Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Towards a New Public Unitarism: Employment and Industrial Relations in the Australian Public Service

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Towards a New Public Unitarism: Employment and Industrial Relations in the Australian Public Service

Article excerpt


The purpose of this article is to trace the transformation of the Australian federal public service from an administrative towards a more managerial model of the state. One of the important characteristics of employment arrangements in a managerial state, organised along private sector lines, is that public employees should have no more rights or status than private sector employees, even if they remain subject to the sovereign power of government in a manner that other employees do not. Thus the government is both employer of, and legislative regulator of, the conditions of its own employees. Nevertheless, employment and industrial relations are a subsidiary function of managerialism, although they are crucial components in its successful realisation. Dunleavy and Hood (1994) identify the following key aspects of 'new public management':

* More transparent budgeting arrangements with a focus on outputs rather than inputs;

* Viewing organisations as a chain of low cost principal/agent relationships rather than trustee beneficial relationships;

* Desegregating separable functions through purchaser--provider distinctions;

* Opening up competition between and within public agencies and not-for-profit organisations.

Advocates of this new public management model emphasise the similarities between the nature of managerial work in the public and private sectors (Pusey, 1991: 122). They tend to believe that private sector management skills are universal and portable between the private and public sectors (Hood, 1989: 350; Bryson, 1987: 270; Sinclair, 1989: 382). For example, Keating has argued that' ... the differences between public and private sector approaches to management are frequently exaggerated' (1997: 128). Supporters of this approach also believe that management techniques and practices imported from the private sector are context free, value neutral and applicable to the effective operation of the public sector regardless of the political aims or objectives of governments (Gray and Jenkins, 1995: 86; Hood, 1995: 173). Proponents of the new managerial model of the state also exhort public sector managers to concentrate on 'managing for results' instead of the traditional concerns of public administrators with processes, inputs and accountability (Gray and Jenkins, 1995: 80). For Yeatman the focus on 'managing for results' reduces the aims of the public service 'to the effective, efficient and economic management of human and financial resources' (1987: 340).

Nevertheless, for some commentators the focus on the tasks of management has the potential to undermine accountability, equity and democratic citizen participation in the policy-making process (Davis, 1997:209; Pollitt, 1993: 112). For Painter'... most areas of the public service and administration have distinct political, ethical, constitutional and social dimensions which tend to be ignored or even supplanted by private management practices' (1997:41-2). In addition, critics argue that advocates of the new public management have underestimated the complexity of public sector goals and the inherently political nature of public sector work (Alford, 1997: 155; Halligan and Power, 1992:4; Hood, 1995:173). This political context and the limits imposed on the activities of public sector managers by the need to be accountable to parliament for the expenditure of public monies represent key distinctions between the management of public and private sector organisations (Boston et al, 1996: viii). Public sector management is also about more than the operation of individual agencies, it also involves:

... the macro-level management of the public sector as a whole.... [requiring] the fostering of cooperation and coordination among interdependent organisations in the pursuit of collectively determined goals. Steering such a network requires a delicate balance to be struck between shared public interests and the interests of individual public sector organisations and the individuals who manage them (Boston et al. …

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