Public Management

"Acting abnormally" in the public sector

By Marc Vermeulen | May 25, 2016 | 1 min read

Many processes that we have to tackle in the public sector are getting more difficult to predict. Can 'de-normalization' be the solution where existing policy frameworks and models are lacking?", wonders Prof. Dr. Marc Vermeulen in this column.

Normalization is a nice term, governments are fully occupied with it: cutting back a little on disorderly behavior, adjusting it so that it is brought onto the right track again. But so often that same normalization needs to be reversed. For instance, rivers that in the past were made manageable, are now given more room to meander. In this way unpredictabilities in rainfall are more easily accommodated. The land must once more learn to retain the water.


De-normalization as a means of dealing with unpredictability. Now that could even be applicable to other areas. Many processes that we have to tackle in the public sector are getting more difficult to predict. Globalization, individualization, unexpected information flows, they all make the monitoring of for instance migrant flows or climate changes more difficult to predict. Existing policy frameworks and models are lacking. This is a wicked problem.

Are we entering a period in which normalization will have to give way to de-normalization? Probably, and that will have enormous consequences for those working daily on public matters. Citizens want legal certainty, predictability, replicability. Yet that will help us less and less. That is why we are advised to experiment with acting abnormally in the public sector. And that will have far-reaching consequences: other planning methods, other ways of involving people in them, other accountabilities; be crazy, as it were.

Unexpected thinkers

Suddenly there are plenty of good new opportunities in the labor market, just for those who experienced the negative consequences of market normalization. In trade and industry, more often we use unexpected thinkers (often artists) when developing new products. It could even be a very useful thing to do in the public sector too. Giving them a place in public management would seem to be a good improvement on our occasionally rather too normal public sector.

Master of Public and Non-Profit Management 

Prof. Dr. Marc Vermeulen is Academic Director of the TIAS Executive Master of Public and Non-Profit Management, an academic master program for Leadership and Management in the public sector.

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