The Limits to Public Value, or Rescuing Responsible Government from the Platonic Guardians



In various guises, public value has become extraordinarily popular in recent years. We challenge the relevance and usefulness of the approach in Westminster systems with their dominant hierarchies of control, strong roles for ministers, and tight authorising regimes underpinned by disciplined two-party systems. We start by spelling out the core assumptions behind the public value approach. We identify two key confusions; about public value as theory, and in defining ‘public managers’. We identify five linked core assumptions in public value: the benign view of large-scale organisations; the primacy of management; the relevance of private sector experience; the downgrading of party politics; and public servants as Platonic guardians. We then focus on the last two assumptions because they are the least applicable in Westminster systems. We defend the ‘primacy of party politics’ and we criticise the notion that public managers should play the role of Platonic guardians deciding the public interest. The final section of the article presents a ‘ladder of public value’ by which to gauge the utility of the approach for public managers in Westminster systems.