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International Journal of Public Sector Performance Management
International Journal of Public Sector Performance Management


Special Issue on: "Competence and Incompetence of Public Managers"

Guest Editors: Prof. Robert Fouchet and Dr. Marcel Guenoun, Université Paul-Cezanne Aix-Marseille III, France

Competence has been at the center of a significant number of research and initiatives in public organisations over the past few years. This gives rise to various challenges. In addition to various instruments of competence planning and rewarding, a competence management system also consists of principles regarding its design, implementation and development in a sustainable manner.

Traditionally, there are three ways of analysing public service professions. One way is to classify and analyse professions by different location and role; the second is to analyse changing relations between the public service professions and more demanding service by users; the third would be tracking the evolution of professionalisation projects, often aimed at moving from a gentleman amateur tradition to a professional civil servant (Ferlie & Geraghty, 2005: 423).

The aim of this issue is to look further into this last prospect, by identifying the characteristics and determinants of the competence and the incompetence in public managers. Those were the subject of a voluntarist policy within the framework of the NPM (New Public Management) oriented reforms.

With the rise of NPM practices, public leaders face both a stronger internal accountability and a public perception and approval measurement. But, do competence-oriented tools designed in the public sector fit with the competence model developed in private organisations?

The concept of competence includes three dimensions: knowledge (to know), the practice (know-how) and the attitudes (know-act) (Durand, 2006: 278). The word ‘competence’ is multifacted which makes it possible to integrate alternative definitions. But in all the cases, it is about a cognitive approach which presupposes that competence is constituted by an addition of knowledge in a broad sense. However, Jeannot recognises a first drift of this notion as it crosses the borders from private to public sector management. On a lexical standpoint, he notes “the proscription of the attitudinal side, which is quite frequent normally in private sector references” (Jeannot, 2005).

The competence model is based on involving and mobilising wage-earners, values cooperation, autonomy and responsibility. It centres on the problem of evaluation: by workers, of the way the firm appreciates their qualities; by the firm for the evaluation of wage-earners, individual performance. When examining how the competence model has been implemented, Paradeise and Lichtenberger note uses of it lying in-between two competing types of evaluation: a fully individualised evaluation of competence and an evaluation of the competence of a group considered as a whole, and the latter type does not cause the possibilities for upward mobility in the firm (Paradeise & Lichtenberger).

This model supposes at the same time new requirements towards the public managers and a modification of the system of incentive and support by the organisation in the idea that ‘an individual becomes qualified when the company gives him the necessary means’ (Dumont, 2000).

A second factor of differentiation of the devices of management of competences in the public sector is due to their perimeter: the practices diffused by the NPM concerns primarily the senior officials, two thirds of the OECD countries having set up remuneration of performance in their administration while in the private sector, the model applies to all hierarchical levels and is meaningful mostly as it gets nearer to concrete operations (Paradeise & Lichtengerger, 2001 :37).

The new requirements are manifested by the renewed forms of control going from the executants to the executives, via the devices of individual evaluation, while the requirement of mobilisation goes down from the executives to the executants (Paradeise and Porcher, 1990).

Organisational design is, on the other hand, expected to swap control for trust in working relationships; organisational forms are to be seen as processes that build and secure the employers’ trust in employees’ competences. Structural rigidities must give way to learning organizations; while competencies lean upon technical capacities, they are relevant, reliable, and valid only in action. (Paradeise & Lichtenberger, 2001:38).

This approach calls into question the design of public organisations: does it generate a systemic, organisational incompetence, rather than an individual one?

Recent failures in the United States and in France (Katrina’s disaster’s response, French CPE, etc.) show that one can argue that individual incompetence and scapegoat hunts are solely justified by the need of governments and administrations to maintain long-term legitimacy, reputation and political continuation. On the contrary, five characteristics of the NPM are likely to be at the origins of public managers’ incompetence. They are:

  • Hollow State Governance: the term 'hollow' refers to the empty space inside governments and public organisations that is created by excessive outsourcing, rendering those public administrations empty and echoing networks of administrative structures. Public managers' incompetence is fostered further by inadequate principal-agency relations embedded into NPM (Ferlie, Pettigrew and Ashburner, 1996) reforms, inadequate for emergency situations. This proposition is sustained by concurrent research from Christensen and Lagreid (2001) that suggest that excessive contractualism fosters political control in NPM infrastructures.

  • Perception Management and Leaders' Procrastination to Act: with the rise of NPM practices, public leaders face both a stronger internal accountability and a public perception and approval measurement. The intimation of 'perception management' contingencies encourages public leaders to procrastinate about intervention.

  • Political Neutrality and Political Correctness: political neutrality is at best a chimera as implementations usually require political trade-offs and rooting to reach efficiency. Rohr (1998) sees in this constant dilemma a recurrent source of incompetence of public leaders, as it leads to mid-range interventions and compromising that impede efficiency. Excessive attention given to political neutrality and correctness encourages public managers to sacrifice competence for the sake of long-term political survival and sustainability.

  • Lack of Incentives for 'Transversal Unlearning' in Public Organisations: most public managers are surprised when condemned for wrong doing, because they do not perceive themselves as having acted with incompetence. As Kruger and Dunning (1999) observed, incompetent people are clueless about their own incompetence. Instead of blaming scapegoats, public organisations ought to investigate the dynamics of their learning over time so as to discover potential blind spots in their learning systems. In particular, we argue that the current transformation of public organisations in not-so-interdependent jurisdictions create 'empty intersections' that eventually lead to public managers' incompetence and failure to act.

  • Oversight Due to Increasingly Complex Inter-Organisational Dynamics: public managers are constantly faced with a duty of accountability to public law goals, and the need for flexibility in order to maximise the utility of private-sector involvement. In particular, public law makes clear distinctions between the institutional level of governance (e.g. State), the managerial level of governance (e.g. 'Prefect', cities, transport administrations, etc), and the technical level of governance (e.g. emergency services), that private organisations do not distinguish between (Lynn, 2001). Furthermore, performance evaluations and criteria for its measurement greatly differ between public and private organisations.

This last point is thus crucial in the analysis of the practices of management of competences - which has been already evoked – which rest mainly on a modification of the modes of evaluation. Indeed, they suppose the passage of personalisation to the impersonality of the rules of evaluation. The model of competence poses the problem of the relation between competences exerted in a situation and evaluated performance (Paradeise & Lichtenberger, 2001: 39).

If competences are assessed in situ, nothing guarantees any longer the irreversible advantages acquired during one’s career, even more so as this model weakens the traditional solidarity born of the employees’ community of destiny and inscribed in normalized industrial relationship. Are public organizations up to facing this challenge?

Subject Coverage
Topics covered include, but are not limited to:
  • Impact of rewarding policies on competence management
  • Team work, project management and competences
  • Public sector attractiveness for experienced managers
  • Knowledge management and competence management
  • Intellectual capital evaluation
  • Performance evaluation and competence management
  • Determinants of competence in the public sector
  • Competence of managers in local government, central government, healthcare services and public agencies
  • Managing competences of street-level bureaucrats

Notes for Prospective Authors

Submitted papers should not have been previously published nor be currently under consideration for publication elsewhere

All papers are refereed through a peer review process. A guide for authors, sample copies and other relevant information for submitting papers are available on the Papers Submission section under Author Guidelines

Important Dates

Submission of full paper before: 1 November, 2007

Notification of acceptance before: 10 January, 2008

Submission of final and revised manuscripts: 1 April, 2008