Public sector management reform in developing countries: Perspectives beyond NPM orthodoxy

Derick W. Brinkerhoff and Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff


What alternative frameworks for theory and practice offer insights and guidance beyond the new public management (NPM) orthodoxy? This article offers some answers to this question. It is the introduction to a special issue of the journal Public Administration and Development titled ‘Beyond conventional public sector management reforms in developing countries’, and includes brief summaries of the other articles in that issue. The article identifies four strands of post-NPM approaches to public sector reform:

  • Political economy, institutions, and incentives: The shorthand message to reformers from this literature is that ‘politics and institutions matter’. Political economy analyses have been expressed in public sector reform in three specific ways. First, they suggest what institutional arrangements need to be put in place to lay the foundation for inclusive socioeconomic development. Second, they posit that viable reforms begin with a country’s political settlement, which sets the stage for the politics of governance and the social contract, what kinds of reforms can consequently be pursued with some chance of success, and what key actors are likely to have the incentives to be committed to achieving these. Third, they provide a foundation for a range of citizen accountability mechanisms.
  • Public management function, not form: The second strand moves beyond seeking to put in place public sector organizations and processes that replicate the form of those in industrialized countries – what is termed institutional isomorphism – to concentrate on the core functions of public management. To reduce the chances of empty mimicry, donor public sector reform strategies are changing to concentrate on politically informed diagnostics and on solving specific performance problems. Contrary to the NPM ideology that the public sector is an impediment to development and should be targeted for downsizing, this strand has reinforced the current widely accepted perception that building the public sector’s capacity, efficiency, effectiveness, integrity, accountability, and responsiveness is key to achieving a broad range of socioeconomic development goals.
  • Iterative and adaptive reform processes: The growing ascendancy of function-focused performance improvements informed by deep understanding of political economy drivers has led to renewed attention to the process side of public sector reform: problem classification jointly undertaken by donor agencies and country actors; ongoing consultation and constituency building with key stakeholders during design and implementation; and iterative cycles of experimentation, adaptation, and learning. These features are the hallmarks of problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), an approach to public sector reform that engages country teams of reformers in pursuing an iterative process of problem identification and testing of solutions, supported by external facilitators.
  • Individual and collective agency: This strand focuses on actor-related issues such as ownership, commitment, reform champions, policy entrepreneurs, and collective action. New public management principles posited that contractual forms of interaction, which would increase the power of principals over their agents, were the most likely to motivate performance-enhancing behaviours and outcomes. However, a recent research stream has advocated moving beyond binary, principal–agent thinking of supply-side and demand-side governance to focus on collective action challenges.


Brinkerhoff, D. W., & Brinkerhoff, J. M. (2015). Public sector management reform in developing countries: Perspectives beyond NPM orthodoxy. Public Administration and Development, 35(4), 222-237.