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Reply to Kettl: Is the merit principle really the issue?

Tony Bovaird responds to Don Kettl’s commentary, The Merit Principle in Crisis:  Don Kettl has set out very cogently in his blog how the merit principle is under fierce attack. Moreover, he argues, academics are remiss in having had little to say about this. He laments that this is undermining ‘the modern American state, administered by professional and nonpartisan bureaucrats’. There is much in this analysis with which I agree – government is widely misunderstood, misrepresented and undervalued. However, is it the merit principle which is most important to defend in tackling these problems? Here I think there is a more complicated story to tell.

First, let’s be clear – the public mainly distrusts government, and only distrusts the civil service by association. And why not? The civil service merit principle has not meant that governments have always been on the side of their public(s). For centuries governments were more often agents of oppression, a role which is still continuing in some cases (see ‘People with disabilities left behind in New Orleans’) and the current UK government attack on those needing welfare benefits, not to mention state aggression towards asylum-seekers and refugees throughout Europe). From the public’s perspective these policies have been devised and implemented by ‘meritocratic’ civil services, not just by politicians.

Of course, it is true that since the 1920s governments have slowly attempted to protect some minorities against social oppression – initially women, (much) later black and ethnic minorities, even later sex/gender minorities, etc. However, their intervention has often brought reaction from conservative sections of the public. When that reaction is widespread and is stoked by the mass media, usually owned by arch-conservative media moguls, then governments’ role in protecting some groups is under threat. This can actually be one symptom of successful government. If government were NOT mistrusted by the conservative mass-media and by many selfish interest groups in society, it would not be doing its job properly. Bureaucrats, in so far as they are seen at all, are usually seen to be driving through these programmes. So some of the slanging of bureaucrats is inevitable in a properly functioning social democracy.

It doesn’t help, of course, that bureaucrats appointed on meritocratic principles sometimes turn out to be corrupt and even those who are inefficient often seem to keep their jobs for an inordinate time. So civil service reform is continually needed to remove this ground for bureaucracy-bashing – but reform effectiveness often seems to be rather limited.

Much more importantly, however, the merit principle does not mean that civil servants are always the right people to tackle critically important social problems. Surely we do not really still believe that civil service capability is everywhere and always greater than the public’s capability? After all, in the early 19th century, governments had low capacity to deal with the major economic and social problems of the day, and not surprisingly they often did little (although it is a matter of continuing shame that many governments could certainly have done more on major social issues). From the 1850s, governments recognised that their capacity to deal with mass epidemics had increased – both in terms of available medical interventions and in terms of mass sanitation, so intervention grew. From the 1870s, there was intervention in schools. However, in spite of universal poverty in even developed countries, it was only the 1960s that brought an explosion in ‘welfare state’ interventions.

Interestingly, early welfare states were usually bureaucratic, following fixed and inflexible rules, however inappropriate to specific cases – largely because public sector staff did not have the ability to be responsive to individual needs. From the 1970s, and especially from the 1980s under NPM, this bureaucratisation was transformed into systematisation (often associated with externalisation) – this was more efficient but again allowed little variation, in case providers deviated from agreed service templates. In the 1990s came the realisation that mass-customisation was possible – slowly this fed into the public governance movement.

What does this potted history tell us? I think it suggests there are waves in the level of disjunction between the capabilities of the civil service and of other stakeholders, particularly civil society. In this reading, it is not a coincidence that the public governance movement arose at same time as the realisation that many citizens CAN nowadays do much more than bureaucrats and, generally a little later, that many citizens are ALREADY doing much more than bureaucrats. (This latter has been a consistent lesson from all of our recent citizen surveys into citizen self-organisation and co-production of publicly-desired outcomes). This in turn is leading to deeper appreciation of the current role of self-organisation in society (which up to now has been most obvious to academics in relation to war and natural disasters), the huge potential for much greater user and community co-production of public services and the value of more intense co-determination of public policies.

When trust erodes and cynicism reigns, as Kettl suggests has happened in relation to our civil services, arguments generally cease to matter, so academic analysis can do only a little to reverse the situation. However, this doesn’t mean that we academics should just stay silent. By promoting more co-production, both of public services and of government decisions, and more sharing of democratic effort between politicians, civil servants and citizens, we could help to insert some reality checks into people’s understanding of what governments do. Citizens who take more of a role in public services and government decisions would get real about government (and in some cases might even ask for more public sector staff, to take the weight of their own shoulders). For too long government has basked in its certainty that it knew better than citizens – inevitably this produced alienation. Now citizens don’t buy this story – and they are partly right. However, as Kettl suggests, blind disbelief in the importance of government and competence of the civil service is just as destructive. Government needs to be shared, not imposed, if it is to gain and maintain legitimacy.

Tony Bovaird is Emeritus Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV and Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham and Director of Governance International.

Written by Governance

September 4, 2015 at 6:00 am

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