Teachers, doctors and social policy professionals at work: challenged by – but not victims of – public management reform

Professionals these days require quite some proverbial juggling skills. As we would say in Dutch: they need to keep many balls in the air at the same time. These ‘balls’ represent the many expectations professionals need to meet, ranging from dealing with managerial regulations and market incentives like competition with peers, to collaborating across professional borders to co-produce public services together with citizens, clients, colleagues and other stakeholders. Linking these expectations to many years of public management reforms, we wonder: How have reforms influenced the role and position of professionals? And how do professionals cope with the sometimes conflicting reform demands?

We addressed these questions in our latest study “Changed Roles and Strategies of Professionals in the (co)Production of Public Services” published in Administrative Sciences. Based on interviews with medical doctors, teachers and professionals in welfare agencies, we found that professionals across different policy domains face highly similar challenges. Despite different policy backgrounds, professionals in healthcare, education and social welfare all struggle to reconcile their professional values with management reforms. Especially when these reforms lead to an emphasis on “ticking boxes” and a continuous reporting of professional actions. This can be illustrated with the outcry of one of the teachers we interviewed: ‘Managing for results, benchmarking school performance, the inspectorate assessing us using ‘hard’ criteria: Government tries to steer education as if it were a business!’

Nowadays more and more emphasis is on collaborative approaches like co-production. Professionals are encouraged to engage in intra- and inter-professional collaborations to organize their services around clients. Professionals are positive about these reforms because collaboration and client-centeredness are much more in line with their professional values. However, does that mean new management demands are easy to follow? According to our respondents, the answer is no, among others because many collaborative ways of working are in fact encouraged through ‘old fashioned’ top-down incentives by management.

More importantly however, our study finds that professionals do not consider themselves passive ‘victims’ of public management reforms. They have developed coping strategies to deal with tensions between different reform ideas and principles. Most notably, professionals show a great deal of creativity in an effort to work around management guidelines if these go against their professional values. Or they do these things only half-heartedly, just enough to stay out of trouble with management or authorities.

Besides similarities, we also detected some differences between doctors, teachers and social policy professionals in relation to co-production. Of the three professional groups, especially social policy professionals create possibilities for citizens’ participation and tailor-made service delivery in close collaboration with other professionals. We think this is related to the fact that social policy professionals have much less pre-defined professional standards compared to doctors and teachers. For doctors and teachers pre-defined service expectations and standards open up larger possibilities for managerial control.

Finally, the professionals in our study point at two preconditions for co-production that are nowadays often lacking. First, professionals must have the capacity to organize collaboration and be supported in this endeavor. Professionals who aim to work across professional borders are still confronted with the fragmentation of services. Second, professionals need ‘trust’ from management, clients and other stakeholders. After all, collaboration requires the leeway to make decisions that do not per se fit standardized boxes. More attention to both preconditions can help professionals in keeping the aforementioned ‘juggling skills’ on point.

Nicolette van Gestel is professor at TIAS School for Business and Society and one of the principal investigators in COGOV. Marlot Kuiper and Wiljan Hendrikx are postdoc researchers at TIAS School for Business and Society and COGOV researchers.

This blog is based on Van Gestel, N. M., Kuiper, M., & Hendrikx, W. (2019). Changed Roles and Strategies of Professionals in the (co)Production of Public Services. Administrative Sciences, 9, 1–15.

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