Leverhulme Trust Project: Yesterday's Tomorrows

Oxford viewInvestigators

Christopher Hood, Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls College.

Ruth Dixon, Department of Politics and International Relations.

Background

This is a 3-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to study changes to the way in which UK central government has worked over the past 35 years. It’s concerned with three big interrelated changes affecting the central state over the past generation, namely the so-called New Public Management (NPM), the development of government information and communications technology (ICT) and new methods of communications at the heart of government.

Questions

How did changes in management structures, ICT developments and new communications reshape UK central government between 1975 and 2010? What happened to the costs of government operations and to the quality of public services? What happened to public perceptions of government and the public service over this period? How were operating costs controlled, quality of work assessed and communications managed over this period?

Methods

(i) Stage 1: Study of official UK documents and datasets, looking at the numbers for the size and shape of central government staffing and spending, indicators of operating costs and outsourcing, and indicators of expenditures on IT and information services, indicators of public satisfaction.

(ii) Stage 2: use the documentary analysis as the basis for interviews and focus groups, to involve three different ‘generations’ of civil servants (those who have been retired for some years, civil servants still in service but at a late stage of their careers, and early-to-mid career officials). Each to be asked about systems for control of operating costs, assessing quality of work and managing communications and asked to comment on the documentary numbers. These interviews may lead to suggestions for other documentary or archival analysis.

(iii) Analysis of cross-national comparative information, which can help to deal with counterfactuals such as performance of states like Germany that put less emphasis than the UK on management changes.

Exploring whether the three types of developments combined to produce a government machine very different from what had gone before and capable of much greater efficacy is an important historical question that merits attention in its own right. But such an exploration is also significant for assessing the prospects for the future of government in the coming decades, for example in assessing how government changed in the periods of cutbacks in the second half of the 1970s or in the early 1990s in the context of what is likely to be a period of prolonged fiscal restraint in the 2010s.

Outputs from this project (link)

Notably, Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon's book, A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less? Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government, published by Oxford University Press in April 2015, was awarded the US National Academy of Public Administration's Louis Brownlow Book Award in November 2015 and the Political Studies Association's W.J.M. Mackenzie Book Award for 2016.