Of alternating waves and shifting shores: The configuration of reform values in the US federal bureaucracy

  • Park S
  • Joaquin M
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Scholars have noted that United States federal government reforms come in waves (Barley and Kunda, 1992; Kettl, 2002; Light, 1998), often accompanied by values that alternate between rational and normative conceptions of public administration and service. The idea of alternation also suggests the importance of time in gauging the effect of new reforms when previous reforms have accumulated from the past (see Pollitt, 2008). Time is a necessary variable in implementing reforms; time is crucial to know if reform values have taken hold. Extending Paul Light’s (1998) reform waves metaphor, we investigate here whether two predominant management philosophies have influenced and reconfigured the shoreline of values found among federal agencies over a particular period of time. Using empirical methods, we examine how the values of New Public Management and its humanist (post-NPM) counterpart have settled and taken hold among US federal agencies. We followed three lines of inquiry: determining the existence of reform values in the bureaucracy, examining the prevalence of different sets of values, and investigating whether ‘crowding out’ of values occurred, that is, whether there was a detectable shift in the distribution of values as a new wave came on top of others. Our analysis yields evidence for the predominance of certain NPM and post-NPM values and indicates that bureaucracy concurrently holds what may be regarded as competing values side-by-side. Implications for research and future reforms are suggested in the final section of the article.Points for practitioners Practicing public administration requires constantly navigating reform pressures that espouse different, sometimes opposing, value sets. NPM and post-NPM reforms differed in their emphasis on applying rationalistic and humanistic values to the work of government. Based on federal workforce surveys, NPM values appeared ascendant from the reinvention period till the end of the Bush administration, when a more humanist outlook began to emerge. Bureaucratic values are dynamic and change could go faster with network structures. Following previous research, this study suggests that a ‘layering’ of reform occurs; the strongest values are held intact even as newer philosophies of organization and management are introduced. Results suggest that government professionals can adhere to differing values, but further study is required to see how those values actually influence their work.

Author-supplied keywords

  • New Public Management
  • bureaucratic values
  • federal agencies
  • public management
  • waves of reform

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  • Sung Min Park

  • M. Ernita Joaquin

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