Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Raquel Gallego (UAB)


The research literature on public management reform in France, Italy and Spain generally contends that cultural and institutional aspects of public administration – not least, legalism -- determine the fate of reform initiatives in these European countries. This general contention would be seen as overdrawn, however, if the evidence and arguments of the research presented become accepted. Based on a processualist and institutionalist approach, this comparative research contributes to the international debate on how novelty in public management policies comes about through policy cycles, and why and how political will is exercised. The conclusions for the cases analysed are limited historical generalizations that not only expand extant comparative literature, but also qualify mainstream assumptions and research arguments on the politics of public management reform in these countries.


This research is one of the results of a competitive project financed by Spain’s Government National Program of Research Development and Innovation.


The symposium issue published by Governance addresses an established research interest in the politics of public management reform in the south of Europe. Researchers have examined these country cases because their institutionalized politics is different from the English-speaking family of nations. So far, the primary research interest has been to illuminate ramifications of these countries’ similar institutional heritage, especially for the fate of public management reform initiatives. The general contention is that cultural and institutional aspects of public administration—not least, legalism—determine the fate of reform initiatives in these European countries. This general contention would be seen as overdrawn, however, if this symposium’s evidence and arguments become accepted.


As shown in the introduction and conclusion articles by Michael Barzelay and Raquel Gallego, the symposium adopts the spirit of comparative historical analysis in the social sciences to develop an understanding about public management reform, conceived as a public policymaking process. Each of the three case-study articles describes and explains a major episode of public management policymaking in one country case: legislating the Organic Law on Laws of Finance in France (1998-2001), by Anne Corbett, elaborating the government innovation policy in Italy (1993-2002), by Valentina Mele, and legislating the reform of administrative structures in Spain (1991-97), by Raquel Gallego and Michael Barzelay. They are consistent in following a variation-finding approach to case selection, an in-depth elite interviewing approach to data collection, an event-centric approach to explaining policy choice, and a case comparison approach to generalizing about political processes. Within this approach, reform processes and choices are understood as being influenced by combinations of factors, including shifts in the direction of economic policy choices, political and policy inferences drawn from earlier reforms, and partial equilibrium conditions, such as the public management policy subsystem. Here political will is seen as implicated in a complex narrative of public management’s politics and policymaking.


The symposium’s research arguments take account of effects of institutional conditions in the respective country cases while also identifying effects of other political conditions and pivotal occurrences. The symposium’s (limited) generalizing research argument identifies causal sources of political will and novelty in public management policies in France, Italy and Spain that show commonalities with other country cases. At the risk of oversimplification, this argument is fourfold:


  • First, the volitional conduct of executive or legislative politicians is pivotal to the path and outcome of agenda-setting in public management policy cycles – not least in lending political authority to the framing of issues that have appeared on systemic agendas but remained off formal policy agendas.
  • Second, alternative-specification is shaped by policy agenda conditions, in combination with both prerogatives of institutional actors within public management policy subsystems and conditions in the policy stream that arise from previous initiatives and deliberations.
  • Third, when administrative authority is sufficient to resolve policy issues on decisional agendas, public management policy subsystems play a strong causal role in policy choices.
  • Fourth, when policy cycles involve government clearance of primary legislation and/or parliamentary action, political stream conditions – such as the state of partisan competition or relations between the executive and parliamentary politicians -- are pivotal to policy choices.


The symposium also formulates research arguments that qualify existing knowledge about public management reform:


  • First, extant comparative literature argues that general features of countries’ governmental systems condition countries’ public management reform trajectories. Instead, this symposium issue argues that a focus on general features of countries’ governmental systems is misplaced, especially when features –namely, policy subsystems- that are specific to public management as a policy domain remain outside the analysis. In fact, in the three cases analysed, the features of public management policy subsystems played a causal role in how reform episodes eventuated.
  • Second, established research perspectives portray the features of governmental systems as stationary and not themselves matter of contention. By contrast, this symposium issue argues that contention over political and governmental systems (form and features of public governance) has been at the core of the politics of public management reform: in France, executive-legislative relations (role of Parliament in expenditure planning and control); in Italy, the cultural frame of public administration (central administration’s established forms of official activity); and in Spain, the territorial organization of political authority and design of high-level executive roles (central administration’s internal structures and relations with the Autonomous Communities).


The symposium examines research interests such as the source and effects of actions by executive and legislative politicians to furthering the cause of public management reform through discrediting established administrative traditions, or the impact of multilevel governance politics on public management policymaking, or the influence of the role structure of the public management policy subsystem on public management reform trajectories, that deserve more examination and argument if the research literature on the politics of public management reform is to attain a higher level of maturity.


See Governance 23:2, 2010