Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reinventing the Proverbs of Government

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reinventing the Proverbs of Government

Article excerpt

Public administration experiences periodic reform movements that exhibit the enthusiasm of a tent revival, but the success of the Soviet economy. Popularizers of these reforms are strong on charisma and communication. For example, two recent reform texts, Reinventing Government (RG) (Osborne and Gaebler 1992) and Banishing Bureaucracy (BB) (Osborne and Plastrik 1997), are largely written in narrative, rather than the more laborious format of many public administration texts (Goodsell 1992; Moe 1994). But these reformers and their texts are frequently weak on scholarship. As a result, they produce inconsistent recommendations that are uninformed by history. When such popularizations influence the direction of public administration practice, their errors must be examined and corrected.

Such is the case with the currently fashionable reinventing government literature. These texts appeal to the same audience as academic public administration, are used in teaching public administration as well as developing some elements of public administration theory, and may be the expressed views of people who have access to top political decision makers (details are given below). This literature has exerted an enormous influence over the language of public administration; for example, the use of "customer" language has become as ubiquitous in government as the similarly popular "quality" language is in the private sector. Also, the New Public Management movement is closely linked to this literature.

This movement, personified in its charismatic leader David Osborne, exhibits a lack of consistency within its recommendations and an ahistorical understanding of public administration (Coe 1997; Fox 1996; Goodsell 1992; Kobrak 1996; Nathan 1995; Russell and Waste 1998; Wolf 1997). It is sometimes argued that inconsistency in public administration is a sign that the field reflects the designs of the Founding Fathers (McSwite 1997; Whicker 1998). However, inconsistency within a single work or in the collective advice from a single perspective cannot be beneficial. The illogic of these recommendations renders them useless to those who would seek advice from them. However, as Herbert Simon said 50 years ago (Simon 1946) in reviewing Luther Gulick's similarly illogical recommendations (Gulick 1981), they can be used retrospectively to justify whatever action one happens to take.(1)

The remaining sections of this article examine five inconsistencies in Reinventing Government and Banishing Bureaucracy, discuss Osborne and his coauthors' claim to establish a new paradigm of government, expose five harmful or misleading reinventing government ideas, and evaluate Osborne and his coauthors' research approach. This discussion shows that the reinventing government reform movement is seriously flawed, providing both contradictory advice and advice that is outright harmful.


Simon argues: "A fact about proverbs that greatly enhances their quotability is that they almost always occur in mutually contradictory pairs. `Look before you leap!'--but `He who hesitates is lost'" (Simon 1946, 53).

His point is that such pairs provide no useful advice, but can be used to justify whatever action one prefers. In examining Gulick's principles of administration, he shows that the key information needed is how to decide which bit of advice one is to follow and that this is the information missing in early twentieth century administrative "science." Thus, such principles fulfill the same role as proverbs.

Osborne, Gaebler, and Plastrik exhibit the same tendency as Gulick. They provide conflicting advice without providing clear guidance as to when to choose which alternative. While others have asserted this conflict (Goodsell 1992; Nathan 1995), they have generally discussed conflicts at a rather high level of abstraction. For example, Goodsell says that Osborne and Gaebler are both for and against leadership. …

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