My Top Ten Public Management Narratives

As part of the last chapter in my book about public management narratives, I developed a list of my top ten. They are not ranked, but rather listed in the order they appear in the book. My main criterion in evaluating these narratives is the extent of my engagement, in terms of enjoying the movie or novel the first time I encountered it as well as the intellectual stimulation that comes from ongoing reflection about it. Some are considered classics but others are, in my view, unfairly neglected.

1.Stand and Deliver

Jaime Escalante was an ordinary person whose charisma came from his extraordinary enthusiasm for what he was teaching and his commitment to his students. His teaching did not reward or encourage self-revelation, but it demanded mastery of abstract concepts and meeting externally-imposed standards. Stand and Deliver remains as the original transformational teacher narrative.

2.Cheaters

It succeeds both because of the cleverness with which it parodies the transformational teacher fable and because it poses the thought-provoking question of whether as competitive a society as the US subtly encourages those with high aspirations to cheat. It thus serves as a fitting introduction to a different genre, namely the many narratives about corruption in the corporate world.

3.The Class

The Class (Entre les Murs) challenges the transformational teacher fable by transposing it to a different culture and portraying a teacher who is well-meaning and energetic but who makes mistakes in classroom management that leave him on the verge of losing control. Could he have handled the situation more effectively? Producing the film through improvisation by an ensemble that includes the students provides a variety of perspectives about what happened in the class.

4.Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister

The rigor and cleverness of its application of public choice principles to a wide variety of public policy and management questions is unparalleled. It also encourages us to reflect on the ways language can be used in government to obscure or mislead. The two episodes of Yes Prime Minister discussed in chapter 3, “The Ministerial Broadcast” and “The Smokescreen” are a good starting

5.Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day

While the film adaptation is excellent, going back to the original novel is even better. Ishiguro’s creation of the butler Stevens’s unique voice and the slow revelation of an unsettled and anxiety-provoking story are masterful. The novel leads one to ask if there was not some way Stevens could have overcome the constraints of Darlington Hall to have made a more honest and more rewarding life for himself and, more broadly, to ask about how an agent should respond to a principal with whom he profoundly disagrees.

6.Advise and Consent

By downplaying the heavy-handed anti-communist perspective of Allen Drury, the author of the original novel, Otto Preminger’s film adaptation poses important questions of the legitimacy of the means to achieve political ends. Are character assassination, blackmail, and lying under oath ever justified? Preminger pushed the censorship envelope of the early Sixties by depicting a gay lifestyle (even though the story stigmatized homosexuality).

7.The Candidate

Jeremy Larner’s screenplay subtly portrays the process by which a politician, responding to the pressure of his handlers, the expectations of the voters, and opportunity created by his own gifts appears to lose his soul. Or does he? Also, by running what was in effect a political campaign, the film-makers crowd-sourced the movie decades before the concept of crowd-sourcing had been invented.

8.The Fog of War

Errol Morris’s sympathetic but probing questions lead Robert McNamara to overturn the received wisdom regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis and to relive the trauma of Vietnam. We come to understand the extraordinary arc of McNamara’s life story but the moral questions of wartime leadership remain unresolved. These questions emerge to the backdrop of a mesmerizing visual presentation and musical score.

9.The West Wing

It portrays a president who has a vision for the nation, who is a thoughtful and careful decision-maker, and who has established a culture in which his West Wing staff are not afraid to speak what they see as the truth to power. In addition, the series replicates the frenetic pace of the West Wing, with a continuing stream of crises and issues to be managed. Of its 154 episodes over seven seasons I recommend: Season 1, episode 9 (“The Short List”) about the choice of a nominee for the Supreme Court; Season 1, episode 14 (“Take this Sabbath Day”) about capital punishment; Season 1, episode 19 (“Let Bartlet be Bartlet”) about difficulty advancing the president’s agenda; Season 3, episode 8 (“The Women of Qumar”) about issues management and compromising one’s ideals; and Season 7, episode 7 (“The Debate”) which presents an intelligent and thoughtful debate between the Democratic and Republican nominees to succeed President Bartlet.

10.Twelve Angry Men

Rightly considered a classic play and movie, Twelve Angry Men builds its tension through heated deliberation in a claustrophobic jury room. While Juror Number 8 (the architect portrayed by Henry Fonda) heroically leads the jury to its verdict, the crime is not solved, inviting viewers to deliberate on their own about the guilt or innocence of the accused.

What do you think? Are there errors either of omission or commission?

1 comment

  1. You sent us from the HR71 listserv to this, your website, and I am glad you did. What a masterful, interesting list, Sanford. I am impressed by the range and the decades covered. I do not have suggestions, just wanted to express my delight in reading it. Especially interested in Remains of the Day (one of my favorite novels), Twelve Angry Men (saw it when I was a child and still have memories of it), West Wing (my favorite TV program, ever) and The Fog of War (McNamara’s mea culpa made me so angry I have not been able to make myself see the movie).

    Would Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage fit in here, since it is all about his exceptional leadership style and its outcome?

    All the best,
    Christy Day
    Amherst, NH

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