Public Authority

… a core concept in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Mark Moore (reference below) defines public authority as “the coercive power of the state.” (p. 54)

The costs of using public authority

Moore describes the costs of using public authority as follows:

“The fact that public agencies impose duties on clients as well as deliver services reminds us that they often use more than money in the pursuit of their mission; they also at least sometimes – maybe often, maybe always – use the coercive power of the state. Sometimes they use that authority directly to require individuals to contribute to public purposes (pay your taxes, go to school). Other times they use it to prohibit individuals and organizations from acting against the public’s interests (do not steal, do not pollute, do not neglect and abuse your children). Public agencies also use authority to ration access to public goods and services and to ensure that public benefits and services go only to those the public intended to help.

“If these uses of authority produce the desired results – if they cause individuals to do good things for themselves and society and to resist doing bad things, and if they ensure that public benefits go only to those who are entitled to them – then the use of authority creates some public value. But the use of public authority should not be considered free of charge. A free society should be reluctant to use the authority of the state casually, for every time the state uses its authority, some of the freedom or privacy available to individuals in charting their own course in life is lost. If it is possible to produce the same gross public value using less state authority, doing so guarantees an increase in net public value. For these reasons, agency uses of public authority have to be reckoned as a cost in the public value accounting scheme.

“What is more, financial costs are associated with every use of state authority. Rules require enforcement agents and courts of appeal. Regulations require paperwork and people to fi le that paperwork.” (p. 54-55)

The fear of public authority

Terry Moe goes farther, suggesting that citizens have a right to be fearful of the exercise of public authority:

“The upshot is that citizens commonly have two enemies to fear in politics: other citizens (with opposing interests) and public officials. Other citizens would be feared, I should point out, even if these political control problems were somehow eliminated. Because the citizenry as a whole is heterogeneous, different public officials would be (perfectly) responsive to different social interests, and the various factions in society would still have to worry about opposing interests gaining access to public authority and making undesirable laws. This is just the familiar problem of winners and losers. It does not go away if political control is perfect. It is inherent in public authority. When control is imperfect, however, the political threats to citizens may be considerably greater. For then they have to worry not only about opposing factions, but also about public officials – including the ones that are supposedly their allies and representatives. As long as public officials have a measure of autonomy, they will sometimes pursue their own interests expense of their constituents’. Moreover, they are particularly dangerous, because they have the force of law behind everything they do. Citizens have good reason to fear their public officials. They have good reason, in other words, to fear the “state.” (p. 234)


Mark H. Moore (2013), Recognizing Public Value, Harvard University Press.

Terry M Moe (1990), Political Institutions: The Neglected Side of the Story, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organizations, vol. 6: 221, Harvard University Press.

Atlas topic and subject

Strategic Management in the Public Sector (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 19 September 2017.

Image: Lexplay, at, accessed 14 September 2017.