Play It Again, Sam; It's Still Not Right: Searching for the Right Notes in Administrative Reform

By Ingraham, Patricia W. | Public Administration Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Play It Again, Sam; It's Still Not Right: Searching for the Right Notes in Administrative Reform


Ingraham, Patricia W., Public Administration Review


The 1980s and 1990s have been marked by a recurrent and remarkably similar set of administrative reforms in western industrial democracies. Surprisingly -- or perhaps not, given their dominance in international organizations -- western reform solutions have found their way onto the reform agendas of nations in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The simple frequency of the reform efforts raises one set of questions -- the commonality of the reform ideas across national boundaries. The levels of economic development and stress and the scope of government raise others.

The experience of the American federal government clearly reflects the continuing nature of reform. As James Carroll noted, "If there is a constant in American public administration, it is the search for change" (Carroll, 1996, 245). The lack of comfort with a strong public bureaucracy and the long-term inability to define the proper role of bureaucratic institutions in democratic government have plagued the United States since its founding (Wilson, 1887; Rohr, 1986; Ingraham, 1995). The assumptions of the American brand of democracy -- in Dwight Waldo's words, "the fact that democratic ideology and institutions grew up in association with belief in an underlying harmony, a belief that things need not be `managed,' but will run themselves" (1948, 101) -- necessarily collide with the reality of large public institutions, which not only create a management imperative, but serve as an inevitable locus of power. If the institutions are not only unnecessary but assume an inappropriate power and policy role, they are doubly discordant. Still, the idea of a permanent public service that embodies democratic values and broader good is difficult to discard.

The more recent emergence of essentially the same problem in parliamentary democracies is summarized in Aucoin's (1995) account of the rise of a different set of theories with which to anchor expectations for government performance and reform. Describing the central role that agency and public choice theories have played in defining the need for reform in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, Aucoin argues:

The principal intellectual challenge to the idea of career

public service as a condition of good government came

from public choice theory.... The closed nature of the

administrative state in each of the four Westminster

systems could not but invite suspicions about self-serving

bureaucrats and bureaucratic abuses of power.... Agency

theory is as equally persuasive as public choice theory in

explaining why agents are so powerful in relation to their

principals... Agents have an inherent advantage over their

principals due to their knowledge and practical experience

in the application of knowledge (Aucoin, 1995, 35-36).

The theoretical and intellectual arguments for reform were supplemented and strengthened by very real practical considerations. Economic constraints mandated that the size and cost of government be reconsidered. Intensely ideological politics captured citizen dissatisfaction and translated it into demands for leaner, more focused, more responsive government. The same citizen dissatisfaction reflected a general lack of trust in, and misunderstanding of, all government officials and institutions if the services they provided did not serve citizens directly or clearly. This is a complicated mix of problems, problem definition, incentives for change, and potential solutions. From the cacophony, however, a relatively coherent set of reform ideas emerged. These ideas diffused rapidly from one national reform agenda to another. To be sure, the ideas were put together in different ways and were adopted in different sequences. They also had different outcomes. In many ways, however, the commonalities are more important than the differences. As a result, the reform ideas and models lend themselves to a "lessons learned" analysis and to preliminary evaluation.

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Play It Again, Sam; It's Still Not Right: Searching for the Right Notes in Administrative Reform
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