PM – A historical perspective: Part 1 – The old myth

After addressing the topic of PM in a rather personal way, the aim of this contribution is to put the whole topic into a historical perspective. With the help of two theoretical approaches how to grasp institutional change this blogpost tries to reconstruct the emergence of PM within the public sector and its proclaimed recent downfall or modification. It tries to answer the following question: How and under which historical conditions did private economy criteria enter the schools (or, as we will see, in many respects of the public sector such as health, education, transport etc.)?

Two theoretical approaches are shortly introduced, they grasp organizational and institutional change under two different terms: Modell (2004) captures change with the idea of organizational myths, which he defines as taken-for-granted images that serve for members of the organization for creating a shared identity (cf.ibid.:40). When crises – in- or outside the organization – occur, they often function as “trigger of shifts between old and new myths” (ibid.): “It is only when the shortcomings of a prevailing myth are made clear, its advocates are replaced or subverted and new, alternative myths become available that organizations are likely to experience more noticeable change.” (ibid.).

Werner and Cornelissen (2014) on the other hand conceptualize institutional change as the interplay between individual actors’ framing practices and the larger discursive structures as frame shifting and frame blending. The success of new sense-making processes of individuals and/or their strategic contesting of institutionalized frames is dependent on “discursive opportunity structures” (ibid.: 13): So for them the wider societal, institutional and discursive setting decides if new frames gain broader support and are considered more legitimate.

The Old Myth

Modell locates the beginning of the old myth concerning PM in the 1980ies and 1990ies which emerged as a response to financial constraints and accusations of inefficiency of the public sector (cf. ibid. 42). Going back to his argument that it is mainly crises that trigger new myths to rise up, we can see that from the late 70ies on “the traditional bureaucratic paradigm of most Western governments came under attack. Financial crises, discontent about the inflexibility of administrative procedures and decreasing public trust” (Pollitt et al. 2007:1) are for Pollitt et al. among the most important reasons for why a new paradigm came up: New Public Management. NPM led to a restructuring of the relation between state and economy, changed heavily the old Continental European conception of the role, tasks and responsibilities of the state and adapted the Anglo-American model of a less involved state (cf. ibid.).

If we have a look now at the wider discursive structures at that point of time, we can see that the general societal atmosphere and the discourse then were influenced heavily by the market-friendly politics, the era of Thatcherism, cut-backs on public spending, privatization – quite obviously there was the discursive opportunity for a managerial framing of public sector services. It suddenly ‘made sense’ (at least to a majority of political decision makers) to frame activities, processes and results within universities, hospitals, governmental agencies and schools in an economist and managerial way – a far-reaching frame shifting occurred.

But what is this new framing and respectively this new myth about? As a model borrowed from the private sector it embraces the ideas of financial accountability and control and can be summarized “by the three Es: economy, efficiency and effectiveness.” (Modell 2004:42). It consists, among others, of the following elements: decentralization and separation of the political and managerial processes, the emergence of public-private-partnerships, contract-like relationships instead of hierarchical control and new management techniques like HR and, as part of them: the extension of performance indicators and measuring (cf. Pollitt et al. 2007: 2ff.). For Greiling (2005), PM lies at the core of these reforms: “Managing and measuring performance has been one of the key drivers in the reform of the public sector in recent years. It is one of the central planks of ‘reinventing government’” (ibid.:551).

So performance measurement neither simply and naturally was ‘there’ nor did it pop up for no reason but it emerged in a package with other instruments and decisions and was embedded in a wider societal and political change.


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