Can public policy survive without government?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 3:44pm

Many governments around the world have chosen instruments other than the state bureaucracy to deliver public policy.

In my country, the United States, you can find whole service systems in areas like mental health policy entirely privatized where an array of private companies and nonprofit organizations both govern and deliver taxpayer funded services to a vulnerable population like the mentally ill with almost no state involvement other than to let the overall contract to run the system.

Instruments of public policy like contracts, partnerships, and alliances are viewed by governments as ways of outflanking slow footed bureaucracies that are unable or unwilling to adopt the modern business methods.  Governments also turn to these instruments in the hope that private companies and nonprofit organizations can deliver government services better, faster and cheaper to its citizens. 

In my view involving the private and nonprofit sectors in helping governments deliver better public services is a good thing.  However, good things carried too far can have bad effects. I worry that privatization of public services can, if not carefully designed, outrun the ability of governments to control them. 

In countries like the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand that have adopted privatization schemes, certain areas of public policy have been hollowed out and you can wander around these systems for days without finding someone in government service delivering healthcare, mental health, or job training, just to give a few examples. 

When the instruments of governance – services delivery, eligibility determination, and regulation - are in the hands of many actors inside and outside of government, what is the governmental role?  In my work on what I call “the hollow state” I’ve found that when it comes to government’s role in contracting out services to third parties, it can get reasonable performance from either for profit or nonprofit organizations if there is reasonable stability, a reasonable degree of centralization between government and the lead contractor, and a reasonable level of resources given the size of the clientele to be served.

These conditions – stability, centralization, and resources – don’t occur without a great deal of forethought on the part of the government and those bidding on the contracts.  I fear that governments have a tendency to assume that the hollow state doesn’t govern.  It clearly does although differently.  This I think is the real challenge for people like me and other deans and directors of schools of government and public policy. 

We need to train our students in both the best business practices and the ways to control them in the public interest. How can we do this? 

We need to learn how to govern complexity that assumes that public policy can be delivered by all three sectors.  We also need to rethink what it means to be a state. The answer to governing complexity is not just adopting modern management techniques but to think seriously about what we can expect from our government.

A good place to start is to read about the state through history. In The Shield of Achilles, Phillip Bobbitt argues that we have passed from the nation state to the market state without knowing it and we need rethink the relationship between the government and the market as it has shifted over time in favor of the market.

In Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama discusses the tendency of government institutions to decay and how they must be renewed if a state is going to be able to meet the challenges of the future and avoid becoming a “vetocracy” where old interest groups and intransigent political parties block needed change.

Democracy depends on the losers of elections to view the winners as legitimate, even if they disagree with their policies. Without the losers willing to play the role of the loyal opposition, democracy will fail. 


Dr. Brint Milward is Director, School of Government and Public Policy University of Arizona. This opinion article is prepared for the academic conference about "Why public policy matters and how it works in the fast-changing world" to be held on HKU campus on September 15, 2015.