Antistatist Reforms and New Administrative Directions: Public Administration in the United Kingdom

By Politt, Christopher | Public Administration Review, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Antistatist Reforms and New Administrative Directions: Public Administration in the United Kingdom


Politt, Christopher, Public Administration Review


Compared with the United States, the United Kingdom is a strong unitary state. There are few constitution constraints on the central executive; that executive is controlled by one, highly disciplined political party; and that same party is usually able to dominate the proceedings o the legislature. The government of the d is accustomed to being able to get more than 90 percent of its legislation through Parliament unscathed (Rose, 1989). It is also able to constrain the activities of local governments to a degree which would be regarded as extraordinary in many other liberal democracies. When, during the mid-1980s, Mrs. Thatcher fell out with Labour-controlled authorities in the largest metropolitan areas, including London, she simply abolished them (Mather, 1989). Such executive freedoms must have appeared luxurious indeed to most American presidents.

This is, therefore, a state in which the musculature of the central executive is well developed--some would say overdeveloped. During the period of one party (Conservative) rule since 1979, these muscles have been flexed to considerable effect. More than 60 percent of the civil service presently works in executive agencies of a kind that scarcely existed 5 years ago. Market-type-mechanisms (MTMs) have been introduced to the National Health Service (NHS) and in community care. Prime Minister Major's Citizen's Charter program for quality and standards has left few public services untouched. Local government is in the throes of restructuring. Large-scale privatization has taken place and extensive further market testing is underway.

Although the scale of these movements is unmistakable, their significance remains a matter for debate. Are they signs of the strong heartedness of the British state and of the Conservative government's willingness to modernize and adapt public sector institutions? Alternatively, is the government displaying a weak-hearted acceptance of continuing economic decline or (even) a deep doctrinal prejudice against the public sector? Are we witnessing bold modernization or an unsubtle mixture of demoralization and demolition? The last may sound far-fetched, yet there is persistent evidence that ministerial hearts are unsympathetic to the public sector (Pollitt, 1993; 35-48). Many commentators agree that Mrs. Thatcher "and her close circle of ideological confidants saw themselves as the prize crew of a hostile vessel" (James, 1993; 504-505). Indeed, sometimes it has seemed that the public sector was guilty until proven innocent, While the private sector was innocent until proven guilty. Although such a stance has become familiar in American politics, it remains much less common in Europe, where the state is still widely seen as an indispensable force for integration and the promotion of social welfare.

Recent Changes in the State and Public Administration

With some oversimplification, the period since Mrs. Thatcher's coming to power in 1979 can be divided into three phases. First, from 1979 to about 1982 there was a fierce but relatively crude drive for economies. This corresponded with the government's macroeconomic policy objective of reducing public expenditure. Originally, this aim was formulated as one of making real cuts in total spending, but bitter experience obliged ministers progressively to reformulate their objectives in less draconian terms (Thain and Wright, 1992; 219). Even so, civil service numbers were cut by 14 percent (from 1979 levels) and subsequently by a further 6 percent. Civil service pay was brought under tighter ministerial control, and the Civil Service Department was abolished. Some major departments of state suffered severe cuts in their programs, especially those concerned with housing, the environment, industry, and energy. Central government also embarked on a series of new legislative measures designed to tighten its grip on local authority expenditure.

The limitations of such a strategy were apparent from the beginning, and the government soon moved to emphasize efficiency rather than economy. …

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