Policy and Politics: Meeting the Challenge of Populism – The Future of Governance and Public Management

Policy and Politics: Meeting the Challenge of Populism – The Future of Governance and Public Management

Gerry Stoker

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.

In my recent Policy & Politics article, I explore the question of whether the governance paradigm can survive the rise of populism. The paradigm that came to the fore from the 1980s onwards reflected a sense that the conditions for governing in contemporary democratic states were undergoing some profound changes. It encouraged the use of new policy tools: networks and markets. Partnership working and following business-like processes became the new normal for public services and programmes.  For its advocates, its style of working was not only more effective, but more democratic because it allowed a wider range of people direct influence over making decisions.

Then along came populism – in multiple guises – in the 21st century which saw the task of governing in very different terms to that of the practitioners of governance. For them, networks and markets take power away from the people and get in the way of its chosen leadership carrying out the will of the people.  Right- and left-wing populist movements and parties express variations of these views, as do more mainstream politicians with a populist outlook; whether that’s Trump calling for the “draining of the swamp” or Gove complaining “we have had enough of experts”.

Paradigms for governing do not inherently last for ever. We are again in a period of transition. More worryingly, the practitioners of public administration have begun to feel fearful, disoriented and scapegoated. To meet the challenge of populism, public management could travel down several paths. But none is comfortable, straightforward or guaranteed success.

Some argue that governance could accommodate populists by letting them run the front-stage of governing whilst keeping a grip over the back stage of implementation, and so steer policy development away from the razzmatazz of populism.  Governance is well suited to the backstage practices of using networks between officials to develop and implement practical policies.  The message is that while politicians may move on to the populist terrain, officials can still use governance techniques to get things done. Governance can forgo the input side of politics and focus on doing better on the output side.  Officials could earn back public respect and trust by sticking to the basics of implementation governance and doing it well.

Yet there is no reason to assume that populists when in government will leave the backstage processes of governance alone. When in power, populists want to intervene rather than leave the delivery of government services alone. They are often keen to colonise government positions, seeing it as an opportunity to exercise more personal control over the bureaucracy. They can engage in mass clientelism, offering material or symbolic benefits in return for votes (for example by offering free bus passes for the young or trade sanctions to protect core favoured industries) which means they want to direct policy for political purposes, not leave it to officials.

Those looking for a response to populism sometimes call for more for citizenship education.  But that is unlikely to make a difference. Populism does not see the need for the people to be educated; rather, it is assumed that the people have those skills and the good sense to make wise decisions. A recent debate around the rise of measles in Italy and other European countries pitted experts arguing that what was needed was a recommitment to full vaccination programmes and populists pointing out that their whole point was they trusted people more than experts.   As one defender of populism argued: ‘Those who continue to traduce populism as a rejection of experts, even a rejection of the truth itself, are refusing to recognise it for what it really is: a rejection of the political exploitation of expertise. We are not rejecting the truth; we are rejecting their self-styled truth’.

A similar level of doubt could be expressed about another proffered response to populism: a call for more citizen participation, more democratic innovations or even more referendums. There are many examples of this kind of claim. Claudia Chwalisz presents a clear commentary and calls for more innovative democratic responses to the charge of populism and claims willingness on the part of citizens in general and those that support populist parties to engage with these innovations.  ‘These new forms of political engagement should not feel like a threat to formal systems of government, but as much-needed additions that enrich democracy’. But a laudable concern to further democratise networks of governance is unlikely to convince those who sign up to the populist perspective that views the problem as networks, and the other governing mechanisms, because they stand in the way of the direct popular will.  The populist argument is for a simple connection between people and a responsive leader, not for a push to make new demands on citizens and added layers of complexity to decision-making.

Another common response is to argue that populists win arguments with the public because they appeal to emotions and irrational feelings. One suggestion, therefore, from those advising officialdom in the EU, for example, is to recruit ‘a new army of specialists in mass communications that …downplay the EU’s reliance on evidence-based arguments and go instead for the human dimension. That doesn’t mean abandoning or distorting facts, but to present these through human interest stories’. This argument runs the risk of failing to understand that populism is not irrational but rather anti-technical; it wants values, moral prejudices and self-actualised truths to rule the day.

The evidence-based policy movement and ‘it’s what works that matters’ should also take its share of the blame for the challenge of populism.  That political leaders tend to select evidence to support their policy preferences rather that the other way around has contributed to the climate where expertise could be trashed by populists. That within the EU, and at national levels of government, many experts driving policy and regulation debates appear to be very closely connected to various business or other sectional interests has helped to bring the idea of expert-based policy into disrepute.

Also, the obsession with performance measurement and audit in management culture over the last decades cannot escape criticism. There is nothing wrong of course with evaluating programmes or services. But in practice they are too often exercises by which government officials try to manipulate the way that citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden.  Messages about achievements are honed, lists of achieved targets met are broadcast and statistics to support are offered. Meanwhile on the ground, front-line public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, paradoxically, the packaging of performance may have contributed to the emergence of populism.

The rejection of the governance paradigm by populists is partly pragmatic (it does not work for me and my interests) but also ethical and moral.  Populists fear that current governing practices lead to rule by special interest, corruption, putting profits before people and so on. What is needed is a recognition of the partial truth in that accusation and a greater willingness to reform and challenge what became a comfortable form of governing for political and administrative elites.

Populism needs to be challenged by moral, emotion and human arguments.    What is needed is mainstream political leadership that is willing and able to make the moral as well as the practical arguments, in robust debate, for policy choices instead of ducking issues, blaming others and making impossible-to-keep promises. The last few years provides only a slim hope that such leadership will emerge, but it might, as it did in the past.

Public management, if it is going to survive the populist assault, needs to drop the over-arching mantra of ‘more steering, less rowing’ that has dominated public service thinking since the 1980s.  This mantra argued: political leaders set the direction, and others, either as in-house public servants or as external contractors, get on with the delivery. That perspective was always problematic but now it’s bankrupt.  The mantra left the door open for populists to argue that only a strong leader can steer and ensure that the rowing keeps on track. The simplification of the model – a naïve principal-agent frame – provided the pathway to a simplistic populist solution.

The making of a policy choice is the start of the journey not the end. Complex processes of service delivery and programmes, dealing with wicked problems, do not run smoothly without continuous and careful oversight. We need governance and management narratives that embrace and explain complexity. It cannot be too hard a sell, since I know of no human being that does not live with the dilemmas created by the complexity of everyday life.

Steering and rowing cannot be separated. Both require a continual engagement reconnecting them back to claims about achieving public value. Above all, we need throughout public management a culture of justifying decisions that expresses its goals in non-technical terms. It’s not about a few human-interest stories but an orientation that responds to “why” questions as much as to “how” questions. Public management needs to lead the way by rethinking its core premises and by recognising how its practices have played into the hands of the populist surge.


Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at the University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra.