Where to for public value? Taking stock and moving on

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  • Published Date: 09 March 2021

Public value has become something of a catch-all in public management and administration. A paper in the International Journal of Public Administration, by ANZSOG and University of Melbourne Professor of Public Management Janine O’Flynn, reflects on the development, debate and future prospects for public value.

The genesis of public value

Public value developed in the mid-1990s as part of the quest to find a strategic approach guiding public managers in their roles. Professor Mark Moore from the Harvard Kennedy School is considered the architect of the approach.

In conceptualising public value, he drew in the following elements of strategy theory in the private sector:

  • the importance of the environment in which managers operate
  • operational capacity to get things done
  • articulating the value that managers sought to create.

Moore saw public management as conceiving and implementing public policies that realise the potential of a given political and institutional setting. He later reframed this as creating public value.

Public value and the strategic triangle

The core challenge of the public value framework is encapsulated in the strategic triangle (see Figure 1).

RB24 public value figure

Figure 1

Figure 1 depicts the three main areas of a public manager’s focus and the aspects they must keep aligned. Keeping these aspects balanced is a central task in the value creation process, especially as what constitutes public value is a contested and political space. Amid these tensions, public managers are challenged to articulate a clear purpose and enlist others to support their conception of value.

The strategic triangle provides three tests for the public manager:

  1. The strategy must be aimed at creating something that is substantively valuable.
  2. It must be legitimate and politically sustainable.
  3. It must be operationally and administratively feasible.

The strategic triangle also highlights two environments:

  1. The task environment where innovative public managers spot problems to be solved or social conditions to improve.
  2. The authorising environment which comprises the actors that can provide legitimacy and support, or veto value creation. This can include lawmakers, interest groups, clients, other parts of government, regulators or the public.

Public value: where have we been?

Over time, Moore’s ideas have gained attention outside the US, especially in Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand and the UK. There have also been conceptual developments extending Moore’s work:

  1. Public value as a paradigm of public management: a way of understanding and explaining a post-New Public Management world.
  2. Public value as a rhetoric strategy, justifying bureaucrats’ interests and their movement into the political domain.
  3. Public value as narrative: a story of the world of public managers.
  4. Public value and performance: a way of gauging the performance of policies and public institutions.

Alongside these developments, critiques also emerged:

  1. Is public value empirical or normative theory?: Was Mark Moore explaining what public managers actually do or what he thought they should do?
  2. The concept of public value itself and what it means. Three views have been identified:
    1. Public value as a contribution to the public sphere, capturing notions of what the public values and what adds value to the public sphere.
    2. The value created by public organisations and public managers as it relates to desired outcomes.
    3. A focus on the strategic triangle as a heuristic tool, exploring how managers seek to balance and align aspects of the triangle.
  3. The relationship between politics and public value. Criticism has been levelled at the public value approach as it is seen as advocating a more ‘political’ role for public managers.

Public value: where are we going?

More in depth study is needed into aspects of public value. Areas of focus include:

  • how to better measure public value
  • refinements of specific aspects of public value (e.g., distinct types of public value)
  • examining parts of the strategic triangle in detail (e.g., authorising environment)
  • testing the applicability of public value in non-Western or non-democratic contexts.

The language of public value is travelling into other fields. An example of this is the work of Mariana Mazzucato on the value of government. An innovation economist, Mazzucato’s focus has been on a more macro version of public value where the state is seen as value creator, creating and shaping markets.

When she has more directly engaged with Moore’s work, Mazzucato has been largely dismissive of it. She makes the case that public management scholars rely heavily on conventional economics and see the role of the public sector as reactive and market-correcting.

A close read of both Moore and Mazzucato shows that while they have a different focus, there are clear areas of overlap. In framing article public value as the focus of strategy, Moore is encouraging public managers to use their imagination and to innovate. Mazzucato has made similar calls.

The bottom line

In assessing public value, it has been argued public value has still not broken through to become an umbrella concept. Instead it remains stuck in a back-and-forth process of contestation. There is considerable work to develop it, including an ambitious empirical agenda to provide some ballast to a range of dimensions and applications.

Considerable work also remains for those that seek to more clearly position public value in the field, especially at a time when the language of public value is travelling into other domains.

Want to read more?

Where to for public value? Taking stock and moving on – Janine O’Flynn, International Journal of Public Administration, February 2021

The original article is available via individual subscription to the journal or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library. 

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