Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

From Bad to Worse: Twenty More Years of Assault on the Public Sector

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

From Bad to Worse: Twenty More Years of Assault on the Public Sector

Article excerpt


For almost forty years, the ideology of neoliberalism consisting largely of a faith in the rationality of market-driven economies, the prudence of minimalist government and the wisdom of slashing social programs in the interest of maximizing individual choice has dominated the Anglo-American democracies and become the preferred political and economic approach not only in liberal democracies but, increasingly in developing nations as well. In this context, public sector innovation has been assessed mainly in terms of promoting efficiencies and "customer satisfaction" rather than public investment and citizen participation. This reversal of post -World War II priorities and an expanding role for the public sector in both building infrastructure and providing social services has come at the insistence of private sector interests and has resulted, for example, in the popularity of the "new public management" in which government was to be judged according to its success in mimicking the 'business models" of for-profit corporations. The results have included the demoralization of the public service, a decline in public services, labour, health and environmental regulations, widening gaps between rich and poor and a degradation of democracy itself. The restoration of the public interest and not the enhancement of corporate interests as the prime focus of public sector innovation is now overdue.


"Innovation" is a concept that many people believe exists in an inherently normless world. Although like "technology," it constructs, carries and conveys what are popularly called "values," innovation is considered to be mainly an instrumental term. A reading of the literature suggests that it concerns methods more than objectives, that it is procedural more than substantive, that the means are more important than the ends.

When assessing innovations, we commonly consider questions of efficiency and performance. Just as we can judge an automobile according to criteria such as fuel consumption and speed, so we can judge innovations according to the specific outcomes we expect them to achieve. Just as we do not judge the technical capacities of an automobile by the quality of the destination a driver chooses, so we do not judge the efficacy of an innovation by the wisdom, ethics or morality of the policy objective it was designed to fulfill. We are mostly interested in whether it did the job. Did it work?

So, for example, innovations meant to redress educational inequalities among demographic groups can be evaluated in terms of statistical student retention and graduation rates. Likewise, innovations meant to reduce waste in government procurement programs can be objectively appraised in terms of the costs and quality of the materials purchased. As well, innovations meant to improve a country's geopolitical status can be measured in terms of the observable effects of starving an opponent into submission using economic sanctions or bombing a rival into surrender (or oblivion) using a massive military invasion, targeted assassinations or drone strikes launched from half a world away. Whether any of these projects is ethically defensible does not necessarily enter the equation. Innovations can be evaluated using both qualitative and quantitative data. Whether the innovation was used for good or evil is a matter of political debate.

Guns don't kill people. People kill people.

- National Rifle Association

To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail.

- Abraham Maslow

The preference of innovation theorists to focus on empirical measures of effectiveness and on how innovative techniques contributed to the success of programs but not on "political" decisions about the normative quality of policy aims has always perplexed me. Innovation, I believed (and continue to believe) cannot or, at least, ought not to be contemplated in a "value-free" world. Although, like technology, innovation is thought to be conceptually separate from the purposes to which it is put, in my view this is ontologically naïve, epistemologically unsupportable, and ethically, morally and politically absurd. …

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