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Policy and Management: Perfect Together and Critical for Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard F. Keevey
June 10, 2022

Introduction

Public policy and public management/administration are commonplace terms, often used interchangeably by many, including academics, policymakers and practitioners. Casual observers may wonder about the distinction between these two concepts. In lay terms, public policy is defined as “what government decides to do in response to a problem or concern confronting society.” Public management is defined as “how government uses the resources needed to implement those policy decisions.” Many individuals conclude the differences are subtle and inconsequential. In my judgment, this perspective is incorrect and ignores the critical differences each plays in the world of government. More importantly, the two concepts are not to be used interchangeably, but rather they are complements, working in conjunction to address societal problems and deliver valued services.

However, even among more informed observers, public management is assumed to be less important and less interesting than the more visible and dramatic events involving public policy discussions and decision-making. To the extent that government evokes excitement or interest, it is generally public policy debates that strike that chord. Yet public policy would have little significance or impact (beyond media headlines and sometimes partisan debates) without effective implementation and day-to-day public management. Indeed, the two concepts should work together, and deficiencies in one will often guarantee failures or significant shortcomings for the other.

In the Federalists Papers, Alexander Hamilton had it correct when he observed: ‘‘A government ill executed whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice , a bad government.” Management breathes life into public policies. It transforms an idea into tangible results. The success of every public initiative pivot on the quality and caliber of its execution (for example, think back to the rollout of Obamacare, or the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines). Absent skillful management, even the best public policy idea will likely disappoint the body politic. The most promising international treaties and the most sweeping health-care laws will yield negligible gains if not properly executed and managed.

Public management involves incredible scope, encompassing positions ranging from teachers in public school, air traffic controllers and managers of health programs. At every point in the vast network of public service, citizens should expect their government to function effectively, fairly and efficiently—none of which can occur without competent, well-trained and dedicated public servants working in the role of managers.

Linkage Between Policy and Management

There is a critical role for the linkage between public policy and public management. As noted earlier, public policy determines “what government does,” and public management determines “how government gets things done.” Ideally, public policy and public management should (and do) interact and relate. For example, I consider myself primarily a public manager, but I often had notable and significant impact on public policy during my career as the OMB director for New Jersey and then as  chief financial officer in two federal agencies. Consider three examples of how public managers and policymakers can be effective together:

  • When policymakers develop ideas and strategies, public managers can provide insights for how best to operationalize the resulting public policies.
  • Conversely, when public managers have innovative and/or useful ideas, but are unable to turn them into public policy, they can reach out to the policymakers for assistance.
  • Once a specific public policy has been enacted, administrative tweaking may be necessary to make the implementation of that policy work smoothly, effectively and produce the desired results.

Public policy and public management are interwoven, although each has a different evolution. This dichotomy developed because management reformers in the early 20th century desired to separate politics and public policy from daily government operations. They wanted business-like efficiency but knew that public managers must respect policymakers, ensure that long-range public policy goals are executed properly and avoid conflicts and corruption to preserve public confidence and support.

Public Versus Private Management

The statement that ‘management is management’ is a pithy and often-used aphorism. Indeed, it may contain some elements of truth. Specifically, regardless of the setting, management involves a) the organization and direction of people, b) the proper deployment of non-labor resources, c) the negotiation and resolution of any emerging conflicts, and d) long- and short-term decision-making. Further, many of the distinctions between public and private management have grown increasingly opaque, especially as they intermingle more frequently through privatization ventures or government adoption of corporate models.

However, the difference between public and private management are fundamental and real. The business of government is not business. Rather, it is serving the public and implementing public policy decisions. Graham Allison of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, observes the following: ‘public and private management are alike in all unimportant aspects.’ He notes that government managers often deal with i) shorter time horizons, ii) vague performance standards, iii) tighter personnel constraints, iv) greater concern for equity in its decision making, v) multiple stakeholders, vi) frequent legislative and judicial involvement/interference and vii) a lack of a discernable bottom line as a motivator.

Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt observed that the major differences between the president of the United States and a corporate CEO include things such as i) time constraints, ii) limits on authority, iii) media relations and iv) profitability measures. These same differences may exist between lower levels of public managers and their private-sector counterparts.

A Final Observation

There are several major goals for public managers, including: 1) managing programs efficiently and effectively; 2) ensuring the processes are accountable; and 3) being involved with policymakers before and after decisions are made.

Public policy and public management are inextricably intertwined. They are dependent on one another. Policymakers rely on managers to translate their policy decisions into practice. Open dialogue between the two entities is vital to ensure that the organizational goals (i.e.,  efficiency and effectiveness) and the democratic goals (i.e., equity, transparency and sound public policy) are implemented. Indeed, public policy and public management are different, but quite complementary.


Author: Richard F. Keevey was the OMB Director for New Jersey appointed by two governors from each political party. He held two presidential appointments, including one with Senate confirmation. He is currently a Visiting lecturer at the School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

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