Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Implementing Downsizing Reforms in County Governments

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Implementing Downsizing Reforms in County Governments

Article excerpt


Organizational downsizing has become one of the most popular managerial strategies emphasized in recent governmental reforms. The reform movement of New Public Management (NPM) around the world has emphasized the importance of market competition, promoting the adoption of such reform strategies, as downsizing and privatization (e.g., Ferlie, et al., 1996). In the United States, downsizing related activities were studied during the Reagan administration to address the use of cutback management and fiscal stress issues (e.g., Levine, 1980). Downsizing reforms were further emphasized during the Clinton administration in the National Performance Review (NPR) movement to improve the performance of federal agencies.

Downsizing and related reforms have been important for local governments since the late 1970s, when they experienced the challenges of resource limitations (e.g., Watson and Montjoy, 1991). These challenges include: the movement for tax restrictions and revolts (e.g., Proposition 13), frequent cuts in federal and state aid, and economic uncertainties and crises (e.g., recent housing market crisis and the financial crisis). Downsizing reforms have been implemented among local governments because, unlike the federal government, they cannot run their operations with huge deficits and have to cut their expenses to deal with the challenges of fiscal stress (e.g., Levine, Rubin and Wolohojian, 1981). Understanding downsizing reforms and their use by county governments is important for scholars and practitioners of public administration.

The purpose of this study is to understand the implementation of downsizing reforms in county governments in the United States (U.S.). We focus on downsizing reforms in U.S. county governments, because of the increasing importance of county studies in the literature of public administration, and the role of counties in reforming and improving performance (e.g., Benton, 2005; Menzel, et al., 1992; Streib et al., 2007). The paper first provides the theoretical background of downsizing studies to support our research questions and issues. Then based on data from a national survey, we share the findings of our empirical analyses about the implementation of various downsizing strategies in counties and test the relationship between downsizing strategies and organizational and individual factors. The paper concludes with discussions of the downsizing lessons found, the implications of these findings for public managers, and the implications for future studies of public management reforms.


Research Background

Organizational downsizing has become an important managerial strategy emphasized by public administration practitioners and scholars (e.g., Halley, 2005). Since the late 1970s, public officials, elected officials and public managers, have begun to cut programs and services to deal with fiscal stress caused by economic recessions and budget deficits. They have been interested in applying corporate ideas and strategies, such as downsizing, in public organizations to improve the performance of government agencies. Downsizing ideas, such as resizing, rightsizing, restructuring, and reengineering, were promoted by business leaders to cut expenses (through reducing headcounts or redesigning jobs), to increase profits, and to increase the competitive position of American companies when facing global competition (Cameron, 1994; McKinley, Sanchez, and Schick, 1995). The application of these downsizing ideas in the public sector is based on an assumption that if downsizing works in the business sector to reduce cost and to increase competition, public managers should also be able to use downsizing to address major critics decrying bureaucratic waste and inefficiency. Public administration researchers (e.g., Raney, 2003; Rubin, 1999) have studied the effect of the public-private management assumptions and the value and implications of the application of these business-type strategies in public organizations. …

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