Good Governance and Civil Service Reform

Written evidence submitted by Christopher Hood and Martin Lodge (GG 04)

The ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’: Some Analytic Challenges

Christopher Hood [1] and Martin Lodge [2]


1. The term ‘post-bureaucratic age’ is no less ambiguous than the word ‘bureaucracy itself. The term encompasses at least four possible recipes for organizing government and public services delivery, not a single one.

2. Effective policies for developing ‘post-bureaucratic’ forms of government and service delivery methods of government or public service delivery can depend on the development of various kinds of institutional infrastructure, can lead to a blurring of subsidiarity and service abandonment if transitions are not effectively managed, and other unexpected outcomes can occur when such policies get caught up in cultural conflicts.

3. Principles of ‘good governance’ should start from basics such as the rule of law, fairness and efficiency rather than the use of particular technologies or administrative techniques, and such principles should be selected because of their substantive performance rather than by ease of measurability.

The Term ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’: Strong Emotive Overtones, Elusive Connotations

1. The adjective ‘post-bureaucratic’ does not have a single, well-understood, canonical meaning. The terms ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘bureaucratic’ are used to mean several different things – one respected author, [3] for instance, describes bureaucracy as ‘a term of strong emotive overtones and elusive connotations’ - and the same necessarily applies to the term ‘post-bureaucracy.’

2. The term ‘bureaucracy’ is said to have been coined by Vincent de Gournay in the eighteenth century to denote rule by officials, [4] but the term has also been used to denote other things, including a particular type of organization, a part of an organization, administrative efficiency or inefficiency (to mention only a few). If ‘post-bureaucracy’ is some antonym of ‘bureaucracy,’ its connotations can be expected to be equally elusive. If fact they may be more so, because given the generally negative connotations of the word ‘bureaucracy’, many interest groups and service providers have a rhetorical interest in attaching the term ‘post-bureaucratic’ to their own particular agendas, products or services.

3. At least the following four policy approaches have been or could be described as ‘post-bureaucratic’:

(i) The pursuit of the ‘subsidiarity principle’ (entrenched in the constitutions of some European countries, enunciated by the famous 1891 Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum and developed in numerous subsequent encyclicals) which broadly holds that government should only perform those functions that exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently, and that public services should be as local as possible. Where the subsidiarity principle is entrenched in law or policy, local, independent or private providers can challenge the right of central, government or public organizations to provide particular services, such as education or social care.

(ii) The abandonment of certain services or activities by state organizations, such as rationing, censorship, vaccination, flood defences, seasonal weather forecasts, without arranging for alternative forms of provision.

(iii) The conduct of government or public services (whether by public organizations or other providers) with maximum public participation, for example over budget setting

(iv) Organizing government or public services in ways that put as little emphasis as possible on the specific legal powers of the state (that is, powers to compel, forbid, permit and punish that are not available to private parties using contract or tort law) or on direct action by state organizations, preferring instead to use policy instruments that are not specific to government, such as price incentives or the use of information or exhortation. [5] An example is recruitment of soldiers on the open labour market rather than by conscription.

4. As far as we can tell, the term is being used in current policy debate in the UK in all of these four senses, but they are not the same thing and they have rather different implications for government organization and competency.

Policies for ‘Post-Bureaucratization’ and their Consequences

5. At least three points that can be drawn from the literature relating to the four types of ‘post-bureaucratic’ policies described in paragraph 3 above. They concern the sort of legal and administrative infrastructure that is needed for such policies to succeed, the importance of effective management of transitions from one pattern of provision to another, and the unexpected effects that can result when such policies are introduced in an atmosphere of cultural conflict.

6. Infrastructure. Ironically perhaps, moving effectively to ‘post-bureaucratic’ methods of provision may itself require the existence of legal and administrative infrastructure. For example, before the unification of Germany in 1990, public services in the former GDR (such as hospitals, welfare organizations, schools, clubs) were provided by a centrally run and funded party organization. After German reunification, a policy embracing the subsidiarity principle proceeded first by moving formal authority for the provision of such services from central government to local authorities, and then to move the delivery role from state to non-state organizations such as churches. But that dramatic shift of delivery responsibility did not just happen. It depended on at least three types of institutional infrastructure, namely (i) a clear template for such provision in the form of established West German law and practice; (ii) a focus on training and transfer of people with the relevant experience; (iii) the reimposition of the church tax in the former GDR.

7. Transitions. However well-intentioned, policies intended to shift patterns of service provision from one set of organizations to another can unintentionally produce a blurring between subsidiarity and service abandonment if the transition is not carefully managed. A well-known example is the progressive development of the ‘care in the community’ principle in the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s, in the form of a policy of treatment and care for physically and mentally disabled people in their own homes or half-way houses rather than in residential or long-stay institutions. That policy reflected a mixture of desires to cash-limit public expenditure on social care, to develop a mixed economy of social care and to redefine the continuing care of elderly and disabled people as the responsibility of local authorities rather than the NHS. The policy was controversial because of perceived underlaps between local authorities and the NHS and a few heavily-publicized cases of attacks by mentally ill people not in institutional care. Even after an overall regulatory framework had been developed in the form of the 1990 National Health and Community Care Act, the operation of the policy continued to be controversial, with widespread claims of under-funding, poor collaboration between health and social services authorities on the ground, and patients slipping through the net to end up homeless on the street. [6] That experience provides a pointer to some of the challenges faced by such policies for ‘post-bureaucratization.’

8. Other unexpected policy outcomes. The outcome of policies designed to foster ‘post-bureaucratic’ arrangements can be shaped by cultural and other types of conflicts. Perhaps the best-known example of a policy embracing the maximum community participation principle ((iii) in paragraph 3 above) is the ‘Great Society’ programme pursued under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the USA in the 1960s, and specifically the policies pursued by the Office of Economic Opportunity, which aimed to foster and encourage local community initiatives and projects (such as free schools) and which embraced the principle of ‘maximum feasible participation’ by the affected stakeholders and communities (indeed, that principle was formally written into the 1964 OEO Act). The programme was however launched into a cultural environment of radical activism and militant groups challenging the orthodox institutions of elected government, and unintentionally served as a fillip for such anti-state challenges before Congress eventually managed to shut off the funds and wind up the programme. [7] That example indicates that such policies, however well-intended and high-minded they may be (as certainly applied in that case), can have unanticipated and unintended consequences if they fall foul of cultural conflicts.

‘Good Governance’ and the Evaluation of Post-Bureaucratic Age Policies

9. Principles of good governance can in principle be applied to individual conduct, the operation of individual organizations or to systems of government more generally, and it needs to be made clear which of those levels any given list of good governance principles applies to. But it seems important to start with the basics such as the rule of law, fairness and efficiency rather than the use of particular technologies or administrative techniques. Accordingly, criteria for evaluating the quality of policies aimed at ‘post-bureaucratization’ in some or all of the senses identified in paragraph 3 above should at least include the following:

- the rule of law: bureaucracy has been defined by some as a form of organization designed to promote the rule of law, [8] but of course there are many cases of state organizations that fall short of promoting the rule of law. The question of whether it fosters, maintains or undermines the rule of law should be a key criterion for evaluating policies of ‘post-bureaucratic’ governance.

- honesty and integrity: some critics of traditional bureaucracy [9] have asserted that it puts too much weight on honest rather than effective government, but even if there is some room for debate about that trade-off, another important criterion for evaluating any policy of ‘post-bureaucratic’ government must be the degree of honesty and integrity that it produces

- equity and accessibility: the principle of equitable treatment, particularly of those with a good claim to be considered vulnerable, is another key criterion for evaluating ‘post-bureaucratic age’ governance policies, and the debate over the Care in the Community experience noted in paragraph 7 above indicates its importance [10]

- economy: prudent use of public resources is a well-established principle for the evaluation of public services, embracing both efficacy (do the resources invested deliver the intended effects, rather than no effects or reverse effects?) and efficiency (do the resources invested deliver those effects at least cost relative to benefits?)

- resilience: the provision of services that are robust, in the sense of ensuring continuity and adaptation to new or adverse conditions without breakdown, is a further key principle for evaluating the quality of governance and public services, and fragile or intermittent services can also pose threats to equity and rule of law.

10. The principles set out in paragraph 6 above seem to us to be key elements for evaluating the implementation of ‘post-bureaucratic age’ initiatives. [11] It is not obvious that measurability ought to be the primary criterion in selecting principles of good governance. The important thing is to identify the right principles on which debate and evaluation ought to centre, rather than simply those that are easily measurable, because the latter route too easily leads into a classic measurement trap. We readily accept that these principles are likely to conflict with one another, presenting difficult trade-offs. The key weakness of most lists of ‘good governance’ desiderata is that they fail to acknowledge trade-offs among a set of principles each of which appears unexceptionable on its own, let alone giving any guidance as to how such trade-offs should be made. In any representative democracy the responsibility for making those trade-offs ought to lie with elected representatives rather than with non-elected service providers. If those trade-offs are made by the latter, policies aimed at weakening rule by officials of one kind or another – the original meaning of the term ‘bureaucracy’, as noted above – may unintentionally serve to strengthen or extend such rule. That strikes us as the key governance challenge for the putative ‘post-bureaucratic age’.

January 2011

[1] University of Oxford

[2] London School of Economics and Political Science

[3] Albrow, M (1970) Bureaucracy , London, Pall Mall

[4] Adding another type of rule to Aristotle’s classic three-part distinction of rule by a single person, rule by a small group and rule by many people

[5] See for example Hood C and Margetts H (2007) The Tools of Government in the Digital Age , London, Palgrave Macmillan

[6] See for example Hadley R and Clough R (1996) Care in Chaos: Frustration and Challenge in Community Care , London, Cassell; Lewis, J and Glennerster, H (1996) Implementing the New Community Care , Buckingham, Open University Press; Means, R and Smith, R. (1998) Community Care: Policy and Practice , 2 nd ed, London, Macmillan .

[7] For a graphic and controversial account, see Moynihan, D P (1969) Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty , New York, Free Press

[8] Weber M (1948) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology , tr and ed Gerth H and Mills C, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. Others who have made the same point include Jeremy Bentham (see Hume L (1981) Bentham and Bureaucracy , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) and Rothstein, B and Teorell, J (2008) ‘What is Quality of Government? A Theory of Impartial Government Institutions’ Governance , 21(2): 165-90.

[9] For example, Niskanen, W (1971) Bureaucracy and Representative Government , Chicago, Aldine Atherton

[10] A relevant example of a framework drawn from many years’ experience of responding to complaints about injustice and poor administration is the UK Parliamentary Commissioner’s ‘principles of good administration’, namely accuracy, consumer focus, openness and accountability, fairness and proportionality, effective remediation of mistakes and errors, and continuous improvement. See Annual Report of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman 2007-08, HC 1040 2007-8, p.14,

[11] Those principles reflect basic and recurring administrative values. See for instance Hood C and Jackson M (1991) Administrative Argument , Aldershot, Dartmouth and Hood C (1998) The Art of the State , Oxford Clarendon