The Swedish Agency for Public Management

Research in practice. On trust-based management and the relation between research and practical application (On the public sector)

The point of departure for this study is the need for more research into administrative policy with relevance for practical work in activities carried out in public administration.

The study is in two parts. In the first part, we discuss applied research with a focus on trust and control. In the second part, we analyse the relationship between research and practical application. To do so, we study a number of research environments in which education and research take place through close collaboration between practitioners and researchers.

What joins the two parts of the study is that in both cases, the purpose is to develop public administration. In the first part, this is achieved by highlighting current research that is relevant and useful in the public sector. In the second part, we show how the meeting of research and practical application can take place in such a way that knowledge and use of research relevant to administrative policy increases as a result.

Lessons learned from research into trust and control

The relationship between trust and control is a central theme in the current discussion on administrative policy. The discussion proceeds from criticism against the prevailing governance generic term of New Public Management (NPM). Among other things, the critics believe that NPM has entailed an increase in administrative work, and that the detailed and extensive control and follow-up that takes place has limited the opportunities for public sector employees to independently exercise their professional role.

In the study, we provide three examples of how management can manifest in practice. The examples come from Denmark, Stockholm municipality and the Government Offices of Sweden, and have been chosen to illustrate the relationship between trust and control.

In the study, we highlight lessons learned from these three examples, as well as from the research literature we have studied and the conversations we have had with researchers working with applied research.

Allow the operation to dictate the relationship between trust and control

The balance between trust and control is about how to choose different ways of organising activities to get the most efficient implementation of political decisions on objectives and priorities. It is important to adapt the degree of trust and control to the nature of an operation and its historical and cultural roots. Certain operations are better managed with less control, whereas others may need more in-depth control.

There is however a general need for management to steer away from overly detailed and sometimes unnecessary instruments of control. Control costs money and it is not necessarily profitable to implement in-depth control. There can be significant transaction costs associated with control measures. To ease off a bit on control measures can also contribute to greater efficiency. Research shows that in operations and work groups with a high level of trust, both quality and productivity are higher than in equivalent operations where the level of trust is lower.

Involve employees in management and control

A stable norm system that both management and employees are socialised into is important for building trust. Research and practical application show that this type of trust-promoting norm system must emanate from the employees. This means that management must trust in the employees' competence and sense of responsibility to a greater extent. Norms which reinforce a sense of responsibility and commitment are not fostered in an environment of micromanagement and lack of trust.

Research tells us that if we minimise central management and afford employees the opportunity to participate in the planning of the work, their sense of responsibility and commitment to the operation also increase. It appears to be especially important that employees have an understanding of the type of control measures that are necessary regardless of management model. The greatest acceptance for control measures is achieved when the employees themselves are involved in their design. 

Adapt control and follow-up to the different needs of management and employees

Control and follow-up have no intrinsic value; they are intended to realise the political goals of an operation. Control and follow-up are necessary, but it is important not to expect management and employees to have the same needs in this respect. It should be possible to translate the results of operations – which are often best described by practitioners themselves in qualitative terms – to quantitative measurements that are best suited to the management's ambitions for managing. In this type of model in two parts for control and follow-up, the controller plays a key role in the translation. In order to adequately carry out this role, however, the controllers must spend more time out in the field than they have been before in general. 

Lessons learned from applied research environments

The meeting between researchers and practitioners is the most important one

From our discussions with actors in applied research, it is clear that it is this close interaction between researchers and practitioners that is perceived as providing the greatest benefit to research. This perception is also supported by studies carried out on the application of the research. A close interaction between researchers and practitioners in the research process increases the chances that the research findings will also be put to use.

In the administrative education we have studied too, the most important factor appears to be the meeting with researchers, not the organisational form in which this takes place. Knowledge of research policy is not primarily disseminated via courses; more often, this takes place in seminars, conferences, network meetings and in the applied research process.

As it is largely in the meeting between researchers and practitioners that knowledge of research policy is disseminated and research into administrative policy relevant to practical application is initiated, it is important that there are many forums for researchers and practitioners to meet. One observation we have made in our studies is that the municipal level has been more successful than the central government level where creating such forums is concerned.

Researchers need stronger incentives to collaborate

The task of higher education institutions to collaborate with society in order to ensure research findings come to fruition has become increasingly important in recent decades. At the same time, the merit system of the academic world counteracts researchers' interest in such collaborations.

Today, academic excellence is closely linked to international publication, and primarily in well-reputed scientific journals. This means that researchers who devote a relatively large amount of time to collaborating with practitioners and attempting to get their research findings to this group have difficulties competing for services and financing with colleagues who have focused on becoming internationally published, not least because research that takes place in collaboration with practitioners is often published in Swedish, with the intention of being read by those same practitioners. And research published in Swedish is of very little merit.

If researchers are to be able to collaborate more, the incentive to do so must be increased. One way is to change the resource distribution model for the higher education institutions so that the task of collaboration is also taken into consideration. The Government has also taken the initiative to review the resource distribution model, and is clear on the matter that a future model must include collaboration. Another means of improving collaboration could be for higher education institutions to pay greater attention in their qualification procedure to the fact that researchers working in close collaboration with practitioners are more likely to publish in Swedish. In this type of research which is closely linked to society, and where there is a special value in working close to the practitioners – as in much of the research into administrative policy – publishing in Swedish could therefore also be of merit.