Government for the Public Good

Two book reviews that commend Max Rashbrooke's new book 'Government for the Public Good' as required reading for anyone involved in delivering or governing public services and assets and as a book for our times.


We owe a big thank you to PSA members David Green and Andrew Macbeth for responding to the call for we made in the September edition of the PSA journal for reviewers of Max Rashbrooke's latest book, Government for the Public Good: The surprising science of Large-Scale Collective Action. Their reviews are featured below.

But first we have some excerpts from the book for fans of 'quotable quotes':

"Neither governments nor markets are natural, organic things that function well when left alone by citizens, or which develop according to their own unknowable laws. Like any human creation, they are complex, flawed things: systems that citizens create, machines in need of constant care and tinkering."

"Intellectually, we seem to be paddling in the shallows, unwilling to remain on the certain land of what we have recently known but fearful of venturing out too far into new waters."

"As Abraham Lincoln once said, governments exist not to do things people can manage on their own but rather 'whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves'."

"The last 40 years' worth of data, while not always clear-cut, suggest that governments are remarkably effective and efficient. Public discussion, altruistic motives and free provision, it turns out, often trump private purchases, fee-charging and the incentive of profit."

"Liquid government offers, like a ship steering between a jagged rock and a whirlpool, one possible path through the twin perils of managerialism and authoritarianism. It can answer the desire for citizen control that the former denies, but without the latter's violence and threats to basic liberties."

"Government will not thrive if its agencies are perfectly set up to deal with the challenges of the 1970s."

"Given that in the early 1800s there was virtually no welfare, nor much taxation, the last 200 years of government's expansion look to the anti-statist like nothing less than a colossal defeat."

"Public discussion draws on all opinions, challenges them, and tests them against evidence. Thus it identifies the best policies to answer the needs of the largest number possible. A public-service ethos drives officials, guided by experts and collaborating with citizens, to implement those policies effectively. Free services are easily accessed, and user scrutiny ensures weak ones are reformed and good ones expanded. Thus collective well-being is maximised."

"The competence or otherwise of citizens is of course a hot topic… The problem, though, is not people themselves, but the structures within which they are most often asked to do their democratic work."

"Well-moderated deliberation, by drawing on the power of cognitive diversity, can be a highly effective means of unearthing problems and finding solutions. Citizens do not have to be geniuses; it is the system – the sharing of knowledge, the diversity of approaches – the turns their views into collective wisdom."

"The components of [democratic] infrastructure – the running of elections, but also the school system, the media and the various ways to participate beyond voting – are just like hospitals, roads and water pipes. They have to be maintained and renewed, or they break down."

"When people learn to think about more than just their own interests, when they design policies together, they remind us that our best hope for rationality lies in one another."

"Ordinary citizens… are not a risk to be managed but a power to be drawn on."

"The case for deepening democracy is greatly strengthened if we know that it actually works – and the evidence of this book is that it does. Something useful happens, then, every time we try to build, as a means to achieve our common goals, a place where we might all meet as equals."


'A book for our times'

- a review by David Green - PSA member - Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage 

Along with the the vast majority of PSA members, I believe - even in moments of doubt - that my taxpayer-funded work contributes to the public good.

I also hope that this work is done ‘better’ - however that word is interpreted - under state auspices than it would be if it were left to market forces.

Through the middle decades of the 20th century, this latter assertion was accepted wisdom for Western policymakers, who acted accordingly. However, from the 1970s advocates of ‘big government’ lost ground to those who argued that markets inherently (or at least, usually) delivered ‘better’ economic and social outcomes than those engineered by meddlesome bureaucrats like ourselves.

And while this more-market mantra has had less credibility since the GFC, there has been precious little sign of renewed public enthusiasm for activist government.

In his latest book Wellington writer Max Rashbrooke asks this fundamental question: Are governments really less effective or efficient than private organisations at solving collective problems? Rather than generalising from individual examples that may well be outliers – Serco! charter schools! – he has done the hard yards, ploughing through many meta-reviews, official reports and peer-reviewed studies which address this question for New Zealand and the wider ‘Anglosphere’ within which we are bit-players.

Across seven key dimensions – keeping public order, responding to climate change, planning cities and building houses, maintaining basic infrastructure and utilities, providing health and education, redistributing income and wealth, and managing the economy – Rashbrooke’s findings are unequivocal: Most privatisation schemes have failed to deliver better services at lower cost. This trend has become more marked recently. While some of the 'reforms' of the 1980s and 1990s had some merit, few of those in the 21st century have had positive outcomes. 

Another key argument mounted by Rashbrooke is about having more ‘liquid’ government – a revitalisation of democracy that utilises technological developments to facilitate informed debate and increase citizen involvement in the shaping of public policy.

The lines of this argument are that Government agencies that are more responsive to citizen input are likely to be rewarded by greater public acceptance of the resulting policies.

Harnessing what has been called ‘the wisdom of crowds’ would, of course, change the working lives of many public servants. Those on the ‘front line’ would be empowered "to deliver well and be deeply responsive to citizens".

The market-imitating New Public Management would be replaced by the "New Public Passion" (p. 282). Under such a shift once capacity in policy advice and service delivery had been rebuilt, much contract work would be taken back in-house, "reserving the use of consultants for rare and highly specialised projects". It's an approach that many PSA members would support.

A brief review cannot do justice to the scope of this book, which is in some respects a sequel to Rashbrooke’s earlier Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (Bridget Williams
Books, 2013). To his credit he explains knotty issues clearly in this new book, and often wittily.

Highly recommended as a book for our times.

Government is still not working as it could

- a review by Andrew Macbeth  - PSA delegate - Greater Wellington Regional Council 

The September edition of Working Life included a one-page interview with the author.  The interview provided a good synopsis of the main themes of the book.

This book is a well-researched and readable argument for a rethink of the conventional wisdom that governments do a poor job of looking after public services and assets, while the private sector is intrinsically more efficient.

The book provides numerous examples from New Zealand and international research about where governments and the private sector have succeeded and where they have failed.  Areas covered include policing and prisons; managing international and inter-generational aspects of climate change; urban planning and place-making including public transport privatisation; water and other infrastructure systems; and health, education and social security.  It also discusses more democratic and inclusive government processes and systems.

The book has three basic themes. 

Firstly, there are many important things that governments can do that no other set of entities can (eg. fixing the hole in the ozone layer and various road safety initiatives such as compulsory seat belt use).

Secondly, letting markets take care of public services or assets has in many cases not worked well, especially when viewed over a decade or more.  Any reductions that have been achieved are often short-lived and based off the back of reduced wages and salaries for front-line staff.  Over time competition reduces, while the need for the private sector to make a profit inflates prices for consumers.  Long-term investment - for example for infrastructure - requires borrowing, yet governments can borrow more cheaply than the private sector, which then passes on additional costs to consumers.

Thirdly, government is still not working as well as it could, and needs to reduce influence by the wealthy and other elites, while empowering more people in decision-making processes.  Real-world examples are provided of how to do this.

The book focuses on the 'Anglosphere' – the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, but often cites relevant examples from elsewhere including Taiwan, Scandinavia, France, Germany and Brazil.

I was impressed by the depth of research and collaboration involved in writing and publishing this important work, and believe it should influence the debate for years to come on the relative roles of government and the private sector in New Zealand and elsewhere. 

This should be required reading for anyone involved in delivering or governing public services and assets.

Note: The author has spoken to various audiences particularly in Wellington since the book was published in September this year, and Kim Hill interviewed the author at some length on Radio New Zealand, available on its website.  Paper and e-book versions are available.