Sub-theme 49: Managing Public Sector Reforms: Dealing with the Struggle between Internal Challenges and External Consultancy

Andrea Tomo
University of Naples Federico II, Italy
Carl Yngfalk
Stockholm University, Sweden
Manuela Barreca
Università della Svizzera italiana, Switzerland

Call for Papers

The continuous reforms that reshaped the panorama of public administrations around the world (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011; Tomo, 2018; Vigoda-Gadot & Meiri, 2008) led to an enormous increase in studies deepening the issues behind reform implementation in public sector organizations. Even though the literature did not lack critical perspectives, those works were mainly focused on discussing the validity of New Public Management (NPM) as a paradigm (Kitchener & Gask, 2003; Lapsley, 2009), including the emergence of differentiated versions of this “universal concept” across countries (e.g., Public Governance, New Public Governance, Public Value, New Weberian State). Other works studied the rhetoric of reforms (Kickert, 2011) and their actual implementation, focusing mainly on macro-level analysis of compliance to new legal frameworks introducing management procedures or performance management systems.
The literature after the mid-2000s has, however, highlighted a series of contradictions in the NPM reform agendas, arguing that NPM left many issues unsolved and failed to deliver better value since its proponents tend to underestimate the organizational complexity permeating the public sector (Lapsley, 2009; Tomo, 2018). As a result, many private initiatives replicated into the public sector failed and led to contrasting results (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2009; Thomas & Davies, 2005), not to say they worsened the quality and effectiveness of the administrative action. Accordingly, public sector organizations often struggle to cope with contradictory institutional demands (Ackroyd et al. 2007; Meyer & Hammerschmid, 2006) of such reforms (i.e., managerial autonomy/disciplinary-control systems; customer orientation/standardization; competence development/skills alignment). Indeed, institutional change in the public sector during recent decades involves a stark shift to managerialism and marketization that entails an increasing dependence on commercial forms of knowledge and expertise, as typically represented by a parallel increasing presence of management consultants (Kirkpatrick et al., 2019; Ylönen & Kuusela, 2019).

Furthermore, although management research is often blamed for being the greenhouse for NPM, organization scholars as well as scholars in political science have argued that the institutional logic for the public sector is the pursuing of non-commercialism, democracy and bureaucracy. Thus, the shift to and increasing dependence on external and marketized expertise in the sector is both controversial and highly problematic (Furusten & Werr, 2017; O’Mahoney & Sturdy, 2016; Tomo, 2018). However, little attention has been paid to what such contradictions actually produce in terms of public sector organizing; how the reforms impact public organization at the micro-level, such as personnel strategies, HR policies, training schemes, but also ethical conduct and procedures pertaining to public service design and delivery.
Indeed, the externalization and de-/politicization of advice to governments, as well as the re-politization of advice from the outside is under scrutiny in several social science disciplines, as well as the mapping and characterization of the existence and roles of different actors and changes therein (Craft & Halligan, 2017; OECD, 2017; Sturdy, 2018; see also Campbell & Pedersen [2014] on knowledge regimes; Garsten & Sörbom [2017] on think tanks; and Furusten [2013] on the construction of the institutional environment). The decline in internal staff numbers (including ‘staff professionals’) and the rise of new professions where competition or commercial imperatives are more intense, has led to arguments of sector performance decline and that democratic decision making is undermined (Kirkpatrick et al., 2019). This is most evident in the notion of ‘consultocracy’, which has been the focus of research in policy studies and politics, but not organization studies. Here, the outcomes claimed from the increased presence of consultants and commercial expertise in the public sector include the monopolization and privatization of knowledge, a weakening of accountability and strengthening of instrumental rationality (Ylonen & Kuusela, 2019).
In the context of management and organization studies, the focus on advice is more implicit, reflected in concerns with (internal) issue selling and, in particular, knowledge flow. Here, there is some recognition of management knowledge systems which map the different actors and relations between them (e.g., Suddaby & Greenwood, 2001; Engwall et al., 2016) and similarly with occupations (Reed, 1996), but there is little attention to the outcomes. Thus, we might learn from policy and political studies theoretically, but we also need to understand the specific empirical consultocratic contexts.
The few analyses of the organizational impact of public administration reforms have, however, highlighted both the need for more evidence on the aforementioned micro-level issues and the need to embrace a more practice-oriented, contextual perspective. It is further unclear how HR policies, training and personnel strategies actually contribute to creating organizational realities that achieve their institutional mission in face of contradictory forces (Tomo, 2018) and how they might be supported, challenged or supplanted by external consultancy services. More specifically, one key question is ‘are professional values brought by external consultants only a façade to the development and diffusion of commercial logics and what are the consequences for ethics and efficiency in public administrations?’ This is particularly important if it turns out that, through these processes, external consultants gain greater influence in decision-making processes and in forming new professional practices in, for example, local health care practices, law services in local administrations, etc.
On these grounds, we invite critical and constructive papers theoretically or empirically addressing the challenges related to HRM in the public sector, the need for balancing internal development of HR and the reliance on external consultants, and HRM relationship with individual and organizational acts of reactions, resistance, engagement and coping with the transformation of sector-specific “professional knowledge” to commercial expertise and/or its externalization. How do these processes become, on the one hand, a site for developing a more responsible, democratic and sustainable future for external commercialized professionals and, on the other, systems of governance, management and internal professionals in organizations?
We invite contributions that focus on a wide range of issues, including, but not limiting to, the following:

  • Comparing the outcomes of internal and external professional advice in the public sector;

  • Power/resistance dynamics, reactions and identity politics in organizations “consuming” commercialized “professional” services;

  • The challenges of managerial competence development and the role of civil servant training, HRM policies and organizational strategies in managing conflicting objectives and demands, and coping with reforms;

  • The comparative analysis of cross-sectoral and cross-national experiences of public management reforms, focusing on the deconstruction/reconstruction of cultural/professional paradigms and identities within administrations;

  • The challenges for knowledge “consumers” and “producers” from the struggle between commercial and professional values;

  • How to develop accountable, democratic and/or sustainable models for professionalism and advice giving in the public sector;

  • The rise of experts in management, leadership, strategy, sustainability, recruiting, and the like, where traditional understandings of professional organization are absent or translated;

  • Knowledge supply in the public sector – to politicians, management, management bureaucrats and professionals – from academia, think tanks and consultants.


  • Ackroyd, S., Kirkpatrick, I., Walker, R.M. (2007): “Public Management reform in the UK and its Consequences for Professional Organization: A Comparative Analysis.” Public Administration, 85, 9–26.
  • Campbell, J.L., & Pedersen, O.K., (2014): “Knowledge Regimes and the National Origins of Policy Ideas.” In: J.L. Campbell & O.K. Pedersen (eds.): The National Origins of Policy Ideas: Knowledge Regimes in the United States, France, Germany, and Denmark. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1–36.
  • Craft, J., & Halligan, J. (2017): “Assessing 30 years of Westminster policy advisory system experience.” Policy Sciences, 50 (1), 47–62.
  • Engwall, L., Üsdiken, B., & Kipping, M. (2016): Defining Management: Business Schools, Consultants, Media. London: Routledge.
  • Furusten, S. (2013): Institutional Theory and Organizational Change, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Furusten, S., & Werr, A. (2017): The Organization of the Expert Society. New York: Routledge.
  • Garsten, C., & Sörbom, A. (eds.) (2017): Power, Policy and Profit: Corporate Engagement in Politics and Governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Kärreman, D., & Alvesson, M. (2009): “Resisting resistance: Counter-resistance, consent and compliance in a consultancy firm.” Human Relations, 62 (8), 1115–1144.
  • Kickert, W.J.M. (2011): “Distinctiveness Of Administrative Reform in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Common Characteristics of Context, Administrations and Reforms.” Public Administration, 89 (3), 801–818.
  • Kirkpatrick, I., Sturdy, A., Reguera Alvarado, N., Blanco-Oliver, A., & Veronesi, G. (2019): “The impact of management consultants on public service efficiency.” Policy and Politics, 47 (1), 77–96.
  • Kitchener, M., & Gask, L. (2003): “NPM merger mania. Lessons from an early case.” Public Management Review, 5 (1). 19–44.
  • Lapsley, I. (2009): “New Public Management: The Cruellest Invention of the Human Spirit?” ABACUS, 45 (1), 1–21.
  • Meyer, R., & Hammerschmid, G. (2006): “Public management reform: An identity project.” Public Policy and Administration, 21 (1), 99–115.
  • O’Mahoney, J., & Sturdy, A. (2016): “Power and the diffusion of management ideas: The case of McKinsey & Co.” Management Learning, 47 (3), 247–265.
  • OECD (2017): Public Governance Reviews. Policy Advisory Systems. Supporting Good Governance and Sound Public Decision Making. Paris: OECD.
  • Pollitt, C., & Bouckaert, G. (2011): Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis – New Public Management, Governance and the Neo-Weberian State. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Reed, M.I. (1996): “Expert power and control in late modernity: an empirical review and theoretical synthesis.” Organization Studies, 17 (4), 573–597.
  • Sturdy, A. (2018): “Promoting solutions and co-constructing problems–management consultancy and instrument constituencies.” Policy and Society, 37 (1), 74–89.
  • Suddaby, R., & Greenwood, R. (2001): “Colonizing knowledge: Commodification as a dynamic of jurisdictional expansion in professional service firms.” Human Relations, 54 (7), 933–953.
  • Thomas, R. & Davies, A. (2005): “Theorizing the micro-politics of resistance: New public ma,nagement and managerial identities in the UK public services.” Organization Studies, 26 (5), 683–706.
  • Tomo, A. (2018): Managerialism in the Public Sector: Perspectives and Prospects. London: Routledge.
  • Tummers, L.G. (2011): “Explaining the willingness of public professionals to implement new policies: A policy alienation framework.” International Review of Administrative Sciences, 77 (3), 555–581.
  • Vigoda-Gadot, E., & Meiri, S. (2008): “New public management values and person-organization fit: a socio psychological approach and empirical examination among public sector personnel.” Public Administration, 86 (1), 11–131.
  • Ylönen M., & Kuusela H. (2019): “Consultocracy and its discontents: A critical typology and a call for a research agenda.” Governance, 32 (2), 241–258.
Andrea Tomo is an Assistant Professor of Organization Studies and member of the organizing and scientific committees of two Executive MBAs on public management at the Department of Economics, Management and Institutions, University of Naples Federico II, Italy. He teaches “Negotiation in Complex Organizations” and “Organization and Innovation of Professional Service Firms”. Andrea’s research interests are related to change and identity processes in professional service firms and the public sector.
Carl Yngfalk is a research fellow in marketing and organization studies at the Stockholm Center for Organizational Research (SCORE), Stockholm University, Sweden. His research interests are in the politics and ethics of market(ing) discourses and contemporary consumerism, focusing on how power, resistance and identity are expressed in and around the increasingly “marketized” organizations of contemporary society.
Manuela Barreca is a Lecturer and researcher at the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Switzerland. Her main research interests are network governance, public and private partnership, public service motivations, human resource management, civic crowdfunding, and social innovation. Manuela is member of the International Institute of Administrative Science (IIAS), Co-Chair for the Social Innovation, Commons and Administration panel, and part of the CEPS Research Fellows, Center for Philanthropy Studies, University of Basel.