Rebuilding the Village? Or is It a Merely a Camp Ground?




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Rebuilding the Village? Or is It a Merely a Camp Ground?


B. Guy Peters

Department of Political Science

University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA


Paper prepared for NISPACE Conference, Riga, Latvia, May, 2001


The relationship between politicians and administrators is crucial for the success of governments. That is a rather bold statement for the usually muted world of the social sciences, but is also almost certainly true. This linkage involves, on the one hand, the political sphere of government that, in most democratic political arrangements, is supposed to animate policymaking and establish the agenda for public sector action. On the other side of this bargain are public administrators who are meant to provide continuity, expertise and loyalty in both the advice they provide to politicians and the service they provide when implementing public policies. In the traditional conception of this relationship (see for example Schaffer, 1973) civil servants (or however the administrators may be styled) accept their seemingly inferior position in government in return for a secure career, interesting opportunities to shape policies, and protection against personal blame for policy failures.

The administrative reforms of the past several decades in most industrialized democracies have put this traditional bargain in peril. In these various versions of reform both public administrators and politicians have been expected to cede some of the advantages that they may have enjoyed under the previous arrangements (Hood, 2000). The first round of changes in the relationship during the 1980s were particularly one-sided. Politicians from the political right in office during thus period sought to reduce the privileges and influence over decisions that characterized the more traditional pattern of relationships between politicians and administrators. So, for example, the Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney governments, among others, "burned the village" that had joined politicians and bureaucrats in their joint pursuit of governance (Peters, 1985; Savoie, 1994). This initial attack on the position of the civil service in governing was extremely partisan and rather unsystematic, but it did undermine the civil service and also raised the question in many people's minds concerning just what was the appropriate role of the career public service in government.

The politicized attack on the bureaucracy was followed by a more technocratic approach to change, involving implementing many of the concepts contained within the "New Public Management". In some ways these reforms also constituted an attack, if a less explicit one, on the role of the career public service in governing. This more covert assault came about through the development of managerialist replacements for the conventional legalistic doctrines of public administration. That is, the legalism and hierarchical character of public administration was argued to produce inefficiency in the production of public services, and to ensure self-serving bureaucrats had their personal rights and privileges. These characteristics are argued to have advantaged bureaucracy to the detriment of services provided to clients, and at the cost of higher taxes for ordinary citizens (Niskanen, 1974).

Public administrators have tended to lose particularly their role as policy advisors, for many senior public servants the most treasured portion of their activity in government. For example, many politicians felt that they could not count on the advice of career public servants and sought to create their own alternative structures for policy advice (see Boston, 1994). This greater political involvement in the policy process, and the diminution of the role of the public bureaucracy was practiced initially by politicians on the right, but after the center left returned to power in the 1990s they too found it desirable to have their own people in policy advice positions. So, for example, the Prime Minister's Office in Britain has expanded under Blair to an extent not seen under the previous Conservative governments that also were presumably presidential (Foley, 1993)

The managerialist revolution in public administration was not, however, without its costs for politicians. By its very name it is clear that these changes were intended to promote public management, and with that to place the manager at the center of the process of making and administering public policies. Thus, some of these managerialist reforms, e.g. the dissemination of agencies and other devolved forms of administering programs, were designed rather explicitly (at least in numerous instances) to prevent politicians from meddling excessively in the administration of policies. Similarly, the emphasis on the role of managers and the use of catch phrases such as "let the managers manage" extolled the central role of professional public managers in the policy process. That elevation of the manager tended, in turn, to reduce politicians as amateurish interlopers into the professional and rather difficult task of making programs function efficiently and effectively.

These market-oriented managerialist reforms were most clearly manifested in the Westminster democracies, but have had some manifestations in almost all industrialized political systems. Even in the less developed systems pressures from international organizations and consulting firms have place pressures on governments to change the manner in which they administer their policies and manage their personnel. So, for example, the exclusive career of civil servants has become opened to outside competition, although that has also deprived politicians of a great deal of expertise and experience that might benefit them when attempting to place their programs into effect. In addition, the emphasis on empowering managers has as one consequence some diminution of traditional mechanics of ministerial accountability for the actions of the public bureaucracy.

In many ways the most important result of these reforms has been to highlight the contradictions that exist in the role assigned to public administrators in conventional theories of governing (Savoie, forthcoming). On the one hand public administrators are meant to skilled administrators, capable of managing large organization and also filled with policy ideas, while at the same time are expected to be meekly subservient to their political "masters" who may have little of the administrators' capacity to perform the job of governing. Likewise, those public servants are expected to be politically neutral yet be simultaneously politically sensitive, and perhaps increasingly sensitive, given complaints that politicians have been advancing about the service they receive from the civil service. These seemingly conflicting demands make what is inherently a difficult job all the more difficult.

The list of types and locales of change implemented in public management during the past several decades could be extended. The basic point is, however, that the traditional practice and ethos of governing has been altered substantially. Further, these structural and procedural have had both intended and unintended consequences for politicians and administrators. There have been some paradoxical elements to the changes, with attempts to decentralize in some instances producing more centralized policy regimens. Likewise, emphasizing the role of management has made some political leaders press for more direct political controls over policy and over public organizations, that being seen as the only means of exercising control when many of the traditional levels of control have been eliminated (Maor, 1999). Thus, we need to examine rather carefully what has happened to the traditional village in government as a result of the numerous and significant changes in public management.

Understanding Politicians and Bureaucrats and Their Linkage

Although crucial for governing, this linkage between politicians and bureaucrats is often not adequately understood or conceptualized. A good deal of the literature on this topic still assumes the formal, constitutional position that the bureaucracy must be "on tap", rather than on top even though there have been numerous changes in the way in which these participants in governing work together (or not) in that process (see Plowden, 1994; Peters and Pierre, 2001). There have been equally exaggerated claims running in the opposite direction, with some practitioners and scholars arguing that the old system of public administration has been destroyed forever by both the political changes of the past several decades and the implementation of managerialism. Here there is a second division with some participants in the discussion lauding these changes and others deploring them. Both of these extremes are almost certainly incorrect, but each also does contain some element of truth. The system has changed but yet there are many elements of the old system that do persist.

In terms of the relationships between public servants and their (nominal) political masters the conventional wisdom was that "village" to which we have already alluded several times. In this relationship public administrators and politicians became mutually cooperative elites with a primary interest in maintaining the State and promote its efficient and appropriate functioning. These two groups tended to cooperate in maintaining that functioning regardless of the political complexion of the government of the day. So, for example, the concerns that Donald Kingsley (1944) expressed about the capacity of a (small c) conservative civil service to administer the socialist program of the British Labour Party elected after World War II provided to be totally unfounded, as that transformation was implemented with few problems attributable to the actions of the administration.

In some ways that commonality of purpose and values should be expected, given that in the traditional mode of governing they really were the same elite--common social and educational backgrounds, similar education and similar life experiences. Further, the majority of the individuals involved in government--politicians perhaps to a lesser extent than administrators-- could expect to spend their entire careers within government, so that they had an interest in maintaining the institutions and procedures in good working order. Likewise, those political elites outside government had little or no incentive to attack the existing arrangements, given that they expected at some time in the not to distant future to inherit the apparatus and have to manage it. These elites therefore had a strong incentive to keep the system of public policy as proficient and effective as possible.

A Continuum of Relationships

As pervasive as the image of the village has become in the analysis of the relationships between civil servants and politicians, there are a number of other useful characterizations of that relationship (Peters, 1986). In an earlier article on this subject I argued that there was a continuum of possible relationships among these actors. At one end was the traditional notion of domination of policy by politicians, the political world familiar to Woodrow Wilson and Max Weber. In this conception of interactions at the center of government administrators accept their role as subordinate actors in the policy process, and also are willing to accept the role as implementors of the decisions made by those political leaders. This represents a legalistic, formal pattern of relationships that offers little possibility of a creative interaction among the participants. Indeed, this pattern of relationship tends to stifle creativity (at least on the part of bureaucracy) in favor of rather simplistic obedience to the wishes of the politicians. This model may never have existed in its full sense in any real administrative system but it is a normative standard, at least for some scholars and many practitioners.

At the other extreme there is a model arguing that de facto the bureaucracy has won, and that governments have come to be dominated by their career public servants. Although there is rarely any declaration of victory or domination by the bureaucracy, a number of elements have been used to bolster the argument that the shift has occurred. The most fundamental argument advanced is that government has become too complex for politicians to handle effectively, given that many or most of them do not have any substantial training in the subject about which they will be called upon to make policy decisions. This lack of expertise means that civil servants will shape policy either through advising their ministers, or may have the authority to make those decisions directly delegated to them (Baldwin, 1995; Page, 2001). In addition to their lack of substantive knowledge, politicians are also birds of passage so that they rarely have time to master subject matters to any appreciable degree, or to follow through on decisions. This characteristic of the political class in many societies again places the public service in the central position in exercising governance.

There are few, if any, cases in which the bureaucracy might said to have been accepted in a governing role. This description of the relative positions of politicians and civil servants is therefore often more of a political statement than it is an empirical statement. Thus, politicians coming into office and finding themselves frustrated in reaching their policy goals may blame the bureaucracy rather than simply accepting the complexity of the task with which they have been charged. This then leads to charges that the bureaucracy has subtly but effectively usurped the rightful governing role of those elected officials, and tat something must be done.

The structures and procedures of government will make domination by bureaucrats a more or less plausible description of the reality. For example, coalition governments make it more difficult for politicians to exercise control over bureaucracy than having majority governments. In the case of extreme multi-party democracies (Sartori, 1966) the bureaucracy may at times be the only viable force for decision-making and stability. As well as being influenced by the level of devolution within government itself, the capacity of the bureaucracy to influence policy may also be influenced by the more general level of disaggregation in the implementation structures of government. More decentralized systems of implementation, such as those found in the Scandinavian countries provide some advantages for bureaucrats not found in more integrated administrative systems. In addition, governments that have a more professional, expert bureaucracy that has been institutionalized over a long period will be more capable of exercising control, or be seen to be exercising control, that less well institutionalized bureaucracies.

In between the two extremes can be found several intermediate patterns of interaction between politicians and administrators. All of the intermediate patterns imply less of a "zero-sum" game between the participants in this process. For example, as already noted in the village life model there is strong cooperation rather than conflict in the interactions of the "players", each seeing that their most important goals will be achieved by working together rather than attempting to "win" the game. In light of recent changes in interactions between these actors (see below; also, Rouban, 1998) it is important to remember that the agreement on basic values of governing within the village extended well beyond the government of the day, so that the political element in these relationships was of relatively little importance. The "we feeling" within government did not depend upon being members of the same political party but rather was a deeper commitment to government as a fundamental social process.

A second intermediate pattern has some of the features of village life but also has a more disaggregated sense of the governance task. While the village life conception conceptualizes government as a single entity, the "Functional Village Life" model considers government divided among a number of competing policy sectors. Within each sector there may be a good deal of integration but across those policy areas there may be more competition than cooperation. The competition is over budgets and over control of the policy area. The idea here is that government organizations tend to reflect societal interests and that organizations in the public sector, even if they are deemed to represent the interests of the public as a whole, also represent the interests of their immediate constituents. For example, in the United States, the structure of agencies and departments is very much influenced by the power of interest groups, and reinforced by a committee structure in Congress so that the US may have many governments, but often seemingly no single government (Rose, 1980; Seidman, 199x). Even if there is no direct linkage with a powerful interest group,
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