New Public Management and Public Sector Employment Relations: United Kingdom, the United States and Australia

By O'Brien, John; O'Donnell, Michael | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 2002 | Go to article overview

New Public Management and Public Sector Employment Relations: United Kingdom, the United States and Australia


O'Brien, John, O'Donnell, Michael, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


During the last two decades governments, particularly in the English speaking world, have restructured andreorganised public services and the administrative processes that have coordinated the delivery of those services. This process has been variously characterised as 'managerialism' (Gardner and Palmer, 1992; Pollitt, 1993), 'New Public Management' (Hood, 1990; Rhodes, 1991), 'entrepreneurial government' (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992), 'post bureaucratic government' (Laffin and Palmer, 1995) and 'corporate management' (Davis, Weller and Lewis, 1989). Despite this conceptual pluralism it can be said that the discourse of public administration has been largely supplanted by the discourse of public management. As such there has been a gradual, but not necessarily systematic, transformation from an administrative to a more explicitly market-oriented managerial model of the state.

The public sector has been a focus for restructuring in the context of the internationalisation of many economies. In New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, where changes have been arguably most extensive, the rationale for the changes has been presented in terms of 'modernisation' of the state apparatus so as to facilitate the repositioning of those economies in accordance with the perceived logic of globalisation. This presentation of the state reflects a broader debate about the role of the state in the context of the internationalisation of economies. Claims about this process range from the apparent irrelevance of the state (Ohmae, 1990, 1995) to the continuing importance of the state as manager of national economies (Boyer and Drache, 1996; Hirst and Thompson, 1999). For proponents of globalisation the social relations of labour are no longer bound by or defined by the nation state. In particular, the employment arrangements within the state need to reflect the 'borderless' world of capital that is said to be emerging. Although this-particular line of argument has been questioned (Sklair 1995; Hirst and Thompson, 1999) there is now a vulnerability of employment relations in the state that both organised and unorganised labour has found difficult to resist (Elgar and Smith, 1994; Edwards and Elgar, 1999; Waddington, 1999).

The purpose of this symposium is to examine the impact on employment relations in three states where the public sector has undergone significant restructuring in the direction of marketised relations. Despite the importance of public sector labour in state restructuring there is relative paucity of analysis of the impact of 'New Public Management' (NPM) on employment relations in the public sector. Industrial Relations scholars in the United Kingdom and Australia, for instance, have only really begun to take some interest in the area. Public Administration scholars, moreover, tend to see employment relations as a sub-set of broader managerial changes. In a limited way this symposium attempts to provide some comparative insight into the impact of state restructuring on public sector work in three national settings.

The paper by Carter, Davis and Fairbrother takes a broad perspective on public sector restructuring in the United Kingdom. It covers both the civil service and the delivery of public services such as education, health and transport by state bodies. It provides a useful overview of developments from the early 1980s until 2001 within the historical framework of public sector industrial relations since the 1920s. The paper argues that there has been a reorganisation of the British state, in part through privatisation and more broadly through the transformation of the state as a model 'administrative' employer to a more explicitly managerial employer drawing on private sector models of the organisation and control of labour. This process, which had its origins in the reorganisation of the British civil service, has been mirrored by the distancing of the state from the direct provision of public services.

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