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In Search of Prudence: The Hidden Problem of Managerial Reform


John Kane teaches political theory and government at Griffith University, Australia, where he is also deputy director of the Research Center for Governance and Public Policy. He has published extensively in the areas of political theory and political leadership and is the author of The Politics of Moral Capital (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Virtue and Power (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).E-mail:

Haig Patapan teaches political theory, comparative constitutionalism, and jurisprudence at Griffith University, Australia, where he is also director of the Theory and Practice of Democracy Program. His publications include Judging Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Globalization and Equality (Routledge, 2004).E-mail:


This article argues that the concept of prudence can provide valuable insights into the problems of the New Public Management. Prudence, or practical wisdom, is the ability to make sound decisions under complex, ever-changeable conditions. Old-style bureaucracy severely limited the discretion of most administrators but preserved a site of true prudential judgment at the peak where discreet “mandarins” policed the boundary between politics and administration. The reforms that inaugurated New Public Management dismantled this site of prudence while simultaneously attempting, in effect, to disperse prudential judgment and action throughout the service. Though raising the problem of prudence, these reforms misconceived it as the problem of how to balance new freedoms with new controls to prevent abuse or folly. This essay argues that the introduction of market mechanisms, risk-management and cost-benefit techniques, ethics training, performance accountability, and calls to leadership were destined to fail because they misapprehended the problem of prudence.