Comparative Public Governance and Management

  • Edoardo OngaroEmail author
Living reference work entry



Comparative public governance and management is the theory and practice of advancing knowledge in public governance and management through the method of comparing across jurisdictions.

Introduction: The Problem of Comparing Public Governance and Management

Comparative public governance and management is defined by its three key components: “public governance,” “public management,” and the qualification of “comparative,” which indicates a choice of method. These three components can be described as follows.

Public governance is a term which has been defined in various ways. At the heart of the numerous definitions lies the idea of “steering,” of providing direction to a political community, or a key subset of it, by activating multiple actors whose interactions shape the outcomes of collective, purposive social action (Pierre and Peters 2000; Rhodes 1997). It has also been interpreted as a way of reforming public management, an approach characterized by putting a premium on the significance of engaging societal actors into public policy processes and steering policy networks (Kickert et al. 1997; Osborne 2006), seen as more effective than other approaches, criticized as more managerialist and whose main limitation – the advocates of public governance approaches claim – would lie in focusing only on the internal functioning of the public sector. New public governance (Osborne 2006) approaches, at the opposite, emphasize the interface between the public sector and society as the key lever to “make things happen” and achieve effective public policy. It is mainly in this specific sense of an approach to reforming public management by emphasizing the multiple interfaces between public sector organizations and societal formations that the notion of public governance is discussed in this entry.

Public management is a notion interlinked with that of public administration; the relationship between the two may be expressed in the terms of public administration (see entry) and public management representing a different mapping of mostly the same territory. Notably, public management puts emphasis on the issue of the employment of scarce resources for the pursuit of given collective objectives, determined through liberal-democratic procedures in democratic polities. Central concepts in public management are those of efficiency (the ratio of outputs produced to inputs employed), effectiveness (the adequacy of outputs to produce given effects), and sustainability (the long-term viability of the levels of outputs delivered and the ensuing long-term impact on the needs of the community which is served by public services organizations). Systems of public management include public accounting; budgeting, financial management, and auditing; performance management; personnel management; organization and methods. An often studied topic is the reform of public management systems, .i.e., the deliberate attempts to make them, in some sense, work better (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011).

Finally, the third notion is that of “comparative,” a qualification that refers to a method centered on the analysis of similarities and dissimilarities of the same object of study in two different contexts (usually two different jurisdictions), for example, the functioning of a system of performance-related pay of public personnel in two countries. Generally the purpose of comparison is gaining greater insights into the object of investigation, thus augmenting the social-scientific knowledge of it and enabling to “draw lessons” for replication elsewhere (Ragin 1987). So comparative public governance and management concerns the analysis of similarities and dissimilarities in public governance and public management across different jurisdictions.

Comparison is a highly valuable exercise capable of furthering the understanding of how public governance and public management work; in a sense, it is an unavoidable component of the process of knowledge generation, as it is impossible to know in full depth one specific system without comparing it to other systems (comparison can be done explicitly, by empirically comparing two systems, or at least implicitly, by using some stylized model as yardstick, or in the abstract as a mental exercise, usually run through counterfactual arguments).

A key feature is that in comparative analyses, it is “context” that varies. Context is often referred to as the whole bundle of the traits of the politico-administrative system as well as the administrative and the societal culture within which the governance arrangement or public management system which is being studied operates. Comparison may occur at different levels (e.g., at the level of individual public organizations or at the level of the public sector of a country as a whole) and units of analysis (whether the focus is on structures, processes, or actors or a combination thereof). Comparative public management and governance thus is, in a certain sense, the study of the functioning of public management systems and the working of governance arrangements “in context.”

The main downside of the comparative method lies in the amount of resources it requires, when contrasted with other methods. Resources come in different guises: in terms of worktime of researchers required to run a comparative research project; in organizational terms to establish networks of teams of researchers working together across jurisdictions; in financial terms, to carry out the requisite travels and site visits; and crucially in terms of the skills required of the researchers, which should encompass the in-depth knowledge of the governmental systems involved in the comparison and their wider context, besides the knowledge of the specific object of the investigation; last but not least, comparative research requires or is at least highly facilitated by the mastery of more languages – as a minimum of the English language (as the vehicle language in which research work is usually published) plus the relevant language to the context investigated. Comparison may occur within countries sharing important common features (e.g., countries in the Napoleonic administrative tradition: see Ongaro 2009) or across clusters of countries (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011).

Comparative studies in public governance and management have been on the rise since the last two decades of the twentieth century (Peters 2010; Pollitt 2011). The diffusion of “global” doctrines for reform of the public sector, like the New Public Management, has drawn attention to the differential effects they have had in different countries, hence on contextual influences as an explanation for such variation. Since the 2000s, there has been a flourishing of analyses of contextual influences more and more systematic in their coverage and wide in their scope, at times reaching out to an entire region of the world (e.g., the European continent; see Ongaro and Van Thiel 2017; Verhoest et al. 2012). Achieving such width of coverage is at times facilitated by the way in which the organization of the academic study and the practice of public administration have developed over the last decades (see, e.g., the restructure of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences – an international organization for the development of the administrative sciences – around regional learned societies, with dedicated groups for the study of public administration in, respectively, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East and Northern Africa).

Although not exactly the same, terms like “international public management,” “comparative public administration and management,” or “comparative governance” cover a similar terrain to the one covered by this entry.

Perspectives on Comparative Public Governance and Management: Problems and Paths to Solutions

There appear to be three key problematic areas for the study and the practice of comparative public governance and management. First is methodological problems. These include at least the following three: reliability of data, choice of theory, and the problem of equivalence. The first is the reliability of data for meaningful comparisons, that is, being able to measure the same thing in different contexts. Let’s take as an example the measuring of the remuneration and other rewards of civil servants at the top of the government administration, an object of investigation at face value simple to measure; this apparently simple measurement may instead be made highly complicated by a range of differences: in the fiscal regime across countries, so top civil servant may receive different net income even when gross is equal; in the structure of remuneration, for example, what part of the remuneration is fixed and what is variable; in the nature of the statutory arrangements, so civil servants in one country may be easy to dismiss while others may have lifelong tenure and strong protections, which also provide higher certainty to their livelihood, in another one; in the additional perquisites, so civil servants in one country may enjoy benefits their homologues in another country do not; and so forth. The second is the choice of theory and methods with which to conduct comparative analyses, that is, being endowed with the appropriate tools for attributing causality in the investigation of governance arrangements and management systems in different jurisdictions. This is a demanding task, as choice of theory presupposes an understanding of contextual differences across the jurisdictions before the investigation starts, so that the chosen theory may be apt to shed light on causality links connecting context to the studied object; at the same time, contextual influences may be discovered only as the study unfolds, hence requiring to revisit the choice of theory. There is a circularity here which puts heavy demands on the researchers. The third is the problem of the equivalence of the concepts used: for example, does “corruption” mean the same thing in different countries and cultures? Or, what is comprised within the term “public agency?” For any equivalence of concepts to be meaningfully employed, it is important that the object of the comparative study is clearly specified. The object of comparison may be at the factual level – e.g., the comparison of specific and concrete reform interventions, which may then be further distinguished (e.g., whether the study is of broad national reforms of the public sector, or reforms in specific levels of government, e.g., local government, or policy sectors, e.g. education or healthcare) – or the object of comparison may reside at the conceptual level, for example, the object of investigation could be reform ideologies (New public Management, New Public Governance; Neo-Weberian State: Digital Era Governance); or specific concepts (trust, public value, transparency: so, e.g., the comparative study of the level of trust by the general public in the public sector or the inquiry into the level and modalities whereby disclosure is achieved and hence the functioning of public administration is made more “transparent”); or finally the object of investigation could be discourses and beliefs systems in governance arrangements (Bevir and Rhodes 2006). The two levels – factual and conceptual – cannot be entirely separated and are always to some extent interconnected: “facts” always require concepts to interpret and give meaning to them, and concepts always somehow refer to or are at least partly drawn from empirics (Ongaro 2017), yet some distinction, in order to achieve clarity enough on the object of investigation of the comparative study, is a third demand put on the researchers.

The second set of problems lies in the issue of how theoretically to understand and explain contextual influences. Comparison is in essence understanding how context affects the functioning of the same system in different spatial-temporal circumstances, leading to differential outcomes. The key questions then become: what is context, and how does it “work”? As to the first question, there are very many definitions of “context.” What most of them – or at least the most convincing among them – seem to have in common include, first, that context is conceived of as a notion of indefinite extension, the broader set of “features and factors” beyond the immediate environment in which the studied phenomenon is located; second, that context is a notion that goes beyond the idea of a scenery or backdrop to action (context constitutes the possibility for social actors to act); and, third, that context is an inherently multilevel and multidimension concept (a range of definitions and theoretical perspectives on the study of context in public governance and management are reported in the edited volume by Pollitt 2013).

The third cluster of problems is in a sense more practical, and it concerns how to institutionalize practices of lesson-drawing and learning across jurisdictions. In order for comparative public governance and management to be useful, it must be able to set up conditions whereby learning actually occurs, and it is effectively utilized by decision-makers. This raises questions of how to enable learning and of who learns (how to channel knowledge toward decision-makers or, in other words, how to match learning and the making of decisions for reforming) as well as questions of what are the purposes for which learning is utilized (what values are or should be upheld, and what criteria can be used to gauge whether learning has been employed for the bettering, in some sense, of public governance and management, and not for other, less agreeable, purposes, e.g., the self-preservation of rulers in their power).


Comparative public governance and administration is the study of contextual influences on governance arrangements and public management systems, aimed at generating utilizable knowledge for the bettering, in some sense, of public governance and management. It has been on the rise over the decade since the 1980s (illustrious predecessors in the field paving the way for the latest developments include Heady (1966) and Riggs (1962)). A key result of comparative public management and governance has lain in debunking the prejudice that “one size fits all” and showing how the same reform doctrines or prescribed recipes for change may produce highly varied outcomes in different contexts, exactly because of the contextual influences at work in different jurisdictions.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Open University Business School, Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise (PuLSE)The Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK