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Meeting the Challenge of Governance in a Neoliberal World



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Examining the evolution of the United States governance system is like looking at the original architect’s sketches for a building that has been reshaped by those using it over many years. Today’s structure may bear only slight resemblance to its original version, as the once all-alike, but now often wildly distinctive, post-World War II Levittown homes of New York’s Long Island famously illustrate. The Constitution created a “building” whose operation required accountability and cooperative work between leaders and managers at the federal and state levels, and an attentive and prudential citizenry to “reify” the public good. However, the nation’s current governance system is far from resembling the original sketch envisioned.

Today’s governance is shaped by interactions among actors at all levels and across all branches of government: executives, legislators and judges, and by an array of non-governmental actors, including the general citizenry. A wide range of actors reflecting particular values and employing diverse policy instruments are engaged in the policy-making and implementation process.  This shift has accompanied the rise of neoliberal governance that advocates that non-government actors can lend legitimacy to an otherwise illegitimate government’s work.  Currently, and as a direct result of this assumption, which has reigned at all levels of governance since at least the early 1980s, non-governmental actors and for-profit contractors are core partners in the policy-making process, on the view that they are per se more capable of efficient, effective or legitimate action than is the government itself.  This assumption has wrought remarkable complexity in policy implementation and added, one might say, a “loft” to the U.S Constitution’s original building design.

This neoliberal turn in governance arose from ideological skepticism towards strong federal (and state) government involvement in public affairs, programmatically and fiscally. Nonetheless and paradoxically, federal and state governments are still the main source of legal, fiscal and regulatory resources to address public demands. Indeed, national spending has grown enormously, but direct federal public employment has been relatively flat during the decades of neoliberal dominance (Kettl, 2015, p.221).  Light (2019) has also pointed out that the services and costs of government have risen, while the “visibility” of government has declined, since it now delivers so many services via intermediaries.  Skepticism toward a strong government gained popularity during a period of unprecedented “stagflation” in the late 1970s, resulting in widespread public fear.  Popular concern was also fed during these years by persistent government fiscal deficits. During the 1980s, those criticizing government action, e.g., Ronald Reagan, argued that only markets could provide efficient outcomes and that governments should do as little as feasible to allow those entities to produce and distribute public goods and services to the maximum extent feasible. In effect, advocates contended that government, because it was government, was ineffective, while the private sector, because it was market-driven, was efficient and effective. Neoliberal proponents of a sharply limited role for governments also argued that nonprofits were somehow more transparent and “closer to the people” and therefore more democratically legitimate, even though unelected and representative of only those who founded them, compared to their public sector counterparts. No similar claims could be made for deepened for-profit institutional involvement in governance, so proponents of this public philosophy contended their engagement would result in increased public program efficiency and effectiveness.

A transnational element may also have influenced these arguments.  Indeed, Kettl has suggested that the blurring of lines among government actors that neoliberalism has wrought and the delegitimization and skepticism of public institutions it has also brought in train, has been strongly, if indirectly, influenced by a deep and accelerated transformation of international relations in an economically and socially globalized world (2015). Moreover, that globalization has adopted and pressed processes of standardization, challenging governments’ sovereignty (Bellamy and Castiglione, 1997).

Under the sway of neoliberalism, the United States Executive branch, Congress and the Supreme Court have sought to devolve responsibility for policy implementation in many domains to state and local governments and to nonprofit and for-profit entities (Conlan, 2017; Terman and Feiock, 2014).  That is, private, public and semi-public actors have partnered with federal, state and local governments to implement a range of policies. In this regard, neoliberalism has pressed two major trends in policy-making: one suggesting that all levels of government should be less involved in the political economy as a matter of principle and another that non-governmental actors (for-profit and nonprofit alike) should co-manage government programs whenever possible.

This turn in the nation’s regnant public philosophy has produced a governance system in which multiple interdependent government and non-governmental actors must pursue joint action to implement federal, state and local policies to address public needs (Mayntz, 1993; Agranoff, 2017). In addition to this change during the last forty years, in some cases, citizens have become involved in policy implementation directly through the coproduction of public goods and services (Kettl, 2015).  Put differently, today’s governance system operates via complex inter-organizational networks that are ultimately accountable to public actors, but which those entities do not unilaterally control.

Indeed, at this point, non-governmental actors are so interwoven with policy design and implementation—whether nonprofit, for-profit organizations or citizens—that trying to remove them from the public agenda would not only be complex, but also would put at risk, at least temporarily, the supply of government-provided goods and services. Also, non-governmental actors may provide innovative solutions to public problems that would not have emerged from the government alone (Moynihan, 2003).  Despite the involvement of these many organizations in public policy implementation today at all scales, governments must still be accountable for program outcomes since they hold the essential and irreplaceable role of creating and reifying the public good and are, in truth, the only institutions democratically responsible to citizens. Governments are also responsible for deciding what basic goods and services citizens may receive, ensuring equity in their distribution, promoting economic growth and managing the program processes that now involve many separate parties. This responsibility now demands that government officials create and maintain relationships across public and private organizational boundaries while preserving their sovereignty, creating appropriate financial and performance management systems and building human capital. This last requirement implies an effort to professionalize the delivery of public services even when those providing those services are not within the direct jurisdiction of responsible government officials (e.g. non-profit or for-profit contractors).

Surely, government actors today confront a major challenge as they seek to steer and manage institutional and financial resources as well as human capital across political and economic boundaries to produce public aims. In this regard, as Kettl has contended, government should be strong without becoming so muscular as to limit individual liberty and entrepreneurial energy (Kettl, 2015, p.228). Government officials must now oversee complex networks of governance actors to secure public aims. Neverthelesss, it should be noted that today’s bureaucratic system is not as problematic as its naysayers claim. Rather, the problem may be that there is a “mismatch” between society’s demands for services and governmental institutional, fiscal and human capacity at all scales.  We are now in an era of growing demand for goods and services, but limited public resources to address those claims. Therefore, the solution is not to divest the government of its rightful responsibilities, but to ensure that its institutional resources and human capital systems operate as efficiently, effectively, equitably and accountably as possible by means of the complex service delivery structures policymakers have embraced.  Thus, the challenge lies in creating appropriate financial and performance management systems that allow for not only administratively efficient, but also politically and socially accountable programs for which collaborating non-government actors must also share responsibility when they are involved.

Asking that the government remain as our regime’s architect, even as we have adopted a distributed service delivery model that involves actors from across our political economy in public action, has occasioned significant changes that have affected a wide range of social interests. Reacting to this change in public requirements and expectations in policy implementation is not only a technical problem. It also requires ongoing shifts in political and institutional structures and characteristics to ensure appropriate and accountable democratic outcomes, a project that continues even as this is written.


Agranoff, R. (2017). Crossing Boundaries for Intergovernmental Management. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. Retrieved from

Conlan, T. (2017). “Intergovernmental Relations in a Compound Republic: The Journey from Cooperative to Polarized Federalism.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism47(2), pp. 171–187.

Bellamy, R. and Castiglione, D. (1997). “Building the Union: The Nature of Sovereignty in the Political Architecture of Europe.” Law and Philosophy16(4), pp. 421-445. Retrieved from

Kettl, D. F. (2015). “The Job of Government: Interweaving Public Functions and Private Hands.” Public Administration Review75(2), pp. 219–229.

Light, P. C. (2019). The Government-Industrial Complex: The True Size of the Federal Government, 1984-2018. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mayntz, R. (1993) “Governing Failure and the problem of governability: Some comments and the problem of governability.” En Kooiman, J. (ed.). Modern Governance. London: Sage, pp. 9-20.

Moynihan, D. P. (2003). Normative and Instrumental Perspectives on Public Participation: Citizen Summits in Washington, D.C. The American Review of Public Administration, 33(2), 164–188. Retrieved from

Terman, J., and Feiock, R. (2015). “Third-Party Federalism: Using Local Governments (and Their Contractors) to Implement National Policy.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 45(2), pp. 322–349.

Andrea Briceno

Andrea Briceno M. is a Ph.D. student in Public Administration and Public Affairs at the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP). She received her master’s degree in Government and Public Policy from the Externado University of Colombia in partnership with the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) of Columbia University, NY. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from the National University of Colombia. In both her academic and professional trajectories, she has focused on equity and inclusion policies, particularly in the examination of the determinants of educational success for traditionally underrepresented students in higher education. That interest led her to create the VT Digital Research Collection on Higher Education Policy for Minorities in the United States Andrea was also selected as one of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) 2019 Equity and Inclusion fellows in the U.S.

Her research interests focuses on higher education policy for undocumented students in the U.S. Other work includes examining the inter-governmental tensions between the federal and local levels regarding immigration policy and its effects on labor market. 

She enjoys spending time with her two little boys, reading, discussing political issues, cooking and drinking good coffee. 

Publication Date

January 30, 2020