New Public Management and the Presumptives

Public management academics never talk about New Public Management any more. Some believe it is dead, and others believe it has been transcended, with its most valuable insights now incorporated into public sector practice.

Nevertheless, the two presumptive nominees seem to me to be incorporating certain aspects of NPM into their words and deeds, and I think it is worthwhile to recognize it. But, as I’ll argue, their version is primarily farce.

One of the key tenets of NPM is that the public sector has much to learn from private sector practice and practitioners. Donald Trump keeps making the point that he is a hugely successful businessman, and that his success is a strong qualification for the presidency. But he says this without offering any serious evidence, as his companies are privately-owned and do not report publicly, and he has refused to release his income tax returns. And his critics point to ample evidence on the public record of his shoddy business practices such as intentional bankruptcies (casinos and real estate) and deceptive marketing (his “university”).

Trump’s claim is that he is tremendously successful because he has maximized profit by minimizing income tax through the use of every possible shelter and by paying his workforce as little as possible, whether in the US or offshore. His version of successful business has no room for social responsibility or a triple bottom line.

Another aspect of Trump’s version of NPM is his un-selfconscious mixing of his business interests and his candidacy, for example promoting his steaks and visiting Turnberry, his Scottish golf course, while campaigning. Thus, his initial response to Brexit was enthusiasm because a weaker pound would boost Turnberry’s profit. Were he elected, one wonders whether he would place his business interests in the usual blind trust, or whether he would continue to be involved in their hands-on management.

Trump has said that he will apply to government such hard-edged business practices as “being unpredictable” in foreign policy and ignoring the law when it would be too constraining. In essence, Trump’s version of NPM is that he is an unparalleled practitioner of capitalism at its most brutal and that he would apply those skills and that philosophy to the operation of government.

In contrast to Trump, the best example of a successful businessman in government I can think of is Michael Bloomberg. His company is publicly-traded, so his success was not a matter of smoke and mirrors. He brought the insight and acumen responsible for his success in business to the public sector, for example in his emphasis on big data analytics as prerequisite to decision-making. He indeed crossed the line between business and government, but it was primarily by employing his resources and those of his charitable foundation to enhance the work of government, for example by supplementing the salaries of his aides and using the foundation to support public sector innovation. Bloomberg, of course, is one of a kind. To slightly paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen’s classic putdown, “I don’t know Mike Bloomberg, but I can tell you that Donald Trump is no Mike Bloomberg.”

The aspect of Hillary Clinton’s story that calls to mind NPM is her now-controversial use of a private email address and server while she was Secretary of State. NPM favors opening the public sector to procurement from the private sector, doing things in unorthodox ways to achieve results, and asking forgiveness not permission. So, faced with evidence that the State Department’s information system was not state of the art, she chose private sector procurement and is now asking forgiveness. She has received it, but not without criticism, from the FBI, and she now stands in the court of public opinion waiting to be judged.

Recalling the Clinton Administration’s National Performance Review (the Gore Report) and the 1999 Global Conference on Reinventing Government, held at the State Department, I never would have imagined that this is one path NPM would take. I’m not arguing for the resurrection of a Newer-than-New Public Management. But Donald Trump’s troubling rhetoric should prompt public management scholars to think hard again about the relationship between management in business and management in government. And Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” actions should make us think hard again about the responsibilities of public office holders.

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