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Public Management: The New Zealand Model

by Jonathan Boston, John Martin, June Pallot and Pat Walsh,
Oxford University Press

Ian Culpitt
Senior Lecturer
Department of Sociology and Social Policy
Victoria University of Wellington

There has been sufficient time since the introduction of the major public sector reforms in New Zealand for more considered reflection on what has come to be called the "great experiment". This book, which re-works material from an earlier volume and subsequent publishing efforts of all the authors, represents a considerable synthesis of the debate about the nature, purpose and consequences of these reforms. It discusses well the various policy and theoretical influences that were drawn upon in establishing this reform agenda. It sets out an argument that the language of policy discourse has changed the ways

in which public management issues are defined, analysed and debated. As a result, the policy agenda has been dominated by issues relating to the appropriate design of incentive structures and governance arrangements, the avoidance of provider capture, the pursuit of contestability and external contracting, the application of principal-agent models to a variety of interpersonal and interorganisational relationships, the minimisation of transaction costs and the tighter specification of outputs and outcomes. (p.39).

The authors set out to discuss this complex territory and avoid the frustrations of the "neglected academics" who were the natural policy elite of the former dispensation.

Gary Hawke, in a recent important extended book review (1996) reflected on the divisions of intellectual opinion about this same period in our history. He points to how a new set of policy analysts, with few formal ties to the old academic "hegemonies" were able to set in motion a stream of initiatives unfettered by the old clusters of policy advice. For some commentators these reforms have been seen as "blitzkriegs", as the triumph of a new breed of analysts and public administrators who reinvented themselves in the new managerial discourse as contracted mandarins of the new order.

But Hawke wisely points out that a kind of intellectual "paranoia" about the changes misses the point. He argues that these reforms were instituted after a considerable amount of policy advice was distilled within the old structure of public service policy-making. Assumptions about unilateral political decision-making dissociated from the formal structures of policy advice make little sense. He argues that, similarly, such views are "not made convincing by adding to 'politicians' some sinister figures presented as the stormtroopers of business".

The authors of this new book would agree. They state that "it is doubtful whether the reforms were solely, or even primarily, the product of self-interested politicians, advised by self-interested bureaucrats, seeking to please a self-interested electorate by self-interested means" (p.31). It does, however, set out to discover the elements of what they describe as a "carefully crafted, integrated, and mutually reinforcing reform agenda" (p.2). And this, perhaps more than anything else, typifies the intellectual difficulty of this task. While the authors properly point to the interlocking and hard-to-disentangle matrix of policy advice, the specific intellectual progenitors are not obvious. The sense that these reforms resulted from the actions of self-interested parties nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in the public mind.

The general feeling that a lurking and secretive cabal have cleverly imposed a minority opinion still needs to be addressed. The complexity of the policy cycle is well documented, but perhaps more will still need to be done to shift the fevered hurts of a public imagination that has felt so paralysed by the enormity and speed of change. Is the nostalgia for the lost local Post Office so readily dismissed? Current electorate ascendencies in New Zealand's pre-MMP political climate might not assume that it was. These questions are not rightly the concern of this book. But some will read it looking for answers to these questions, such is the longing for the illusions of a lost paternalistic certainty.

The authors argued that this "new model of public management is built largely around the notion of performance. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public institutions was a central plank of the reforms" (p.13). This seems to me to be one of the dominating ideas in the notion of "reprivatization" first described by Drucker. He set out an argument for a principle of "reprivatization" in which all institutions should be autonomous, and all social structures would have in common "a principle of performance rather than a principle of authority" (1969:19).

The authors of this book present very well how such ideas have been used to refashion public sector management in New Zealand. The initial chapters discuss the structure of New Zealand's public sector and how it might be argued that a new framework and institutional design has been imposed. Other chapters cover the complexity of the issues surrounding the creation of a new group of individually contracted senior managers and the powers and opportunities they were given to revamp the core public sector. The intricacies of the purchasing of policy advice and how this dramatically altered the old policy advice networks is well described.

A very useful chapter on the problems associated with managing a commitment to biculturalism should be essential reading to all those involved in the epistemological divisions associated with the discourse about the Treaty of Waitangi . Other chapters reflect on the now relatively common assumptions that these reforms, while espousing some of the rhetoric of devolution and decentralisation, nevertheless demonstrate a different form of centralised control. The problems about the new definitions of human resource management are discussed as are the complex issues surrounding financial management procedures and the role of the Audit Office and Treasury. The book concludes with a survey of the ethos and ethics of public management and the principles of transparency as they relate to the questions of review and redress. The final chapter attempts an interesting comparison of these reforms in an international context.

The overall aim of this book is to "provide a balanced analysis of the New Zealand model - its strengths and weaknesses, benefits and costs, successes and failures". In that, it succeeds admirably. It will be widely used as a textbook for students keen to understand not only the particular framework and structure of the New Zealand "experiment", but also for those who want to think about the "deep-structure" of our political and public sector arrangements. The "issues of governance", as the authors understand, will always remain the same. But in analysing the unique features of the new Zealand reforms they provide much useful reflective information on the "structure of governance" in New Zealand that may well lead others to argue for a different patterning of the governance issues.

These issues do, in the end, represent the particular set of complicated rules and procedures that are the "taken-for-granted" ground of our political and policy debates. It is the strength of this book that the clarification of that ground allows for the further pursuit of patterns, expectation and social hopes that may in time challenge that "taken-for-granted) reality.

In describing some of the limitations of public choice theory the authors conclude that,

rather than focusing primarily on how to immunise the political system against the dangers posed by vested interests, more attention should be given to ensuring that the decision-making arrangements are open, democratic and fair (i.e. that they provide an opportunity for all interests to be adequately represented). This has important implications for constitutional arrangements, the machinery of government, and the role of pressure groups in the policy-making process (p.32).

The books reflects well on the grounds of this important philosophical debate which is ongoing between the inherent logic of individual self-interest and the realisation that values and motivations are complicated by loyalties and allegiances beyond the individual.


Drucker, P. (1969) "The sickness of government" The Public Interest, 14, pp 3-23.

Hawke, G. (1996) "After the world had changed" New Zealand Books, 6(1), pp 19-21.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 06

Public Management: The New Zealand ModelĀ 

Jul 1996

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