Towards a Cognitive Cultural Approach to Public Management Reform

Sijko Wierenga, Frans Kamsteeg


This paper tries to give a preliminary theoretical and methodological answer to a rather complex question: how can we explain the diffusion of an organizational change initiative, inspired by New Public Management (NPM) against the background of the organizational context in which it is supposed to be implemented? The need of such an answer is demonstrated by an analysis of 281 NPM studies, which shows that NPM researchers often produce only abstract or fragmented analyses of the content of both context and change initiatives, and hardly address the question what exactly is to be changed in reality. Our argument is that we should develop an approach that starts from the workplace reality as interpreted by the organizational actors, which may help to fundamentally rethink the way in which NPM initiatives can be implemented successfully. To this end, we present a Cognitive Cultural (CC) approach. We show what results can be obtained by means of a CC research method, by presenting the main conclusions of two NPM case studies taken from the field of education. We then discuss how the CC approach yields substantial and reliable information for assessing the cognitive relevance of NPM reforms and their underlying elements. Finally, we shall give some suggestions how further research into NPM can benefit from the CC approach.

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