Leuven, Belgium who were running their department in a self-managed way, and researched how NASA in the US was giving employees space to apply professional judgment and collaborate across teams. 
  • We also visited a self-managed learning school in Brighton, where students were given support to be in charge of their own curriculum and learning. 

A new paradigm for the future of government?

Trying to make sense of this quiet revolution happening in public services, we tentatively gave these approaches the name ‘enablement’, as it seemed that they were all enabling new actors and organisations to take charge. However, with time, we started feeling as though enablement was still too passive a term – only if someone enables you to do something, can you be enabled. But what all of these examples had in common was that – contrary to New Public Management – they redefined where power was held. Power was not, as is often the default, centralised or held at the top, but it was shared amongst a number of actors and organisations. 

So we decided to call this movement we are observing The Shared Power Principle.

Does this add up to a new paradigm for the future of government? We are trying to find that out and our paper is only the first attempt to flesh out what its characteristics may be – what we are calling the ‘patterns’. But one thing is for sure: we are certainly not the first ones to talk about these approaches. Many great organisations and people have started looking into this long before we did (a lot of which are listed at the end of the paper) – showing that this movement is truly gaining momentum. 

This has been our journey of discovering the implications of shared power to date, but it is certainly not the end. At this point, we welcome any challenge, rebuttal or general reaction to what we’ve presented. Do you think that the future of government requires sharing power more readily? Does it make sense in your context and geography? Do you think we’re dead wrong, bang on the money or somewhere in between? 

Let us know so we can all shape the future of government together.