This article presents evidence from a case study of the implementation of a new management development system in a major local authority. The adoption of a competence‐based management system is described, illustrating that there was great scope for adopting an explicitly ‘generic’ and managerialist model of management. It is clear that such a managerialist framework was not adopted. The explanation for the retention of a distinctive public management identity lies in the influence of both objective and subjective factors, the nature of the management role in local government, and the influence of the stakeholders who participated in creating the programme. The evolution of management development was an opportunity to identify and negotiate a new consensus about distinctive public management in local government. The implications of this analysis for evaluating the robustness of public sector management in the past and present, and lessons for the future evolution of management in local government, are considered.