This chapter examines the extent to which the concept of 'Best Value' as it is being developed within the UK public sector can be seen as the NPM 'in action'. It suggests that in some senses the new regime appears to be the high-water mark of the NPM. However, it is likely to test to destruction a number of the underlying assumptions of the NPM framework and in the process to demonstrate the need for a more sophisticated analysis of the role of local public services and approaches to their regulation. In particular the apparent paradoxes of the Best Value regime need to be understood in the context of conflicting interests and agendas of central and local government, business, organized labour and service users and the internal tensions within the British Labour Party between the 'modernizers' and other factions.
Both the NPM and Best Value are slippery concepts susceptible to a multitude of overlapping and, in the case of Best Value, apparently contradictory interpretations. According to some accounts (notably successive OECD studies - 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997) the NPM constitutes a unified, consistent and coherent set of 'business like' or neo-managerial practices. Promoted by fiscal crises and the resulting search for 'cost-effectiveness' or 'value for money', the NPM is seen as having increasingly dominated public governance and public service delivery in most Western democracies. There has, we are told, been a shift from tight ex ante control of inputs by the senior management. The centre has apparently become increasingly concerned with 'steering and strategic control', and responsibility for service delivery has been devolved to front-line staff operating within a system of 'continuously monitored management by objectives with accountability for results' (OECD 1994:54).
This account has of course been contested by a number of commentators. Polidano et al. (1998:21) have concluded that there really is 'no such thing as a single model of New Public Management reform'. Kickert (1997, 1999) has argued that there is an Anglo-American bias in many descriptions of the NPM which glosses over the very different types, different rates and different