An inside look at public sector reform across Europe

Tuesday, 23 June, 2015
How have reforms to public administration across Europe affected the delivery of services? An EU-funded project led to one of the largest surveys ever of top civil servants in 20 European countries on public sector reforms. The survey indicates that changes have been patchy. The project’s recommendations to policymakers aim to make future reforms more effective and inclusive.

European countries have made many reforms to their public sectors since the 1980s in response to budget cuts, a push for more efficient service delivery, and calls for better overall performance.

Many continue to base these ongoing reforms on an administrative concept known as ‘new public management’ (NMP), seen as a way to increase public service efficiency by bringing in private sector experiences and approaches. Staff cuts and the privatisation of some services were among the changes made over the years.

Recently, NPM reforms have been criticised for not having achieved some of the main social goals. But clear, empirical evidence on the impacts of NPM is scarce, say researchers from the EU-funded project COCOPS.

To fill this gap, their research was complemented by surveys of top civil service managers in 20 European countries. They also examined the impact of the recent fiscal crisis on public services.

Civil servants, consultants, trade unions and citizens

The survey received about 10 000 responses, providing one of the largest data records on the subject. The researchers also asked consultants, trade unions and public management academics to contribute their thoughts on the main challenges facing the public sector.

Backed by follow-up interviews with selected respondents, COCOPS’ analysis showed all groups agreed cost efficiency, transparency and service quality have improved over the past five years.

The survey also found respondents strongly agreed reforms have reduced citizens' trust in government, the attractiveness of a career in the public service, and social cohesion. A review of previous surveys of citizens’ attitudes to liberalised public services confirmed that some categories of disadvantaged citizens, such as the elderly and the less educated, are less satisfied with some services than other groups.

The research fed into COCOPS’ recommendations to European policymakers on how future reforms could improve public sector performance.

“This research has important implications in terms of better and more equitable access to services for vulnerable citizens and for social cohesion,” says project coordinator Steven Van de Walle of Erasmus University, the Netherlands. “It also provides insights into the strengths and weaknesses of national public sectors, showing public officials where and how to improve.”

A record of reforms

COCOPS’ resulted in one of the largest online data collections on public sector reform, Van de Walle adds. It contains around 530 documents, such as government reports and academic studies that evaluate the impact of NPM-style reforms.

The database also contains key public sector statistics, and COCOPS’ reports and analysis. As the survey responses could reveal the identities of top managers, these are only available to researchers who need them for their studies.

The survey, launched in 2012, allowed COCOPS’ researchers to compare the attitudes and behaviours of top public managers in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The information includes their views on:

  • performance and management techniques;
  • interactions with politicians and stakeholders;
  • working in the public sector;
  • public sector changes during the five years prior to the survey;
  • reforms within specific organisations and policy sectors;
  • the effect of the fiscal crisis on public organisations.

The project also published national reports on reforms in the UK, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia and Spain. A policy brief presents key findings and recommendations to public sector practitioners across Europe.

Case studies were also carried out to catalogue effective coordination practices that the COCOPS team identified as being effective in reforming public services.

The project ended in June 2014 and the partners hope to carry out follow-up research five years from now to compare results on reforms to public sectors in European countries.

“The big wave of typical NPM-style reforms, such as outsourcing, privatisation and the establishment of autonomous agencies, appear to be over,” says Van de Walle. “Some trends are emerging internationally, and new modes of governance are likely to emerge. These trends range from coordination, to demand-driven and responsive government. Other changes include a virtualisation of the public sector through the growth of e-government.”

Coordinating for Cohesion in the Public Sector of the Future
Project Acronym: