Neoliberalism for the Common Good? Public Value Governance and the Downsizing of Democracy

Published date01 July 2014
Date01 July 2014
Adam Dahl is a doctoral candidate
in political science at the University of
Minnesota. He also holds a Dissertation
Fellowship from the American Council
of Learned Societies and the Mellon
Foundation. His research employs historical
approaches to study the intersection of
democratic theory and American politics.
More specif‌i cally, his dissertation examines
how settler colonialism and racial exclusion
shaped the development of democratic poli-
tics and culture in the nineteenth-century
United States.
Joe Soss is Cowles Chair for the Study
of Public Service at the University of
Minnesota, where he holds faculty positions
in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public
Affairs, Political Science, and Sociology.
His research explores the interplay of
democratic politics, societal inequali-
ties, and public policy. He is particularly
interested in the politics of social division
and marginalization. His most recent book
is Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal
Paternalism and the Persistent Power
of Race.
496 Public Administration Review • July | August 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 4, pp. 496–504. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12191.
Adam Dahl
Joe Soss
University of Minnesota
is article raises a set of cautions regarding public value
governance along two dimensions. First, it questions
the common claim that public value governance poses
a direct challenge to the economistic logic of neoliberal-
ism. Second, although public value is often presented as
a democratizing agenda, leading works sidestep foun-
dational questions of power and conf‌l ict and advance
prescriptions that are at odds with important demo-
cratic values. Without attending to these problems, the
public value concept risks producing a new variant of
neoliberal rationality, extending and strengthening the
de- democratizing, market-oriented project that its propo-
nents seek to overturn.
The language of “public value” has emerged
in recent years as an inf‌l uential new idiom
for ef‌f orts to reform governance.  e con-
cept blends old commitments to the common good
with newer aspirations for performance-centered
public management. As a political project, it mounts
a challenge to the market models and interests that
have transformed governance over the past several
decades.  is “neoliberal turn” prevails today, pub-
lic value scholars argue, because public authorities
lack a coherent alternative to discourses that frame
governance in exclusively economic terms. Older
notions of the public good have been too vague to
provide practical direction and evaluative criteria for
governance (Bozeman 2002). Public value passes this
litmus test and, at the same time, allows for a robust
defense of the public sector
against its critics (Benington
and Moore 2011). By ground-
ing governance in the pursuit of
public value, proponents aim to
displace neoliberal rationalities
that privilege market solutions,
diminish democracy, and serve private interests at the
expense of the common good.
e rise of public value models also ref‌l ects a longer
historical shift in public authority from “govern-
ment” to more collaborative, multisector modes of
“governance” (Pierre 2000). Along with its many practi-
cal consequences, this shift has had signif‌i cant implica-
tions for democratic theory. Dissatisf‌i ed with the limits
of representative government, scholars have pursued
democratizing reforms in a host of extra-electoral
realms such as public budgeting, service provision,
planning, and policy implementation (Fischer 2009,
67). In the process, they have taken up questions of
participation, citizenship, inclusion, and equality
that were previously of interest mainly to democratic
theorists (Fung 2006; Quick and Feldman 2011).
New modes of “governance-driven democratization
have also encouraged democratic theorists to confront
new questions and practical considerations related to
their concepts. Because these governance models locate
democratic politics outside the formal institutions of
liberal democracy, they represent a relatively new fron-
tier in democratic theory (Bevir 2010; Warren 2009).
us, for democratic theorists as much as for scholars
of governance, the time is ripe for dialogue regarding
the political implications of public value governance.
Against this backdrop, our article raises questions and
concerns along two dimensions. First, we question the
extent to which public value governance challenges
the economistic logic of neoliberalism. Although they
oppose laissez-faire ef‌f orts to roll back the state, public
value models derive much of their logic from market
templates.  e resulting parallels make public value
less of a challenge to neoliberalism than one would
surmise based on the stated
intentions of its proponents.
Because their logics are congru-
ent, public value governance is
highly vulnerable to assimilation
into the dominant rationality of
neoliberal governance. In this
manner, public value models may ultimately reinforce
and extend neoliberalism by embedding market logics
more deeply in progressive uses of state power.
Second, although public value is often promoted
as a democratizing agenda, leading works sidestep
Neoliberalism for the Common Good? Public Value
Governance and the Downsizing of Democracy
We question the extent to
which public value governance
challenges the economistic logic
of neoliberalism.

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