Social Capital Theory and Administrative Reform: Maintaining Ethical Probity in Public Service

By Gregory, Robert J. | Public Administration Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Social Capital Theory and Administrative Reform: Maintaining Ethical Probity in Public Service


Gregory, Robert J., Public Administration Review


Over the past decade or so, major public-sector reforms have been implemented in many western democracies. Most of these changes have been driven by the perceived need to shift from traditional, bureaucratic, rules-oriented approaches to a results-centered model. In the United States they have been embodied in the so-called reinventing government movement (Kamensky, 1996), and more widely in the model known as new public management (Hood, 1990, 1991). Both approaches have sought to make the public sector more "efficient" and "accountable."

In New Zealand, this remodeling has been more radical than in most other countries and has attracted considerable international attention. As Schick (1996, 2) observes, "In its emphasis on managerial discretion and accountability, New Zealand's approach resembles reforms introduced in Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and several other OECD countries. But the more closely one examines New Zealand's progress, the more it becomes evident that it has ventured far beyond what has been tried elsewhere." These reforms have been one element in a program of wide-ranging social and economic policy changes, driven by a market-liberal political agenda based on the theoretical frameworks of neoclassical economics (Easton, 1997; Kelsey, 1995; Rudd and Roper, 1997). As part of this package changes in the New Zealand state sector were directly informed by ideas drawn from management theory, new institutional economics (namely, agency theory and transactions costs analysis), and from public choice explanations of political and bureaucratic behavior (Boston, Martin, Pallot, and Walsh, 1996; Schick, 1996).

These "economistic" approaches have been designed to make the public sector look more like the business sector. But they have not addressed the ethical dimensions of public service in anything like the rigorous way that they have concentrated on instrumental issues of efficiency and "productivity." As Caiden (1994, 128) says in regard to American public administration, the reformers "want to show the long-suffering public just how much better government can perform if [it is] allowed to ... [but] ... whatever happened to the virtues of public interest, guardianship, integrity, merit, accountability, responsibility, and truth?" Perhaps partly because of reformist tunnel vision a forum held by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as expressed concern about what it perceives to be declining confidence in government:

   This so-called "confidence deficit" has been fueled by well publicized
   "scandals," ranging from inappropriate actions on the part of public
   officials, to full-scale corruption. Few, if any, member countries have
   escaped the taint, if not the reality of wrongdoing. As a result, ethics or
   standards in public life have become an important public and political
   issue (OECD, PUMA, 1997, 1).

Although the two types of corruption are interrelated, the present discussion mainly concerns behavior that might be labeled personal as distinct from political corruption. Personal corruption constitutes malfeasance driven by an individual's calculation of personal gain or benefit in ways that offend the rules and regulations binding his or her official work.(1) Political corruption relates to those forms of behavior, such as the surreptitious leaking of official documents, which are commonly understood to constitute unethical behavior on the part of public servants. The term "ethical probity," as used here, refers to personal corruption.(2) Not only have the reforms not focused on issues relating to ethical probity, to the extent that they are based largely on the assumption that governmental officials cannot be trusted to act in the public interest, they may also tend to diminish standards of ethical probity in public service, to subvert an ethos of public service as public trust. The New Zealand experience suggests that reinventing government and new public management nostrums need to be balanced by more thought about their impacts on the ethical dimensions of public service. …

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