Public value theory has had its supporters and critics, with debate about the use of strategic management by public managers and confusion about the meaning of public value. This paper formalises Moore (1995) into a simple theory. That theory introduces the concept of an ‘ideal state.’ The ideal state is a simple means of describing and analysing public value, using a graphical presentation. In an ideal state roles are clear and public value is optimised. Insights from that ideal state are then applied to a more real world to clarify the nature of public value and to consider the appropriate use of strategic management by public servants. The conclusion is that public value theory provides some justification for strategic management, but the paper also demonstrates the limits to strategic management by officials.