Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Civil Service Reform: Misdiagnosing the Patient

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Civil Service Reform: Misdiagnosing the Patient

Article excerpt

The political leadership that came into office in the 1980s in many Anglo-American style democracies sought to perform radical surgery on the civil service. Indeed, some argue that the decade was a watershed period in the development of Western bureaucracies (Levine, 1986, p. 195). Margaret Thatcher was first off the mark having been elected in 1979, and she was to play a leadership role not only at home but abroad where she pushed heads of other governments to reform their civil service. Politicians like President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney hardly needed convincing. Reagan made clear his views on civil service when he declared that he had "come to Washington to drain the swamp" (Bok, 1989, p. 49). For his part, Brian Mulroney pledged to give "pink slips and running shoes" to bureaucrats if he was elected to office (Zussman, 1986, p. 255). As the decade wore on, left of center politicians also got into the act. Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, for example, decided to reform his civil service along the lines of the Thatcher reforms in Britain (Hood, 1990, pp. 205-214).

The purpose of this article is to review what the political leadership said it wanted to accomplish, review some of the measures introduced, and then assess the results of the reforms. We argue that the political leadership not only misdiagnosed the patient but also applied the wrong remedy. The focus was on strengthening the management capacity of public servants while at the same time attenuating their policy advisory role. The result has been that government departments and agencies that were well managed in the 1970s are now still well managed but the reforms have had limited impact on those that traditionally were not well managed (i.e., departments and agencies having a high policy content as opposed to carrying out routine tasks). In addition, the new order for public administration is much more challenging and less deferential to expertise. It requires a strong capacity to adapt and to deal with a better informed media, policy communities, interest groups, and the public. In short, governments now require a strong policy advisory capacity, precisely what the political leadership of the 1980s decided to ignore or even downplay.

The Background

The new political agenda had various labels, including Thatcherism, Reaganomics, the New Right, and Neo Conservatism. The agenda spoke to a number of issues but particularly to the role of government in society, and it had many targets, including government as an economic manager. The civil service was singed out for criticism. The rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney took full flight when speaking about the civil service. They all regarded it as part of the "problem" and none tried to attenuate their obvious dislike for the institution, even in public speeches. Their rhetoric did not die down once they were elected, as it had with previous leaders. Indeed, they, in particular Thatcher, continued to speak about the need to "deprivilege the civil service" and repeatedly claimed that they would not let themselves be "educated' by senior permanent officials (Hennessy, 1989, p. 628).

The civil service stood accused of many things--of being bloated, expensive, unresponsive, a creation of routine deliberately resistant to changes, and largely incapable of dealing with new challenges. By the mid-1980s, it became clear that there was a remarkable degree of consensus among the political leadership of various countries about what was wrong about the civil service. This was true even in cases where important differences in the machinery of government existed, as in the case of Britain and the United States. Although the rhetoric was not always dear on what needed to be fixed and how it ought to be fixed, one could discern a number of key messages. First, the civil service as an institution needed to rethink its ways. The political leadership spoke at length about the need to place new emphasis on clients and less on process, on efficiency and value for money and less on rules, regulations, and input costs. …

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