Since the late 1970s, governments in many countries have adopted privatisation reforms, including contracting-out public services, transferring functions and responsibilities to the private sectors, and selling enterprises to private interests. The practice of privatisation in some developing countries has led to the problem of unequal treatment. For instance, many local governments in China outsourced their public services (e.g. public bus services, water supply and waste disposal services) to private companies. This included the delegation of operations entirely to these private entities. Government subsidies were allocated to the private operators, but these subsidies could not cover the full costs incurred by those private operators.. In this context, the private operators had to concentrate their services in densely populated areas and neglect the needs of more sparsely populated areas, resulting in the inadequate provision of services in the latter areas. As a result of this, some local governments withdrew from these privatised arrangements in order to ensure a more equal provision of services.
Our recent Policy & Politics article explores whether and to what extent privatisation and its reversal influence public service equity in China. Our paper focuses on public bus services in China, the provision of which has been subject to both privatisation and subsequent re-nationalisation, and draws upon an extensive programme of research that covered 245 cities. The Coefficient of Variation (CV) method was used to measure equity, and the multiple-regression method was adopted to test the relationship between privatisation and equity. Continue reading Has privatisation influenced public service equity? Evidence from China→
From a prevailing, long-standing debate in the journal on the welfare state, we bring you a collection of our best and most recent articles. To highlight just a couple: Anthony McCashin’s How much change? Pierson and the welfare state revisited provides a structural overview of the impact of globalisation on analyses of the welfare state.
Try our new themed virtual issues which are free to download from 1-30 November:
Public Services and Reform
In this new virtual issue, we bring you our most impactful and recent research from diverse perspectives with a coherence of focus on increasing our understanding of public services and reform.
Free research articles for APPAM 2017 from Policy & Politics onthe importance of evidence-based policy making, why measurement matters and, Claire Dunlop on learning from failure.
In celebration of APPAM’s Fall Research Conference theme this year which looks at the importance of measurement in evaluating policy and performance, we have developed a virtual issue of recent research articles based on the conference theme which are free to access from 1-30 November. Just click on the hyperlinks below to go straight to the download page for each article.
The April 2016 issue of Policy & Politics includes two articles about one of the most pressing issues facing contemporary public administration – how governments can successfully harness the resources of the private sector to deliver public services.
The articles, by John Nicholson and Kevin Orr, and Chris Lonsdale et al., differ significantly in theory and method. The former is sociological and qualitative, examining micro-level working relations between public and private actors. The latter uses institutional economics and mid-range survey data to test hypotheses about public procurement processes. Yet, despite these differences, each article shares an interest in public-private relations. Continue reading Inspired by the issue→
Catherine Durose discusses her latest article with co-authors Jonathan Justice and Chris Skelcher. Catherine is on the Editorial Board of Policy & Politics and is based at the University of Birmingham, UK.
What is the best way to organize the design and implementation of public policies and services? We do not pretend to know. Further, we would argue that a meaningful answer can be provided only contingently. It might therefore be more productive to ask a slightly different question: How can we go about figuring out – in a given situation at a specific time with respect to a specific complex of decisions and services – what the best way might be?
A century ago, industrial engineer Frederick Taylor famously argued that managers ought to determine the one best way to do any given task, and then train their subordinates to do things in precisely that best way. Contemporary scholars of organization, however, tend to agree that activities for which a single best way can be prescribed and implemented are very rare. In the 1950s, scholars in the rapidly suburbanizing U.S. debated whether local -government policies and services were better organized through a multiplicity of jurisdictions or through unitary consolidated metropolitan governments. Versions of that debate continue to this day, not only in the U.S. and Continue reading Is there “one best way” to govern public services?→
The research reported in our article UK Employment Services: understanding provider strategies in a dynamic strategic action field was carried out in 2012 as part of the ESRC-funded Third Sector Research Centre’s programme on the third sector’s role in public services. From the outset, we were aware that the third sector had long played a significant role in the mixed economy of employment services, and this was at a point when the UK Coalition government’s new Work Programme was being implemented. Our key interest was to explore the ways in which the third sector was involved in this new programme, and to examine to what extent its contribution could be seen as distinctively different to that of other sectors.
“To each that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.“ The Gospel according to Matthew, 13:12.
I don’t tend to quote the Bible (or indeed any religious text) very often. This Biblical reference does however draw attention to the fact that we have been concerned about the so-called ‘Matthew effect’– or the law of accumulated advantage – for some considerable time. The research (and indeed the policy community) have been rather reluctant to devote very much time and effort to understanding how and why those who are already in positions of advantage are better able to extend that advantage, in comparison to deprived social groups, when it comes to interacting with the local state and in particular public services.
The belief that the public should have confidence in their public institutions is an enduring societal concern, yet as an outcome it seems increasingly elusive. One survey after another suggests continual public disaffection with politicians and politics. While governments across the political spectrum express concern about declining levels of confidence in our public institutions, and lay claim to actions to address it, they seem to be having little impact.
Our paper focuses on one of the most intuitive mechanisms by which governments might lift public confidence – by improving public services. Here we find a puzzle that official measures such as statutory performance indicators, inspection reports and user satisfaction surveys showed steady improvement in public services between 2001 and 2008 but, counter-intuitively, levels of public confidence declined.
Our argument was that if this elusive relationship between public services and public confidence was ever going to reveal itself, then the issue of measurement itself needed careful scrutiny i.e. does it matter what you measure? One immediate problem is that the public have a fragmentary knowledge of government services. Moreover, there are multiple and competing ways of measuring the quality of services – such as efficiency and value for money, or accessibility and quality – not all appreciated equally by all sections of society. The same fuzziness clouds concepts of confidence and trust. Confidence in public institutions may be based on evidence from using public services or on the sense of emotional attachment one feels towards the service provider. Public perceptions about services also come entangled in wider concerns about the honesty and responsiveness of public institutions, both of staff and the politicians to whom they are accountable.
Our approach used the (then) burgeoning piles of data about local government and its services to test statistically the performance-public confidence link. Some of the measures came from our own survey of local government managers, of whom we asked (i) the extent to which they thought services provided by their local council had improved and (ii) whether they believed that local people had a high level of confidence in their authority. Other measures came from external assessments of changes in performance and public confidence for each local authority.
Our analysis confirmed the paradoxical tendency observed at national level, in that improved local services was associated with declining public satisfaction with the way that councils run things. We also found that local managers – perhaps wisely – tended not to rely solely on official measures of service performance to judge how their council is doing, as the wider set of measures that managers used exhibited a slightly stronger and positive relationship with public confidence. From this we concluded that the idea of a relationship between service quality and public confidence should not be abandoned, but that the measures needed further thought.
Our analysis was conducted between 2008 and 2009, and the storms that have since blown across the UK and other democratic states give strong reason for an intensified focus on the public services/public confidence nexus.
Deep cuts in public spending have unfolded simultaneously with marked shifts in government priorities and new political narratives. For governments, being seen to be in control of public finances is now presented as a key determinant of public confidence, with efficiency suddenly pre-eminent among the basket of measures by which ‘performance’ might be measured. The May 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has sought to manage tensions between budget cuts and service quality through ‘the big society’ and ‘localism’, with the expectation that local communities can become more responsible for service provision (and less likely to place responsibility for any shortcomings on national government). It matters, we would argue, that researchers can trace these shifting policy theories and their outcomes.
We suggested developing multiple indicators alongside in-depth qualitative research to try and unpack what determines levels of public confidence. It is disappointing therefore that the coalition government also cut much of the data-gathering machinery that our research had utilised. Organisations with a keen interest in policy impact, such as the Audit Commission and the Standards Board for England, have been axed. The biennial Citizenship Survey, which gathered information on public participation activities and trust in government has been stopped as well as the regular survey of attitudes to standards in public life.
As our paper has shown, studying the relationship between service performance and public confidence is rarely likely to generate unambiguous good news, yet it matters for informed policy discussion that some measurements are made.