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Public Money & Management

For a Special Issue on

PMM Theme: A relational future for public service?

Abstract deadline
15 November 2024

Manuscript deadline
03 March 2025

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Special Issue Editor(s)

Max French, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, UK
[email protected]

Clare FitzGerald, King's Business School, King’s College London, UK
[email protected]

Rob Wilson, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, UK
[email protected]

Hannah Hesselgreaves, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, UK
[email protected]

Rick Muir, Police Foundation, UK

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PMM Theme: A relational future for public service?

Facing compounding social problems and unprecedented fiscal retrenchment, public service is an increasingly complex task in an ever more trying climate. Think tanks, policy institutes and prominent public figures have set out significant reform agendas demanding government and public service organizations become local and community-based rather than distant and centralized, capable of responding to complexity rather than delivering efficiency, staffed and led by capable generalists rather than specialists and, perhaps above all, designed around human relationships rather than bureaucratic interactions or market transactions (Lowe et al., 2020; Cottam, 2018; Elvidge, 2013; Cooke and Muir, 2012; Glover, 2023). Responding to this, Wilson et al. (2024) put forward a research agenda into relational public service, noting how new tools, methods and approaches are emerging which reify what Bartels and Turnbull (2020) have called a ‘relational turn’ in public administration. This call for papers for a new PMM theme will build on this by exploring the theory and practice of relational public service.

Academics might wonder what all this fuss is about. Academic public administration (PA) is replete with concepts, theories and methods—from co-creation to network governance to citizen participation to collaborative innovation—which recognize effective public services depend on the quality of relationships amongst the actors involved. Relationships are posited as a key instrument in managing complex needs and variety in service interactions (French, Hesselgreaves et al., 2023), responding to fragmentation (FitzGerald et al., 2021), and co-creating value (Osborne, 2020).

But while relationality is an implied characteristic in academic PA, it is rarely explicitly recognized and has many overlapping meanings in application (Bartels and Turnbull, 2020). In the absence of agreed conceptual dimensions, relational public service is in danger of joining the ranks of ‘essentially contested subjects’ in public policy and academic PA: an idea which means everything and therefore nothing—with recursive definitional debates preventing cumulative scholarship.

The question of where increased attention to relationality might lead is also far from settled. A reformist perspective might focus on modifying transactional tools to accommodate or even bolster relational capabilities in hybrid institutional forms such as alliances, multi-agency collaborations, community assemblies, public–private partnerships, inter-organizational contracting arrangements or co-creation initiatives (see Carter and Ball, 2023 and French, Kimmitt, et al., 2023 for contrasting perspectives). The literature has begun formalizing relational alternatives, for instance to contracting (Carter and Ball, 2023) and performance management (Kroll, 2022).

Others might question whether genuinely relational approaches can co-exist within the prevailing institutional environment, which has been indelibly shaped by decades of competition and austerity. The Health and Europe Centre (2023) noted 250 separate barriers to replicating one the best exemplars of relational public service, the Buurtzorg community nursing model, within a UK context. NPM’s legacy of performance metrics and targets underpin modern accountability relationships and an evidence-based approach to governance, creating what Porter (1995) called an innate ‘trust in numbers’. Can we make room for a relational ‘trust in people’ and their ability to build, maintain, learn and reflect on relationships? As tools like AI, machine learning, data platforms and information systems become increasingly adopted, we need to ensure the technical infrastructures support relational practice into the long term (Jamieson et al., 2020; McLoughlin and Wilson, 2013).

Finally, in studying relationality, we may also need to embody it. Policy and academic research into relational public service reform rarely intersects, with lost opportunities for knowledge mobilization. We therefore invite investigation of relationality within academic-policy interactions. Models like policy fellowships (Buckley and Oliver, 2024), learning partnerships (Hesselgreaves et al., 2021), or models of co-production (DuRose and Richardson 2015), may provide effective vehicles for this. Methodological approaches like action research, action learning or development forms of evaluation also seem pertinent, but remain peripheral in academic PA.

For our PMM theme we invite contributions which explore the opportunities, practicalities and limitations of a relational approach to public service and governance. Suitable topics include the following non-exhaustive list.


Theoretical development

  • How might core academic PA concepts (for example co-creation, collaborative governance, public value) reveal or conceal insights into relational public services?
  • What other theories—amongst many others, public encounters (Bartels, 2013), dynamic capabilities (French, Hesselgreaves et al., 2023; Kattel and Mazzucato, 2018), or stewardship theory (Torfing and Bentzen, 2020; Davis et al., 2018)—could advance this research agenda?
  • How can public policy and PA learn from the treatment of relationality in other disciplines (for example relational sociology) and philosophy (for example relational ontology)?
  • What are the limits—and perverse effects—of relational approaches to public service?

Empirical analysis

  • What is the relationship between organizational management (for example heterarchies, flat management or self-organization) and relational public service?
  • What can we learn from practical examples of relational public services working well and/or failing to work?
  • How should regimes of accountability, contracting, performance management and scrutiny be configured for relational public services?
  • What role can digital tools, information technology, artificial intelligence play in facilitating/constraining relational public services?
  • What role can public engagement and deliberation play in innovating relationships in the governance, management, and delivery of public services?

Field development

  • How can academics and practitioners nurture the relational core of public service in increasingly challenging times?
  • What is the evidence that relational tools (for example Outcome Stars—see MacKeith, 2011), methods (for example the Liberated Method—see Hesselgreaves and Smith, 2023), or frameworks (for example Human Learning Systems—see Lowe et al., 2020) promote more relational services?
  • How should academics and practitioners relate to one another within a relational public service agenda, and what tools, methods and models help with this?
  • What role can universities and other knowledge brokers play in advancing academic-practitioner relationships in public service reform?


(References: list available from PMM Managing Editor Michaela Lavender, [email protected] or Theme Guest Editor Max French, [email protected])

Submission Instructions


Authors can submit one of three types of submission. A ‘debate’ article (up to 1000 words) will offer distinctive, provocative comments and arguments (so long as they are also considered), perhaps from the world of practice. A new development piece (up to 3500 words) will describe innovations or changes to practice. Finally, full research articles (up to 8000 words excluding references) which must meet high standards of intellectual argument, evidence and demonstrate a clear appreciation of practice in public management. All submissions must be suitable for both academic and reflective practitioner readers. Research articles will be double-blind refereed by both an academic and a practitioner. For more details see


Submission of research article abstracts to the guest editors for feedback: 15 November 2024. Submission of full articles via the PMM website: 3 March 2025. Submission of new development and debate articles 3 May 2025.

Instructions for AuthorsSubmit an Article