Sub-theme 46: Managing Human Resources in the “Digitalized” Public Sector: The Struggle between Internal and External Sources in the Post-Pandemic World

Andrea Tomo
University of Naples Federico II, Italy
Carl Yngfalk
Stockholm University Business School & SCORE, Sweden
Manuela Barreca
Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI)

Call for Papers

The spread of COVID-19 has been a challenging test for organizations and their organizational arrangements (e.g., workflows, teamworks, leadership styles, and organizational cultures) (Schuster et al., 2020; Välikangas and Lewin, 2020; Yang, 2020). The pandemic was also a considerable challenge to human resources management (HRM) at a time of organizational crisis (Van der Wal, 2020; Wang et al., 2009). The rapid shift from office to home working, to limit the spread of COVID-19, made it possible to accelerate organizational transformation processes (e.g., digitalization) that were previously underused or resisted (Bunker, 2020; Mascio et al., 2020). New digital technologies favoured the diffusion of new forms of work during the pandemic. These new forms of work include smart working, which has been widely adopted and has rapidly revolutionized work practices.
It is an entirely flexible way of organizing work activities and allows organizations to adapt to rapidly changing contexts (Ellerton, 2015; Torre and Sarti, 2019). McEwan (2013, p. 1) defined it as a working approach based on activities that “are agile, dynamic, and emergent. They are the outcomes of designing organizational systems that facilitate customer-focused, value-creating relationships that are good for business and good for people”. Smart working employees (or ‘smart workers’) carry out their work for a specified period outside the organization’s physical workplace and formal boundaries, following a schedule adapted to individual and organizational needs. Working “smart” means workers have no specific time or workplace constraints, while technologies cover a key role to create and shape a resilient and flexible organizational model (Ellerton, 2015).
Smart working and other new forms of work (e.g., agile work (Jeyasingham, 2016); hybrid work (Gratton, 2021; Petani and Mengis, 2021); telework (Bae et al., 2019; Den Dulk and Groenveld, 2013); flexible work (Bal and Izak, 2021); remote work (Molino et al., 2020; Park, 2013)) represent a revolution in the new, post-pandemic world, especially for the public sector, since it has accelerated previously overlooked, or not fully implemented, processes of digitalization. As a result, there is nowadays a demand and an expectation for people to not only always be flexible and adaptable, but to thrive on it too. This expresses what Zygmunt Bauman (2000, p. 5), called liquid modernity aims at “releasing the brakes” […] of deregulation, liberalization, ‘flexibilization’, increased fluidity, unbridling the financial, real estate and labour markets, easing the tax burden, etc.”. Moreover, it highlights an erosion of organizational boundaries and increased sense of liquidity among people in society in general. This highlights an urgent need to understand the underlying reforms and the effects they have on people and their working lives after their introduction, on the management of human resources and the balance with external sourcing of human resources or professionals (e.g., consultants).
Continuous reforms have since ever characterized the panorama of public administrations around the world (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011; Tomo, 2018; Vigoda-Gadot & Meiri, 2008) leading academics to deepen the issues behind their implementation. The passage from bureaucratic to post-bureaucratic models (NPM, NPG, Public Value) (Kitchener & Gask, 2003; Lapsley, 2009) required and prompted many streams of research with proposals that led to any, or few, solutions applied while many issues remained unsolved (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2009; Lapsley, 2009; Thomas & Davies, 2005; Tomo, 2018). This is because many studies excessively promoted 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 and on external dimensions (public-private partnerships and other institutional and network related initiatives), while leaving aside the focus on individual dimensions and other issues internal to the organization (Tomo, 2018).
The increasing relevance of external relationships, over the last years, has led to 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., 2018; this is most evident in the notion of ‘consultocracy’, see: Ylönen & Kuusela, 2018). 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., 2018). 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 public service design and delivery.
These changes become even more central in light of the recent push to digital forms of working due to the pandemic that is requiring private organizations as well as public administrations to search for more agile and flexible organizational models driven by different, renewed and ‘fresher’ HRM practices (Medeiros et al., 2022). This also implies the development, and training of, new competences and skills for employees to be able to work in new digital environments (e.g., Neumann and Schott, 2021; Schwarz et al., 2020; Todisco et al., 2021). However, considering these two macro-level changes (consultocracy and digital transformation of the public sector), we wonder what consequences they will have in terms of HRM practices, their development, and the effects on organizational models, working practices and individual identities on and off work (Todisco et al., 2022).
On these grounds, we invite critical and constructive papers theoretically and empirically addressing the challenges related to new trends on HRM in the public sector, the effects of the pandemic on HRM practices, 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 digital transformation and with the changes related to the increasing use of commercial expertise and “knowledge” 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:

  • The transformation of working practices and organizational models in the public sector after the pandemic and the spread of digital technologies

  • The implications of smart working and other agile forms of working on individual well-being, work-life balance as well as on their identities

  • The effects of smart working and other agile forms on management practices, knowledge management, leadership, strategy, sustainability, and recruiting

  • Power/resistance dynamics, counter-conduct and identity politics related to both the digital transformation and the spread of “consuming” external commercialized “professional” services

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

  • 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 as well as macro changes such as the digital transformation

  • 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



  • Bae, K. B., D. Lee, and H. Sohn, (2019), How to increase participation in telework programs in U.S. federal agencies: examining the effects of being a female supervisor, supportive leadership, and diversity management. Public Personnel Management, 48, 565–583.
  • Bauman, Z. (2000), Liquid Modernity, Polity Press.
  • Den Dulk, L., & Groeneveld, S., 2013, Work–life balance support in the public sector in Europe. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 33: 384–405.
  • Ellerton, S. (2015), “Smart working-creating the next wave”, Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 36, 903–904.
  • Furusten, S., & Werr A., (2017), The Organization of the Expert Society, New York: Routledge.
  • Gratton, L. (2021). Four principles to ensure hybrid work is productive work. MIT Sloan Management Review, 62 (2), 11A–16A.
  • Jeyasingham, D. (2016), “Open spaces, supple bodies? Considering the impact of agile working on social work office practices.”, Child and Family Social Work, 21 (2): 209-217.
  • 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. (2018), The impact of management consultants on public service efficiency. Policy and Politics. DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15167881150799
  • 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.
  • McEwan, A. M. (2016), Smart working: Creating the next wave, Routledge, London.
  • Molino, M., E. Ingusci, F. Signore, A. Manuti, M. L. Giancaspro, V. Russo, M. Zito, & C. G. Cortese, 2020, Wellbeing costs of technology use during Covid-19 remote working: an investigation using the Italian translation of the technostress creators scale. Sustainability, 12, 5911.
  • Neumann, O., and Schott, C. (2021), “Behavioral effects of public service motivation among citizens: testing the case of digital co-production”, International Public Management Journal, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print, pp. 1-24.
  • O’Mahoney, J., & Sturdy, A. (2016). Power and the diffusion of management ideas: The case of McKinsey & Co. Management Learning, 47 (3): 247-265.
  • Park, K., (2013), Exploring the difference in acceptance of smart work among levels of leadership styles. Journal of Information Technology Applications & Management, 20, 151–163.
  • Petani, F. J., & Mengis, J. (2021). Technology and the hybrid workplace: the affective living of IT-enabled space. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, first online 17 November 2021, DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2021.1998186
  • Pollitt C., & Bouckaert G. (2011). Public Management Reform: A comparative Analysis - New Public Management, Governance and the Neo-Weberian State, Oxford University Press.
  • Schuster, C., Weitzman, L., Sass Mikkelsen, K., Meyer-Sahling, J., [et al.] (2020), “Responding to COVID-19 through Surveys of Public Servants”, Public Administration Review, Vol. 80, pp. 792-796.
  • Schwarz, G., Eva, N., and Newman, A. (2020), “Can public leadership increase public service motivation and job performance?”, Public Administration Review, 80 (4): 543-554.
  • Thomas, R. & Davies, A. (2005). Theorizing the micro-politics of resistance: New public management and managerial identities in the UK public services. Organization Studies, 26, 683-706.
  • Todisco, L., Tomo, A., Canonico, P., Mangia, G., and Sarnacchiaro, P. (2021), Exploring social media usage in the public sector: Public employees' perceptions of ICT's usefulness in delivering value added”, Socio-Economic Planning Sciences, Vol. 73, 100858.
  • Todisco L., Tomo A., Canonico P., Mangia G., (forthcoming), The bright and dark side of smart working in the public sector: employees’ experiences before and during COVID-19, Management Decision, DOI: 10.1108/MD-02-2022-0164
  • Tomo, A. (2018). Managerialism in the Public Sector: Perspectives and Prospects. London: Routledge.
  • Torre, T., and Sarti, D. (2019), “Themes and Trends in Smart Working Research: A Systematic Analysis of Academic Contributions”, In Bissola, R., and B. Imperatori (Ed.s.), HRM 4.0 For Human-Centered Organizations. Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 177–200.
  • Välikangas, L., and Lewin, A. Y. (2020), “The lingering new normal”. Management and Organization Review, 16, 3, 467-472.
  • Van der Wal, Z. (2020), “Being a public manager in times of crisis: The art of managing stakeholders, political masters, and collaborative networks”, Public Administration Review, 80, 5, 759-764.
  • 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.
  • Wang, J., Hutchins, H. M., and Garavan, T. N. (2009), “Exploring the strategic role of human resource development in organizational crisis management”, Human Resource Development Review, 8 (1), 22-53.
  • Yang, K. (2020), “Unprecedented challenges, familiar paradoxes: COVID‐19 and governance in a new normal state of risks”, Public Administration Review, 80, 4, 657-664.
  • Ylönen M., & Kuusela H. (2018). Consultocracy and its discontents: A critical typology and a call for a research agenda. Governance. Doi: 10.1111/gove.12369
Andrea Tomo is Assistant Professor of Organization Studies and member of the organizing and scientific committees of two Executive MBAs on public management (“Public Management” and “Digital Transformation of the Public Administration”) at the Department of Economics, Management and Institutions, University of Naples Federico II, Italy. Andrea’s research interests are related to change and identity processes in professional service firms and the public sector.
Carl Yngfalk is Assistant Professor in marketing at Stockholm University Business School and researcher at Stockholm Center for Organizational Research (SCORE), Sweden. His research spans across different fields in marketing and management studies with a focus on the politics of consumption and contemporary consumer culture. Carl’s research has been published in different journals including ‘Journal of Macromarketing’, ‘Consumption, Markets and Culture’, ‘Marketing Theory’, and ‘Journal of Marketing Management’.
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.