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Book reviews

13 March 06

Review of The New Public Management of Scotland (Mackie)

by David Sillars


AUTHOR: ROBERT MACKIE

PUBLISHER: W GREEN

ISBN: 0 414 01600 9

PRICE: £25

At the risk of being urged to “get out more”, I have to admit that I was thoroughly absorbed by this excellent book. The material generally covers a period of the most fundamental change in the management of the public sector in general, and in service delivery in local government and the health services in particular. It comprehensively charts the underlying political influences which have shaped the “New Public Management” which has developed in Scotland over the past three decades. The book will be of interest to practitioners from all disciplines already in the public sector, students of public administration in its widest sense, and to anyone wishing to be better informed about the workings of the public sector. Since between them local government and the health service spent over £20 billion in 2003-04 this should be more of us.

In focusing on what seems a relatively narrow concept, the title does not do justice to the breadth and depth of the book in tracing the history of local government in Scotland. Dr Mackie covers the relative incoherence of the pre-1975 structure of local government, the thoughtful and purposeful work of the Wheatley Commission, the Stodart Committee, the somewhat more perfunctory introduction of unitary councils in the 90s by a Conservative government, and the introduction of devolved government in Scotland. A helpful commentary on the functions and democratic legitimacy of local government complements the academic analysis which runs through the work. Although there is perhaps less source material from which to draw, an equally useful insight is given into the evolution of the health service, again setting out the changing constitutional arrangements and mapping the main influences and key players involved in service delivery.

Chapters on financing public services (including a review of the working of the “Barnett formula”) and the reluctance of the public to engage in local democracy will appeal to a wider audience than those already involved within the public sector. Similarly those parts dealing with management and decision making, and with accountability, redress and responsiveness, clearly articulate tensions and difficulties in service delivery, which are sometimes otherwise glossed over. Dr Mackie has extensive academic and “hands-on” experience of the public sector, and as such his review of management training in the sector is particularly apposite and contains a number of useful suggestions.

The introduction and increasing use of performance management techniques is described along with its consequential strain on corporate values. Current influences which point to a future of partnership working between public sector bodies, not least to rationalise service delivery areas, if not to further formal restructuring, are covered. From compulsory competitive tendering onwards, the shortcomings of financial benchmarking are also explored. In his culminating overview, Dr Mackie urges the Scottish Executive to insinuate a more flexible approach to the “New Public Management”, so that in Scotland devolved government is seen to be “doing well (effective) while doing good (responsive to social requirements)”, a view with which it is difficult to disagree.

David Sillars, Renfrewshire Council