Directorate for Public Governance

Modernising Government: The Way Forward


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Public sector modernisation is no longer an option, but a necessity. It will help governments respond to changing societal needs and maintain competitiveness in an uncertain international environment.

Based on a project initiated in 2002 by the OECD Public Governance Committee, this book takes stock of the past two decades of public sector modernisation in OECD countries. It identifies levers for reform to modernise the public sector and defines different policy paths with the common objectives of making the public sector more responsive, transparent, and efficient. And it includes extensive comparable statistical data and tables comparing systems across countries.

The past twenty years have witnessed an influx of new ideas and initiatives. Have these new ideas worked in practice? This report assesses failures and successes and identifies the challenges ahead.

What readers say about Modernising Government

“This is a tremendously useful international overview which searches for generalisations, but in a nuanced and contextualised way. I have no hesitation in recommending it.”

-Christopher Pollitt, Professor of Public Management,
Centre for Public Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Modernising Government is of immense value to practitioners who want to know what countries are doing to upgrade public management, as well as to scholars who want a conceptual understanding of contemporary reform. It is a highly useful reference for countries that have embraced new public management and countries that have traditional forms of public administration.”

-Allen Schick, Professor of Public Policy,
University of Maryland and The Brookings Institution


The Review

This study was conducted by examining a selection of key public management policies. It hypothesised that certain public management policies had particular importance as “levers” on public sector behaviour. It sought to examine the trends and results of the following levers across OECD countries: open government; performance; accountability and control; restructuring organisations; the use of market-type mechanisms; and public employment/civil service. Once the study was underway, it became clear that the nature of these levers varied. Some were drivers of change, some were consequences of change, and “performance” was an aspiration influenced by several different public management instruments.

This book examines trends in the use of the six levers and how they have influenced public governance in different OECD countries. The review looks at these levers from a whole-of-government viewpoint; that is, it views governments as joined-up systems and from a governance perspective. As a result of having examined the interaction between particular public management policies and whole-of-government dynamics, this study also reflects on how the understanding of the dynamics of public management and governance has changed over the course of the reform period. Finally, it identifies challenges facing governments in the future, and seeks to help governments think about how to ensure that their public management policies are coherent, manageable, and calibrated to national circumstances.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Open Government

Open Government discusses the growing demands for greater openness in OECD countries. It reviews the steps taken by governments to achieve greater openness, such as the introduction of freedom of information laws. It also explores the limits to openness, and identifies future challenges.

Chapter 2. Enhancing Public Sector Performance

Enhancing Public Sector Performance reviews one of the most significant attitudinal changes in public sector management in the last two decades: the move from process-driven approaches to managing for performance. This chapter briefly discusses the wider perspective on government performance before looking at the developments in performance-oriented budgeting and management in OECD countries. It identifies the trends and the strengths and weaknesses of current approaches and future challenges. The shift in the focus of public sector management has resulted in the adoption of a range of new approaches to management, budgeting, personnel and institutional structures in pursuit of improved performance. The creation of decentralised agencies, the use of outsourcing and the privatisation of public sector service provision are examples of typical institutional changes. The focus on performance also motivated changes to public sector employment such as the introduction of contracts and performance-related pay. These trends are examined in later chapters.

Chapter 3. Modernising Accountability and Control

Modernising Accountability and Control examines the key elements of control systems in OECD countries. It explores the main reform trends and changes under way, for example the move from ex ante to ex post control and the challenges resulting from these changes.

Chapter 4. Reallocation and Restructuring: The Heavy Machinery of Reform

Reallocation and Restructuring: The Heavy Machinery of Reform explores the ways in which the structure of public sector organisations has adapted to the changing demands both from within the public sector and from the community at large. The chapter also examines the role of the budget as a tool of central agencies for driving structural change and resource reallocation.

Chapter 5. The Use of Market-type Mechanisms to Provide Government Services

The main market-type mechanisms examined are outsourcing (contracting out), public-private partnerships and vouchers. This chapter begins with a discussion of the mechanisms and an overview of the extent of their use in countries. Then the issues involved in introducing these mechanisms, both in terms of design and governance factors, are discussed as well as future challenges.

Chapter 6. Organising and Motivating Public Servants: Modernising Public Employment

Organising and Motivating Public Servants: Modernising Public Employment looks at changes in the nature of employment in the core public service in OECD countries, as well as issues and challenges for the future. There has been a variety of reform initiatives across countries, but this chapter concentrates on: attempts to increase managerial flexibility through the decentralisation of human resources management responsibilities; efforts to reduce public employment; the individualisation of employment contracts; accountability and the introduction of performance-related pay; and changes in the management of senior civil servants.

Chapter 7. Modernisation: Context, Lessons, and Challenges

Modernisation: Context, Lessons and Challenges provides a general overview of the lessons learned about the different levers of reform, and discusses the key strategic lessons, mainly the importance of context.


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