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Meet the editor of... the International Journal of Public Sector Management

An interview with: Joyce Liddle

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Image: Dr Joyce LiddleDr Joyce Liddle is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Nottingham, UK.  Prior to that, she was a lecturer in strategic management at Durham Business School, where she taught strategy, public and regeneration management and was an associate of the Centre for the Study of Cities and Regions and  Director of the MA in Management. Previously she was Director of the MBA programme at Sunderland University. 

She has a particular interest in regeneration management and has delivered sessions on leadership in regeneration renewal for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the UK.  In addition to being editor ofInternational Journal of Public Sector Management (IJPSM), she has researched and published widely in the area of local and regional governance, partnerships and regeneration. 

IJPSM focuses on the issues which affect public sector managers all over the world: how to deliver even more effective services with ever dwindling resources. It covers all aspects of public sector management and draws on topics and case studies from all over the world – from developed and emerging nations alike – and provides analysis which is both research-based and which has tangible practical application.   IJPSM is a peer reviewed journal with seven issues a year which is now in its 19th year, and averages 5,000 full text downloads a month, with a total of 454,922 downloads in the period September 2003 to September 2005.


Can you say a little about how you came to be interested in public sector management?

I spent ten years as a civil servant, so I was a practitioner before I became an academic, then I studied public management at university so I liked the idea of bringing together theory and practice. I also act as an adviser to various public agencies as well so my current role is as a consultant and practitioner as well as an academic.

What aspects of public sector management interest you the most?

My particular specialism is local and regional governance, but I’m interested in all aspects of public management, how you manage resources, the difficulty of trying to improve efficiency and quality, and managing stakeholder demands.

I am also particularly interested in regeneration management, which in other parts of the world tends to mean redevelopment of run-down areas. In the UK and even more in Europe, it’s more about how to deal with the social and economic fallout of de-industrialization, and what kind of policies do central and local government instigate to improve the socioeconomic conditions. I’ve written one book, I have got another one coming out soon, and two others planned[1].

When you moved to a new post as Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Nottingham,  how did you hope this would take your career forward?

I have taken over as Director of the Masters of Public Administration in the Nottingham Policy Centre, soon to become Nottingham International Policy Centre. I teach public administration and public management, and I also want to strengthen my research in the field. I will be collaborating with colleagues down in Nottingham on various research projects. 

Journal vision and editorial coverage

You have been editor of IJPSM now for five years. What made you take on the role of editor and how has the journal changed over your period of editorship?

Initially, I was invited to be co-editor alongside Colin Talbot, the original editor, because I’m very well organized (the Civil Servant in me)!

In the five years I’ve been editor there have been many changes – greater geographical coverage, much higher quality papers, and practical articles to balance the more theoretical ones. I’m also a networker par excellence, spend a lot of time at conferences and am getting a lot of very senior academics from all over the world keen to publish in the journal.

I’ve also expanded the review base as the quality of any journal  depends on having good reviewers. You also have to have very good response rates because the one thing that authors hate is sending a journal article and then not hear from you for months and months. I have an editorial administrator, Neil, who has a tracking system and keeps careful check of where the papers are in the review process, if necessary sending out reminder letters to get the review comments quickly.

Can you describe the journal’s coverage?

Very international, and appealing to public/private bodies, local government, central government, quangos, and international organizations such as the World Bank. It’s important to get a wide geographical coverage, so I’ve been talking to people in the Caribbean, India, and Africa, to try and reach beyond Europe and become more global. I’ve deliberately tried to encourage this because public sector by its very nature operates at different levels within states, and increasingly we have cross-boundary work between public and private, parastatal organizations, and civil society. So the remit of acceptable articles is clearly not restricted to the public sector because the context is much more complex now. 

Who are your key audiences?

Academics and professionals working either in developing or in developed countries, including those employed in state agencies at national and local level, the health service, civil service, managers within world agencies, etc. 

How do you ensure that the research and methodology is presented in a form that is easily accessible to practitioners and can therefore influence their daily lives as managers?

By devoting particular attention to rigorous review of the academic content, to readability, and to depth of coverage. I encourage a whole range of different articles from different countries and I choose reviewers who have not only academic credibility but also a particular interest in the country concerned. Practitioner readability is important but at the same time we never compromise on academic quality: I would expect, for example, an article written by a practitioner to have rigorous referencing.

We have had articles from some of the developing countries containing good ideas, and we can work with them to improve the format and structure. So I think you’ve got to have quite rigorous standards but also not expect people to send in something that was absolutely in final form, for example it could be a state of the art report on what is going on about a particular issue. I wouldn’t necessarily reject a badly structured paper if the ideas are good, if it’s from a country where we haven’t had any coverage and if there are the seeds of a really good argument, we can work with the paper.  The review process can help here by pointing out some of the language issues. The reviewers will send very comprehensive comments, sometimes line by line, which is great because it’s very constructive and not damaging. 

We had a paper about Katrina, the hurricane in New Orleans in the USA, submitted less than six months after the actual event. It was a great piece of work, so we managed to get it reviewed very quickly because of the topicality. You have to use your judgement on the academic worth of the paper and its coverage and whether it’s going to be interesting. Rigour and quality are important, but interest level as well.

Looking through the journal, one is struck by the global perspective, with case studies from places as far apart as Vanautu and Canada. Do you think that public sector management transcends boundaries?

Well, yes, because effectively every state has a public sector, and every state around the world is trying to improve its efficiency and management of resources which are paid for by taxes. There is a massive demand all round the world on the public sector to do more, so there is both a raised expectation and greater demand for higher quality of service. The ways of organizing the public sector may differ from state to state, but many of the issues – performance management, efficiency improvement, how to improve the quality of the public services – engaging stakeholders are topical everywhere, and transcend national boundaries. I’ve just had a proposal accepted for a book that looks at regeneration internationally, with authors from all over the world looking at developments within their particular state. I am interested in whether the state at local and national level has a development or regeneration role in these various contexts.

How can you ensure relevance to practice and how do you think that management research can improve public sector management?

Practitioners tend to have their nose to the grindstone so much that they rarely have the time to sit back and reflect what the key issues might be. So management research, where people have gone out and collected empirical data (although it tends to be out of date by the time it is published) helps practitioners to generalize from the specific and think twice about how they do their own practical work. You have to have theory and practice working together, and so reflective practitioners would always look to academic work to give them what existing research is available. I am working with some chief fire officers at the Fire Service HQ at the moment on local governance changes, and the effects on their activities.I see my role as being a kind of sense maker and management research as helping practitioners to sense make on what the key issues are. 

What are your immediate plans for the journal?

Generally speaking, I’d like to think that we will improve the coverage. I’ve also got some special editions lined up, for example trade unionism in the public sector in Europe being developed by Miguel Martínez Lucio in Bradford Management School, public management and ICT development by  Peter Levesque of the Canadian Centre for Excellence in Youth and Child mental health in Ottawa, personnel and HR issues in public management in Europe by Sylvia Horton at Portsmouth,  regional management and business cluster by Tassilo Herrschel and colleagues across the USA and Europe, and I will be editing a special edition on regeneration management (we also had one last year).

Are there any research approaches which you consider to be particularly noteworthy?

Increasingly because of the changing nature of public management there is a lot of triangulation between qualitative and quantitative approaches. A growing area is complexity theory, because of the boundary-less world of public sector management – I am using that myself at the moment in some work I am doing with practitioners. (Complexity theory is based on models from the physical sciences, how systems operate, how you have to look at the whole system so that you can explain the component parts within the system. By using it on public management you can see things in a more holistic fashion.) Another interesting area is social network theory, which involves looking at how various elements interact and how networks operate, so in the case of civil servants or local government you would map out the interconnections between the various actors concerned. We still have the traditional methods of data collection such as surveys and interviews, but often they are embedded in one of these more ethnographic approaches.

General publishing issues

What key pieces of advice would you give to young researchers about how to get published?

The first thing to do is to find out about the house style of the journal, what kind of articles it carries, and consider whether their particular approach or data or argument would fit. You would be amazed at the number of articles that you get that are completely not for this journal.  For example, I had one a few weeks ago which had nothing to do with public management at all except that they had done their research in a hospital, but it was all about employee practices so it should have been sent to an HR or industrial relations journal. We send out notes to authors as well advising that the article should have a logical argument, be clear, well written, well structured, have valid data, draw robust conclusions, etc., etc.

I’m also put off if I get an article that has very old references which implies that the person hasn’t really done an up-to-date literature review, it’s probably a PhD thesis that’s five years out of date. I have also had a few articles submitted in the last couple of years that have been very UK specific, and I send them back to the author and ask them to frame the article so that it’s readable for an international audience. So readability, originality, credible data, and possessing an international dimension are all very significant requirements.

Do you give your reviewers particular guidelines as to what to look for in articles, if so, what are these?

First I look at it for its quality, and if it is not of good quality or within the aims of the journal we reject it straight away. If there is something in it of value I read it and then I choose two reviewers and send it out for anonymous and blind reviewing. We give the reviewer six to eight weeks to respond, asking them to suggest someone else if they cannot do it in that time. We have a very good weekly tracking system, and follow up on people who have not responded within the allotted time, asking them to return the article so that we can send it to someone else, all the time informing the author of progress. We also send out the reviewer a long checklist of our criteria:  is it within our aims, is it readable, is it logically argued, does it have some originality? Finally we ask the reviewer to let us know whether we should reject out of hand or whether it is a case of major revisions, minor revisions or can we publish it without any revisions which is very rare. 

We also provide a proforma for comments for myself and for the author. Some reviewers can be hyper-critical, so I may have to be a little more diplomatic in conveying the comments to authors. Sometimes the reviewers are quite happy for the author to see their comments, warts and all, but it can also be difficult especially for a new author to get a dismissive review, so I have to use my judgement on that one. We aim to be as constructive as possible, and to encourage authors to make the necessary corrections. We give the author a couple of months to revise the paper and return it to us for further review.

If the paper is rejected I ask Neil to send out a letter saying either thank you very much for your support for the journal, this is a good paper but not for this journal, or, this paper had so many weaknesses in this instance we really do not feel that we can publish but we wish you well in your endeavours. Even if it is a rejection I tend to send the review to the author and say our reviews have been critical, however for constructive reasons you might want to improve it and submit it to another journal (I often suggest one). 

So the process from the submission of the original article to getting the reviews and the revisions can take up to 12 months or longer.

Are there any particular quality issues that crop up again and again with submitted articles, such as lack of structure or poor writing style?

The use of structured abstracts is very useful here, and so if we get an article that does not have a structured abstract we send it straight back and refer them to the guidance. If you get the abstract right this can guide the structure of the article. Some other chestnuts are not basing assertions on empirical data, paragraphs not hanging together well, or coming up with new things in the conclusion that have not been raised earlier in the piece. I have to say that the quality of the articles has improved considerably, we have some really good pieces sent in which makes my life a lot easier. We do reject quite a few articles but it tends not to be because of poor writing but because they are not suitable for the journal.

What do you most, and least, like about being an editor?

I love being an editor because you work with such really good people – authors,  reviewers, and Neil, my administrator. I love getting articles from all over the world and seeing how different people address different public management issues, it sparks ideas for my own work. 

What are the bad things? The amount of work … it’s overworked and underpaid! You have got to love your subject because you are not paid for the amount of work that you do. The scale of work means that you have to be highly organized to keep on top of it, because you are getting articles all the time, so you have to prioritize. I also have a day job which involves research and teaching. I often wonder how people who are not highly organized do it because I am very organized and sometimes I get swamped by the whole thing. Being a journal editor is definitely not for the faint-hearted. But I am also lucky enough to have an editor’s travel budget so I can go to at least two conferences a year which is great because I can sell the journal and meet people. I’ve met most of my EAB members that way, people I’ve invited to join the editorial board because I knew they would be in a particular country and had a love of the subject. 

What is your view of the fact that quality in academic publishing is now being seen by many academic institutions as getting published in an ISI [Thomson Scientific] Citation Index listed journal?

I think it’s a fait accompli, and one of the measures used to judge the quality of your journal. It only applies in the UK and the USA; the Europeans are not so obsessed by citations and it’s not the reason why I became an academic! I know that my journal is of high quality from the quality of the papers, the people I speak to, and those who contact me. Many of the journals that are rated highly in terms of citation index carry some impenetrable articles that may only be of use to a very small group of people, and this detracts from good quality research reaching a wider audience.

Aiming for ISI listing is important, but there is a UK obsession with citations. I personally think that focusing on citations reduces a lot of the richness of the practitioner input, and obsession with citation indexes can be counterproductive. But that’s where many UK business schools and other University departments are focusing their efforts at present.  

And finally...

IJPSM has been going now for 19 years.  What are some of the more striking ways in which public sector management has changed in that time?

I think that managing public resources is about trying to make efficiency gains within resource constraints.  This approach has escalated in past 19 years as well as other changes in the way of managing more innovatively. When the journal was set up in the 1980s, privatization was a key issue for public managers, but they now have to manage resources much more comprehensively, and entrepreneurially than in the past. Entrepreneurialism, complexity, managing across and beyond organisational boundaries, managing stakeholder relationships and improving quality:all these things are significant and that is what makes it such a fascinating area of enquiry.

Books by Joyce Liddle

Diamond, J. & Liddle, J. (2005), The Management of Regeneration: Choices, Challenges and Dilemmas, Routledge, London.

Diamond, J., Liddle, J., Southern, A. and Townsend, A.R. (2006), Managing the City, Routledge, London.

Diamond, J., Levesque, P., Liddle, J. and Southern,  A. (forthcoming), International Approaches to Managing Regeneration (working title), Routledge, London.

Diamond, J. and Liddle, J. (forthcoming), Managing Knowledge in the Public Sector (working title), Routledge, London.

Publisher's note

Dr Joyce Liddle was interviewed in March 2006.

Visit the information page for: International Journal of Public Sector Management