Approaches to bureaucracy – A timeline

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I was in charge of the strategy for the city of Ghent for 14 years – so I know hands-on that the context, organisational philosophy and culture in which a civil servant works has a large impact on the way work is being done. There I moulded a government organization from a divided short-term view to an integrated long-term focus by doing projects, by making decisions and giving advice to the political teams. 

To say this was not easy, would be an understatement. Some see themes and issues such as strategy, finance, human resources, logistics as essential but separate tasks. I beg to differ.  Above all I discovered that one of the most crucial elements are the operating context, the organisational philosophy and the culture. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? And in a local government, the level of warmth shapes how clear things are, the extent of trust and an awareness of what is around including society as a whole. 

If we want a warm society, we need warm and people-oriented cities and towns. Here is a first attempt to characterise warmness and coldness in cities:

Warm cities and towns need warm governments with committed and motivated civil servants. And that is only possible when government organisations are warm and people-oriented, and space for creativity is given to those who work on finding solutions in the public interest.  

Public administration theory gives us an insight into the evolution of the way public administrations are run. The classic bureaucracy of Max Weber (and Franz Kafka) is the starting point. The ‘New Public Management’ that has been growing since the 1980s was countered by ‘New Public Governance’/’New Public Service’/’Digital-era Governance’ from the 1990s onwards. The most recent evolution speaks of ‘Open Governance’ and open government. 

The evolution from Weber’s bureaucracy to Open Governance does not follow a linear path. The time frames in which these theoretical models have been or could be adopted by governments are overlapping and characteristics of each of the models can be found in one and the same government organisation. Politicians and civil servants are in most cases not even aware of the fact that they are operating within or implementing a certain administration or public management theory. Nevertheless, the underlying philosophy of the governance model that is (sometimes unconsciously) used in a government organisation does have an enormous impact on the perception of government by the outside world (citizens, business and civil society alike) and by the civil servants of the inside world.

Weber’s Bureaucracy warnings

German sociologist Max Weber described bureaucracy in an essay that was published posthumously in 1922 in his magnum opus ‘Economy and Society’ as the most efficient and rational way to organize human activity. He also argued that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favouritism. The classical hierarchical governmental organization in continental Europe is therefore often called the government after the Weberian model. 

According to Weber, a bureaucracy has the following characteristics:

  • Task specialization and division of labour: every employee does what he or she is good at and knows exactly what is expected of him or her. Every employee has dedicated tasks that are completed routinely. Employees are given the opportunity to further specialize in their domain, but are discouraged from touching upon other domains.
  • Hierarchical organization and a tight chain of command: each management tier only has control over its own staff and their performance, and is supervised by the higher management tier. Hierarchy is absolute.
  • Objective selection and promotion: formal/mechanistic and based on objective criteria of training, education and technical qualifications acquired, and does not allow subjective judgement.
  • Formal rules and procedures: necessary to ensure uniformity and predictability. Tasks are stable and formal and are laid down as procedures by senior management.
  • Impersonal Relationships: regulations and procedures lead to impersonal relationships and distance between employees. Decisions are made purely on the basis of rational factors.

Weber himself warned of the dangers of the bureaucratic approach. According to him, it was a threat to personal freedoms, and could lead to “a polar night full of icy darkness”. The increasing rationalization of human life holds the individual in a soulless iron cage of bureaucratic, rule-driven and rational control. He also warned against excessive power for bureaucrats who are not controlled by politicians.

New Public Management, even when no longer “new”

The government management philosophy NPM, developed by British and Australian academics, was first introduced in the UK by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to overcome the drawbacks of bureaucracy, which was perceived as too impersonal towards the citizen and too inefficient. In short, NPM is the set of changes in government management policy through the introduction of methods from the private sector. The basic values of NPM are economy, efficiency and effectiveness. A government organisation is run as a company. The citizen is regarded as a customer of the government – and treated as such – and public services are treated as products. 

Figure 1 Doctrine of New Public Management (Hood, 1994)

Although NPM was mainly introduced in the Anglo-Saxon world, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, under the influence of neoliberalism, elements of managerial thinking, equating a government with a company, have also penetrated the rest of Europe and many parts of the world, albeit not in a complete and orthodox form. Malaysia and Singapore for instance, have adopted many of the characteristics of NPM to create an essentially technocratic variety of government.

New Public Governance, a new attempt

New Public Governance (NPG) tries to restore some of the dysfunctions of NPM. NPG starts from network theory and thus the proposition that the government does not have an absolute monopoly of power and cooperates on an equal basis with other forces in society, such as other public organizations, companies, civil society and citizens. In this way synergies can be achieved; economies of scale can occur and costs can be saved. Policy issues are often very complex and require the commitment of different actors. In addition to their interests, these actors also have extra capacity and knowledge to reach certain solutions. NPM involves horizontal cooperation, whereby the actors in the network benefit by making use of the knowledge and capacity of others.

NPG responds to a turning point in society, namely the evolution towards a network society (Manuel Castells, 1996). According to Castells, society is a network of different actors, of which the government is one. The government is no longer above society but in the middle of the network. In the network, policy networks arise around complex policy issues with actors who are obliged to cooperate with each other in order to come to solutions. In order to realize the policy, the actors, including the government, will share information, goals and means with each other.

Figure 2 New Public Governance (Osborne, 2006)

NPG attaches more importance to the process than to the product, as was the case with NPM. NPG requires a change in mindset, both by the government itself and by the civil servants. Objectives, targets and indicators are more difficult to set in advance due to the complexity of the collaboration, or will have to be flexible enough to respond to changes in the course of the process. Collaboration also takes more time than defining the frameworks and the approach top-down. A constant dialogue is necessary. And the government cannot just focus on cost savings and performance in this way of working. The government must also succeed in acting as an equal partner in the network.

Under NPM, civil servants themselves are responsible for proposing and implementing the solutions. Now they have to share that responsibility with other actors.  Their motivation also lies elsewhere. Where civil servants under the Weberian model were mainly driven by a sense of duty, under NPM by their own personal interests, NPG requires civil servants motivated by intrinsic factors and the general interest.

 Classic BureaucracyNew Public ManagementNew Public Governance
Basic view of public organisations and employeesPublic organisations are authorities and their employees are full-time professionals who follow explicit rules and heed the call of public dutyPublic organisations are service providers, and opportunistic behaviour of their employees must be curtailed through control-based performance management Public organisations are arenas for co-production and the public service motivation of the employee must be enhanced through a more trust-based leadership and management
Problem diagnosisPrevious public systems have not delivered a stable, predictable and rights-based service Public bureaucracies with monopoly status tend to produce services that are poor and costlyThere is a growing number of problems which are seen as wicked and unruly and the fiscal constraints are dire
SolutionPublic bureaucracies based on hierarchy, specialisation, explicit rules and legal-rational authorityDeregulation, public-private competition and introduction of performance incentivesPublic-private collaboration through networks, partnerships and relational contracting
Overall goalEnsure legality, transparency and equity in public decision making and service provisionEnhance efficiency through persistent efforts to rationalise and cut slackEnhance efficiency, quality and the capacity for public problem-solving through collaboration and innovation
Role of politiciansSovereign decision makers who exercise authority and produce laws and rulesBoard of directors steering the administration by defining overall goals, targets and budget framesPolitical leaders of the political community who define problems and goals and develop new solutions
Role of managersAdministration of rules and resources, while focusing on legality and equityStrategic management of their department or agency while focusing on inputs and outputsLeaders of intra- and inter-organisational collaboration while focusing on processes and results
Role of employeesIncorruptible rule-followers who aim to treat citizens fairly and equally and are driven by a feeling of public dutyService providers who aim to satisfy the needs of the customers and are predominantly driven by extrinsic motivationService facilitators who aim to discover and mobilise the citizens’ resources and are predominantly driven by intrinsic motivation
Role of firms and NGOsPressure groups influencing government from the outsideContracted providers of public servicesPartners in negotiated co-creation of public solutions
Role of citizensBearers of legal rights, but subjected to public authorityCustomers making rational choices between different service providersActive citizens engaged in co-production, co-creation and co-governance of public services
Figure 3 Comparison between Classic Bureaucracy, NPM and NPG. (Adapted from Torfing and Triantafillou, 2016)

New Public Service: citizens at the centre

An approach to NPG is the New Public Service (NPS) model. NPS starts from the premise that the focus of public service should be the citizen, the community and civil society. The main role of civil servants is to help citizens formulate their needs and to serve their shared interests, rather than to control and direct society. NPS is very much averse to NPM’s business-like thinking and to treating citizens as customers. The NPS approach also differs from the old bureaucracy in which citizens are seen as rather passive recipients of top-down policy and government services.

NPS is based on the theory of democracy, which is based on the notion of active citizenship and social involvement. Citizens transcend self-interest and pursue a broader general interest. The role of civil servants in this is to facilitate citizen participation in the search for solutions to social problems. Public managers need to develop skills that go far beyond the competences needed to control and steer, but rather relate to connecting, mediating, negotiating and seeking solutions to problems, in partnership with citizens.

Governments need to be open and accessible, responsive and accountable and focused on serving citizens, in order to make it possible to respond to wider societal needs and pursue the common good.

Figure 4 Comparing Perspectives: Old Public Administration, New Public Management, and New Public Service (Denhardt and Denhardt, 2000)

Digital-era Governance

Digital-era governance (DEG) adds an element to NPG, namely digitization. According to Patrick Dunleavy and Helen Margetts who launched the concept in 2006, the rise of digital technology and the internet have a major impact on the relationship between government and citizens and civil society. And not only on a technological level, but also in terms of behavioural change, cognitive, organisational, political and cultural change. The internet allows citizens to react faster and more adequately than public organisations can. 

The effects of the digital transformation on government organisations are twofold: on an individual level, it leads to a do-it-yourself administration in which citizens want to use public services just as they do with internet banking. On a collective level, citizens co-create public services using the government as a platform for ideas for co-creating policy. To make this possible, however, it is necessary for the digital environment used by citizens and the government to be compatible with each other. DEG and its more advanced successor, Essentially Digital Governance (EDGe), have emerged as ways to make this possible.

Little is described about the impact of DEG and EDGe on the role and position of civil servants. That there is an impact is not denied in the literature, but there seems to be several options: a big society scenario or an open government scenario both fit into the model, and each has a different outcome for the role of the civil servant.

Open Governance

The open governance concept builds upon the evolution of the use of technology in the government context. The e-government phase simply brought ICT into the existing government system without changing anything to the structures and ways of working. In the transformational phase (t-government), structures and processes were transformed by ICT and other drivers so that government became more efficient and effective. Lean government (l-government) came into existence as a response to the financial crisis of 2008, aiming at continuously improving service delivery by cutting out ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’ in processes.

Open government (o-government) starts from the growing attention of government for long-term global challenges that the world is facing and the necessity to tackle those challenges in collaboration with non-public actors. Public value is created by opening up government data and other digital assets, by opening up (digital or digitally enabled) public services and by creating the possibility for (digital) open engagement by every societal actor in governmental activities. 

Figure 5 Four waves of e-government evolution. Adapted from Janssen and Estevez (2013)

Open governance is a concept that moves beyond the traditional notion of government and describes the relationships between leaders, public institutions and citizens, their interaction and decision-making processes. Open governance is comprised of three main elements – rights, institutions and policies, and tools.

The open governance system also encompasses open structures, open organisations and open processes. It involves breaking down, or at least cooperation between, silos across different administrations, levels and locations, through pooling and sharing infrastructures, processes, data, assets, resources, content and tools. It implies forms of federation and coordination which balance centralisation and decentralisation as well as top-down and bottom-up approaches. This involves huge challenges technically, politically, legally, organisationally and in terms of working cultures. 

In short: open governance cannot work without a creative bureaucracy.

Figure 6 Open governance system (Millard, 2015)

The Creative Bureaucracy

A bureaucratic government organisation is by definition cold. But it does not have to be so. Procedures and rules come first; impersonality is an asset. The managerial thinking of New Public Management has brought little warmth to our governments. Rules and procedures have been replaced by targets, KPIs, indicators and individual incentives. The changes brought about by New Public Governance, as well as the opportunities offered by the digital technological evolution, give hope for a more people-oriented approach that stimulates creativity and new solutions. 

We are starting a movement for civil servants and with civil servants. The main aim is to give their creativity a chance by ensuring their work environment makes this possible. A system change is needed to achieve a government organisation that gets more out of the potential that today remains hidden in its own ranks. And this is important for the whole of society as this change will allow us all to better collaborate with governments in order to find creative solutions to local and global societal challenges. 

One Reply to “Approaches to bureaucracy – A timeline”

  1. A brilliant synopsis of the tensions of capital and administrative architecture but agency and direction of causality unclear

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