SWG 06: Organizing the Public Sector: Governance and Public Management Reform



Christine Teelken, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Mike Dent, Staffordshire University, UK


Ewan Ferlie, King's College London, UK


Louise Fitzgerald, De Montfort University, UK



Nicolette van Gestel, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands


Haldor Byrkeflot, University of Bergen, Norway


Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen, Aalborg University, Denmark


The organization of the public sector is an important and relevant topic both theoretically and practically. Actual reforms in the public sector often contain a mix of elements of hierarchy, networks, market orientation and self-organizing, which refer to complex, sometimes conflicting processes of policy-making, implementation and interpretation. In the past years, it was noticed that changing modes of governance and public management reform cannot simply be explained by one specific concept or discourse, but are influenced by diverse ideas and interests of both public and private actors at various levels of change (Dent, Van Gestel & Teelken, 2007).

The purpose of this SWG is to provide empirical findings and thorough explanations for these developments in public sector organizations. The SWG aims to further enhance the debate of organizational theorists about changing modes of governance and management of public sector organizations. The SWG invites researchers in the field of public organizations and public sector reform for an open, stimulating debate within EGOS.


The term governance, originally considered synonymously with government has obtained a new meaning, it 'refers to self-organising, inter-organizational networks characterized by interdependence, resource-exchange, rules of the game, and significant autonomy from the state' (Rhodes, 1997: 15). Governance is considered a form of network management and the coordination of the plurality and complexity of hierarchies, markets and networks (Kjaer, 2005). Public management seems gradually being reformed into a system of performance measurement and decentralized decision-making, e.g. the British 'best value' program for local authorities. National governments aspire to become more accountable to their citizens, while public and semi-public organizations are required to increase transparency and demonstrate the results of their activities to their customers.


The governance and management reforms within the public sector often have differential consequences for (sub)sectors, as well as for organizations and individuals, in a national and international comparison. Research in public management reform and governance has traditionally been carried out in a predominantly national context. Although national research is still dominant, the number of cross-sectional and international studies is gradually increasing. So far, there was not much effort to 'cherish and build on the potentially positive elements in traditional professionalism' (Foster & Wilding, 2000: 157). Instead Ackroyd et al. (2007) conclude that 'the tendency has been to introduce reform in a way that was almost guaranteed to maximize disruption and opposition'. This urges research in the public sector even more. Given the variety and complexity of governance and public management reform within Europe, there is an imperative that EGOS has a forum where these issues and challenges can be discussed.


We distinguish four important research topics in the SWG:


1. Consumerism (clients) versus democracy (citizens) 

  • Whether governments are prepared to give up control of publicly funded services and provide autonomy to the service organizations.
  • Are the clients of public sector services only passive consumers or active citizens, prepared to be involved in decision-making processes to ensure effective and efficient services?
  • How democratic are the new forms of network governance in relation to their clients and which methodological tools do we need to describe and define this (Mathur & Skelcher 2006)?


2. Professionalism versus managerialism

From the mid-eighties, public sector professionals have been increasingly challenged by the concepts of a 'new' public management (Ackroyd et al., 2006; Dent, 2003). These principles and practices tend to be quite opposite to the more classical values and practices that are generally held by the academic professionals within universities (Chandler et al., 2002; Townley, 1997), the health sector (Scott et al., 2001) or other public sector organizations (Ackroyd et al., 2006).

Another aspect of this theme is that of trust (between professional and client; between professionals) versus accountability (formalized relationships). 

This reflects a tension between the client/professional relations and the broader issues relating to the efficient management of services. This is an issue of accountability reflected in the growth audit of professional work and services (Power, 1996; EGOS 2006, sub-theme 28: Accountability versus Transparency).

Questions are for example: 

  • How do public sector professionals respond to the challenges of managerialism?
  • How are conflicts resolved as professionals try to maintain their autonomy against the imposition of management control system?
  • What impact does this have on service provision and work satisfaction of professionals?


(3) Individual actors and organizations in the public management change process 

Public sector reforms have traditionally been the result of 'top down' decision-making, and their implementation is often evaluated from a national and/or European perspective. This is increasingly seen as out of step with the growing emphasis on a client focus and there is a growing interest in the actors' involvement in these change processes and their outcomes. The growing attention for the actor’s perspective can also be recognized in the debate of institutional change (Dacin, Goodstein & Scott, 2002).

Relevant questions might be for example: 

  • What types of agency and power relations are most relevant in public management reform and institutional change (Meyer, 2006)?
  • How crucial are the informal processes of actors engaged in creating, maintaining or disrupting these processes?
  • What is the role of individuals (i.e. professionals, managers, users) in the creation of network governance or in intra- and inter-organizational dynamics of institutional fields (Phillips, Lawrence & Hardy, 2000)?


(4) Autonomy and control of public sector organizations

Autonomy of public sector organizations has typically reflected a professional dominance legitimated in terms of public/ client service, this is especially true in the educational, social and health services. With the new public management, the legitimacy of professionalism has been challenged but its managerial replacement (of consumer focus, market competition etc) appears to lack as much credibility. At the same time several European countries have an established history of local autonomy and control of public sector organizations, for example, Sweden and Germany, while elsewhere control has been strongly centralized – as in France and the UK with little organizational autonomy, at least in the formal sense. The imposition of new regimes of governance challenge established organizational and professional cultures and practices, which are rarely completely swept away but become sedimented within the new arrangements.

Questions that might be interesting are for example: 

  • If public management reforms have blurred distinctions between the public and private sectors, what have been the implications for the management and delivery of services?
  • Can we possibly speak of a specific type of European Community governance or is it more accurate to refer to a range of regimes (cf. e.g. Esping-Andersen, 1990)?

Short biographies of coordinators

Christine Teelken is Associate Professor at the VU University of Amsterdam (Dept. of Organization), The Netherlands, and organized sub-themes at EGOS in 2004 and 2006–2010 with the same team of convenors. She is also a member of the EGOS Board. Her research interests include higher education institutions, governance and diversity.


Mike Dent is Professor of Health Care Organisation, Faculty of Health, Staffordshire University, UK. He published widely on organisations in the health care sector, particular by using a comparative perspective.

Ewan Ferlie is Professor of Public Services Management and Head of the School of Management at Kings' College London, UK. His research work has been on changing patterns of organization and management in the UK health care and higher education sectors. He is currently co writing a book on managed networks in UK health care as a potential post NPM reform.


Louise Fitzgerald is Visiting Professor, Manchester Business School, and Emeritus Professor, De Montfort University, UK. Her research interests focus on innovation and the implementation of change in complex organizations. Recent work has examined the introduction of service improvements in health care, the management of networks and knowledge exchange between researchers and practitioners.


Nicolette van Gestel is Professor of New Modes of Governance in Social Security and Employment Services at the University of Tilburg and Associate Professor on Institutional Dynamics and Employment Relations at the Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She participated in EGOS Colloquia sub-themes as a convenor since 2004.


Haldor Byrkeflot is a project leader and very experienced researcher in the area of public sector research, particularly the health sector. He works for the University of Bergen, chaired the local organization of the EGOS Colloquium 2006 in Bergen, Norway, and chaired (together with Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen) an EGOS sub-theme at the 2010 EGOS Colloquium in Lisbon.


Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen works as Associate Professor at the Aalborg University in Denmark. She chaired, together with Haldor Byrkeflot, an EGOS sub-theme at the 2010 EGOS Colloquium in Lisbon.