Public Administration: Stages versus Permanent Revolution?


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A great deal of the debate about strategies for public management reform in the developing and emerging economies of the world reminds me of debates in the Marxist movement at the start of the 20th century about whether or not countries had to go through certain “stages” of development.

The traditional Marxist view held that countries had to go through various stages of development as the logic of history unfolded – i.e. from hunter-gatherers, to primitive agrarianism, to feudalism, to bourgeois democracy, to socialism and thence communism.

A minority view emerged after the failed 1905 Russian revolution that in some cases there could be a ‘permanent revolution’ - some countries could leap-frog stages – e.g. from feudalism to socialism, as allegedly happened later in the 1917 Russian revolution.

Trotsky – who first advanced the ‘permanent revolution’ view in 1905 – argued that this became possible because of what he called “combined and uneven development”. While it was true that the first wave of industrializing countries had gone through similar stages of development, once they were in existence with their advanced technologies and global reach, they had a profound effect on countries following them.

In a fairly vivid image, Trotsky pointed out that ‘primitive’ people’s don’t have to go through all the stages from spear or bow and arrow to repeating rifle once someone else already has them – they can jump straight from one to the other by importing the technology. But in other respects, their societies would, indeed must, retain many elements of their current material, social and political stage – hence the term “combined and uneven development”.

He argued that the affects of advanced countries on intermediate ones like Russia was to create a strong working class through what we’d now call FDI, and at the same time a weak domestic bourgeoisie, for the same reason. So when the point of revolt against the feudal state arrived, the working classes and not the bourgeoisie would lead the revolution.

Once the workers seized power, they could and should hold onto it and implement socialist changes – skipping over the stage of ‘bourgeois democracy’ entirely. The alternative was a ‘temporary revolution’ in which the workers seized power and then handed it over to the bourgeoisie, hence Trotsky coined the term ‘permanent revolution’ to describe his approach. (Lenin, incidentally, belatedly went over to Trostky’s position in his famous “April Theses” in 1917 and the rest, as they say, is history.)

Modern debates about development have striking parallels with these debates inside the early 20th century Marxist movement.

The equivalent of the ‘stages’ school of thought in public administration and management (PAM) – often associated with Allen Schick’s famous World Bank paper “Why Most Developing Countries Should Not Try New Zealand's Reforms” – argues that emerging economies have to go through the ‘stage’ of rational-legal, Webberian, bureaucracy before they can start adopting advanced ‘technologies’ like New Public Management (NPM).

(NB – to be fair I’m not sure that is exactly what Allen was arguing, but that is the predominant way it has come to be understood).

his view would see emerging countries repeat the processes that Western countries went through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in establishing democratically responsive, fully functioning, non-corrupt, rational, legally-bound and efficient bureaucracies. In many ways I would argue this appears to have been the dominant view in the World Bank since the turn to ‘institutions matter’ at least since seminal 1997 World Development Report ‘The State in a Changing World’.

Yet, at the same time, there have been those who advocate a ‘permanent revolution’ perspective, in practice if not necessarily in theory. I have often heard the equivalent of the “bow and arrow to repeating rifle” narrative updated to 21st century terms.

The most common example usually cited is the mobile phone – countries without well developed mass telecommunications system do not have to go through the ‘stage’ of laying a copper-wire network across the whole country, as the west did in the early 20th century, but can leap-frog straight to radio-based mobile technologies now it has become so cheap and easy to use.

In PAM reforms I have also seen many examples of attempted import of ‘advanced’ NPM-style reforms into developing and transitional states with, it has to be said, often very mixed results. A decade or so ago, when the fashion for semi-autonomous “agencies” was at its height (and incidentally the WB was promoting ‘agencification’ programs all over the place), I studied some of these and found profound problems with importing the ‘agency’ idea.

My own view is that there is probably something in-between “stages” and “permanent revolution” that draws on the best of both.

To put it crudely, leap-frogging might work for phones, but it doesn’t work for transport  - countries still need well-developed road and rail links to have a decent economy. So we need a much more nuanced – and explicit – discussion about when and where we can transfer PAM reforms from one context to another.


Colin Talbot

Professor, Manchester Business School

Join the Conversation

Philip Keefer
April 29, 2011

Dear Colin (if I may),

This is a very nice take on leap-frogging vs. imitation vs. none-of-the-above in Public Sector Reform. It mirrors debates elsewhere about the impact of imported institutions, legal origins, etc. What I miss in these analyses is a discussion of the principals -- the politicians who run the show.

Why, for example, have New Public Management reforms had a mixed record? Purely technical explanations could be (and surely are often) relevant: countries did not measure performance correctly or made mistakes in how they linked pay to performance; or they tried to apply NPM to areas where performance really is not measurable (when pay for performance is simply inappropriate).

However, political explanations seem at least as plausible and pervasive, particularly since, in many countries where NPM fails, the private sector has no problem using performance-based contracts. Perhaps NPM failed because politicians did not care enough about performance to invest in its measurement or to adhere to civil service regimes that linked pay to performance; or it failed because politicians could not credibly commit to public officials that they would respect the performance-based system.

To the extent that NPM failure is explained by technical mistakes, we can apply technical solutions (we can call them less advanced, though very advanced countries rely on them). However, to the extent that NPM fails because of a lack of political interest in performance, a not uncommon situation, technical solutions no longer help. Every strategy for improving public sector performance, whether N(ew) or O(ld) PM, relies on principals who care about performance.

The challenge, when the problem is not technical, is identifying ways in which performance can be improved in the face of political indifference. Since citizens are unlikely to be indifferent, this may involve weaving "center of government" reforms (essential for predictable budgeting, for example) with reforms that enhance the sensitivity of front line officials (service providers, regulators) to citizen well-being (the "short route" of the famous WDR Service Delivery accountability triangle). This is no small trick, and we need to expand both the evidence base and tool box. However, it's hard to see any credible alternative to these approaches in politically difficult settings.


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Philipp Krause
May 02, 2011

This is a very interesting post - and an interesting reminder that historical determinism doesn't often work out in the long run. One way to move this debate forward might be by looking at different types of public sector reforms seperately.

The way I remember it (which might be very selective), Schick was making a quite specific argument about Weberian stability, control and rule-boundedness being a precondition for NPM-type flexibility. To put it bluntly, if a pre-Weberian civil servant has not internalized the idea that public and private roles are to be kept separate, then giving him more discretion over his budget might not be such a great idea.

It seems to me that there are always technical and political preconditions to consider when pondering a particular reform, but they will play out differently in different reform areas, just as they do differently in different places.

Why should all parts of the central government machinery go through the same stages at the same time? Does it even make sense to speak of "stages" that uniformly cover the public sector? What would those stages be called? The Weber-->NPM step might be useful for thinking about civil service issues, but does it apply to tax administration as well? What about budgeting?

Svetlana Proskurovska
May 06, 2011

The discussion of applicability of various innovations in public sector management is very important. In the debate presented in this blog we come across general discussion of determinism, permanent revolution, failure to get technical details of new approaches right, or lack of support from political masters for a public sector innovation. I agree that political acceptance and political leadership are important as well as is attention to technical detail. What I am missing from this discussion is attention to underlying values, fundamental beliefs, perceived benefits that trigger acceptance or rejection of public sector innovations.
Often innovations, such as introduction of autonomous agencies in a weak accountability environment, are introduced for a wrong reason, not for the reason that caused the need for such institutional forms in the first place. For example, in a situation of highly constrained budgets and rigidly regulated salaries, introduction of autonomous agencies could be welcomed as a tool to liberate managers from tight central controls or, as popular saying goes - “let managers manage”, meaning let them set salaries using managerial discretion, manage budget without centrally imposed constraints. The absence of proper oversight and accountability, however, will undermine the basis for sound performance management improvements. Ignoring the “quid pro quo” principle leads to exploitation of good models for wrong intentions and discredits a good model. Perhaps, some preconditions for introduction of new specific public sector management approached should be better understood, articulated and taken into consideration. In the case of autonomous agencies, the point of strong public sector ethos comes to mind. If, when introducing agencies, the purpose of improving public sector performance through “liberating managers” is used as a façade for attaining different goals, not those that gave rise to the model, the result is likely to be disappointing. This does not mean that the agency idea is wrong as such; it means that the required accountability culture (precondition) has been ignored or overlooked.
To summarize, when choosing reforms that involve borrowing models from elsewhere, one needs to be aware of prevalent in the given society underlying values, beliefs and assumptions, and try to envisage what unintended opportunities new models can evoke. And this shared values aspect is an additional important variable to consider along with the aspect of politicians’ acceptance and support for reforms.

Anupama Dokeniya
May 09, 2011

Regardless of whether countries leapfrog to NPM, or go through an intermediate stage of a Weberian revolution, or adopt a mix and match approach with solutions from these models, these prescriptions still seem to suggest a linear approach to change (reminiscent not only of the Marxian theory of social change, but also of the Rowstonian stages of development). That is, richer countries develop organizational models - social, economic, and administrative - some versions of which need to be 'transplanted' (with due deference, these days to 'good fit' rather than 'best practice') into developing countries, which forever play catch-up.
What about the external environment, and especially, rapid changes in technology, that affect all countries, rich and poor alike, differently, but equally. As technology-driven new models of governance are emerging in richer countries, models such as 'digital era governance', 'Government as a Platform' approach encapsulated in Gov 2.0 initiatives, or collaborative governance approaches - what implications do these have for developing countries? Can they - and should they be encouraged to - develop their own models of governance, their own solutions, including by using the possibilities offered by some of these technologies?

September 18, 2011

Given the fact that various public sector capacity building tools have been used by African nations, inter alia, the developmental state model, new public management techniques and practices drawn mainly from the private sector, The Washington Consensus, which included ten broad sets of recommendations to streamline the economy, and the Business Process Reengineering method as the fundamental reconsideration and the radical redesign of organisational processes, the central hypothesis of public management reform programmes must be based on the relative potency of institutions that determine the rules of the game in public management; that in turn require plural sets of governing institutions, which promote and protect rules of peaceful political, social and economic participation and competition.

This demands of governing institutions to address the impediments to meritorious civil service’: the huge public sector in many African nations that has burdened the civil service with literally all human development services delivered by the state, remuneration of civil servants, while it has been improved in many parastatals, is very much below the minimum standard of living in the cities and lower than that which they could earn in say the private sector and NGO sectors with insignificant post adjustment to civil servants and the absence of a functional framework for civil service development appraisal, lack of skills and attitudes has created weak civil service reform system.

Notwithstanding the fact that the effectiveness of the public administration is intertwined with the concept of impartially, a noxious illusion prevails in all nations: that a political civil service would deliver better public services. Indeed, the opposite is proven to be the case as the objectivity and thus the effectiveness of institutions is lost on account of clientelist appointments.

Because possibilities of public management development can be grasped in terms of related domains of philosophy, thought and doctrine, ideological elements and constructs might be seen as the very constitutive structure of public management. Hence, the recommended models should involve meritocratic public management and governance regimes that accentuate talent and education.

In a pluralistic system, where power is theoretically in the hands of the elected representatives, meritocratic elements would include the use of experts to help frame policies, and a merit-based civil service to implement fiscal policy discipline, pro-poor public spending, a functioning market, inward foreign direct investment and liberalisation coupled with prudent oversight of financial institutions and legal security for labour and property rights.

Additionally, it must be underlined that the boundless ability of intelligent institutions to innovate and seemingly their unquenchable desire to reinvent, developing nations could reap the developmental booty of an exceedingly proactive and skilled leadership.