The Global Revolution in Public Management: Driving Themes, Missing Links

Donald F. Kettl

Since the late 1970s, a truly remarkable revolution has swept public management around the world. Understanding this revolution means sorting through three issues: the basic ideas of reform; the connections between the reforms and governmental processes, like budgeting and personnel; and the links between these processes and governance. These reforms have proven surprisingly productive but, in the process, they have raised a new generation of fundamentally important issues that have been largely unexplored.


From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, a remarkable revolution swept much of the world. Governments around the globe adopted management reforms to squeeze extra efficiency out of the public sector—to produce more goods and service for lower taxes [Peters, 1996; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 1995a, 1995b; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1995a]. The Westminster nations—Australia, the United Kingdom, and especially New Zealand—proved the world’s most aggressive reformers and have widely been viewed as models. From Korea to Brazil, from Portugal to Sweden, government sector reform has transformed public management.

History might well record this as the first true revolution of the information age. But the revolution has required carefully working through three issues: the ideas of reform; the connection of reform with core processes, like budgeting and personnel; and the linkage between the processes of reform with the structures of governance.

Governments around the world have struggled with these questions, but no government has moved farther faster than New Zealand [Boston et al., 1991; Boston, 1995a; Boston et al., 1996]. It is a relatively pure model of reform: large-scale, forceful changes implemented in a relatively small nation with a relatively straightforward political system. Its reformers have been unusually thoughtful about what they have tried to do and reflective about their results. The Kiwi (New Zealand) experience, therefore, presents a focused and fresh way to think through the driving themes and missing links of reform.