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Control, bargains, and cheating: the politics of public service reform

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This article aims to link together three themes in reform of public bureaucracy, focusing mainly on developed Westminster-type systems. The three themes are control in and over public bureaucracies, variety of types of public-service bargain between senior public officials and other actors in the political system, and strategic action or cheating over such bargains. The first part of the article identifies the idea of thermostatic control over the public service (by arms-length steering, transparent targets, and negative feedback mechanisms) as a key theme in contemporary doctrines of public-service reform. The second part sketches out some of the observable variety in public-service bargains across political systems, and argues that the thermostatic approach to control is more likely to develop in public services with agency bargains than in those with trustee bargains. The third part explores possibilities of cheating on the assumptions built into the thermostatic approach to control, arguing that the approach is far from cheat proof and can only be sustained in some conditions. The conclusion is that a PSB approach can help us to account for observed variety in contemporary public-service reform and for the surprisingly limited amount of full-blown managerialism that has developed in the era of new public management.

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