In Praise of Bureaucracy: Weber, Organization, Ethics

In Praise of Bureaucracy: Weber, Organization, Ethics


Paul du Gay


In this provocative new study, Paul du Gay makes a compelling case for the continuing importance of bureaucracy. Taking inspiration from the work of Max Weber, du Gay launches a staunch defence of `the bureaucratic ethos' and highlights its continuing relevance to the achievement of social order and good government in liberal democratic societies. Through a comprehensive engagement with both historical and contemporary critiques of bureaucracy and a careful examination of the policies of organizational change within the public services today, du Gay develops a major reappraisal of the so-called `traditional' ethic of office. In doing so he highlights the ways in which many of the key features of bureaucratic conduct that ca

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    For my parents, Pat and Peter du Gay


    This is a book about bureaucracy and ethics. More specifically, it is a book about the ethos of bureaucratic office. It represents an attempt to recover a certain ethical dignity for a particular form of institution – the bureau – and category of person – the bureaucrat – that have been the target of considerable critical denigration in recent years.

    This exercise in recovery is necessary for two reasons. First, because bureaucratic conduct is frequently represented by its critics as inherently unethical. Indeed, talk of ‘bureaucratic ethics’ is often considered a contradiction in terms. Secondly, because even when bureaucracy is regarded as furnishing an ethos, it is one that is increasingly regarded as outmoded, anachronistic and irrelevant. In an ‘external environment’ characterized, it is said, by extreme uncertainty, where the capacity to be flexible, innovative and entrepreneurial is at a premium, ‘rule-bound’ bureaucracy has no future as an organizational form.

    The argument of this book is that on both counts, criticism of the bureau is misplaced. In undertaking this exercise in recovery it is important, however, not to imply that bureaucracies are somehow infallible or the best of all possible organizational forms for all circumstances. Adopting such a line would be as ludicrous as suggesting that all bureaux are unethical and inefficient regardless of context. My aims here are more limited. First, to indicate that ‘bureaucracies’ do not fail in the manner alleged by both their humanist critics in the academy nor in the manner alleged by the advocates of ‘entrepreneurial governance’ or ‘new managerialism’ – that is, fail to realize ultimate moral ends, whether these are identified with ‘humanity’, ‘liberty’, ‘economy’, ‘community’ or any number of other rationales. Secondly, to suggest that while there are undoubted similarities between forms of managerial and other non-manual work in public bureaux and commercial enterprises, there are also significant differences in what we might term their respective ‘regime values’ – mainly imposed by the constitutional and political environment in which public governmental work is conducted. These significant differences raise a number of important questions concerning the wisdom of attempting to ‘reinvent’ public bureaux in the image of particular private sector business models. However, this should not be taken to imply that public bureaux are somehow beyond criticism or reform. To the contrary, I suggest that bureaucratic government is a highly contingent affair, dependent upon a quite limited set of ethico-political practices and techniques and on a quite fragile ethical environment.

    The point is that these rare, reliable but fragile practices and techniques should not be denigrated for their failure to express a certain morality or to achieve certain ‘social objectives’ that they are not designed to meet. Instead, they should be respected for their limited but nonetheless important achievements – such as the capacity to divorce the administration of public life from private moral absolutisms – achievements that those of us who are lucky enough to live in pacified socieities should not take so readily for granted. For if we allow radical humanist critique or entrepreneurial discourse to set the terms by which the bureaucratic ethos of office is to be understood and evaluated, then we might expect the job that the public bureau performs for us, among us, to become increasingly inconceivable. Perhaps it is time, once again, to appreciate the ethos of bureaucratic office – albeit in a suitably contextualized manner – as a positive extension of the repertoire of human possibilities rather than merely as a dehumanizing or disempowering subtraction. This book is an attempt to contribute to such a reconsideration.


    The intellectual and personal debts I have accumulated in writing this book are too numerous to permit each to be acknowledged individually. Nonetheless there are individuals and institutions whose support has been too invaluable to forgo mentioning.

    I would like to thank, first, Richard Chapman, Ian Hunter, Jeffrey Minson and David Saunders whose work has motivated this book in ways they are probably not aware of and might well be surprised by. I would also like to acknowledge an intellectual debt to Mark Freedland, Robert Parker and John Rohr; individuals I have never met or corresponded with but whose work I have found myself continually returning to.

    Preparatory research for the book was greatly facilitated by a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy at Griffith University. I would like to thank that institution and, in particular, its (then) staff: Tony Bennett, Colin Mercer, Denise Meredyth and Gillian Swanson, for their generous hospitality and support.

    A considerable portion of the book was written in the stimulating environment of the London School of Economics, where I was a Morris Ginsberg Senior Research Fellow in Sociology during the 1997–98 academic year. I am grateful to the staff of the Sociology Department and especially to Eileen Barker, Stan Cohen, Jacqui Gauntlett, Stephen Hill and Colin Mills for their assistance and encouragement.

    A big debt is owed to friends and colleagues who discussed ideas with me, allowed me to steal theirs and generally kept me going. I would like to thank especially: Frances Bonner, John Clarke, Gill Court, Louise Goebel, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Liz McFall, Danny Miller, Beverley Mullings, Keith Negus, Sean Nixon, Mike Pryke, Graeme Salaman and Margie Wetherall.

    Last but by no means least, I would like to thank Jessica Evans who read through the whole thing and whose acute criticisms, keen editing skills and much else besides cannot be recompensed in a few words, no matter how well chosen.

  • Conclusion: The Ethos of Office and State Interest

    Precisely those views which most strongly glorify the ‘creative’ discretion of the official accept, as the ultimate and highest lodestar for his behaviour in public administration, the specifically modern and strictly ‘objective’ idea of raison d'état.

    Max Weber

    Enthusiasm being founded on strong spirits, and a presumptuous boldness of character, it naturally begets the most extreme resolutions …

    David Hume

    ‘Change’, in today's management terminology, is often represented as an unalloyed good. Indeed, it has become a matter of serious criticism to accuse an institution or individual of being incapable of adjusting to ‘change’ or of failing to grasp its multifarious ‘opportunities’. Transformation is the order of the day and those that cannot or will not accede to and thrive on its demands are history (Clarke and Newman, 1997; du Gay, 1996).

    In the public sector, as Ronald Moe (1994: 113) has argued, ‘change’ has ‘acquired a theological aura’. Contemporary discourses of administrative reform in government, he points out, are characterized by dramatic, epochal assertions that set up their co-ordinates in advance and leave no ‘way out’ from their terms of reference. Focusing on the Clinton administration's National Performance Review report From Red Tape to Results, Moe highlights the ways in which this text constructs a caesural distinction between a ‘failed’ bureaucratic governmental past and a ‘reinvented’ entrepreneurial governmental future in such an emotive manner as to make criticism almost unthinkable.

    In contrast to the traditional language of administrative discourse which attempted, not always with success, to employ terms with precise meanings, Moe describes the ways in which the entrepreneurial management enthusiasts employ a highly value-laden lexicon to disarm would-be questioners. Thus, ‘the term “customer” largely replaces “citizen” and there is a heavy reliance upon active verbs – reinventing, reengineering, empowering – to maximize the emotive content of what otherwise has been a largely nonemotive subject matter’ (1994: 114).1

    In the report, as we saw in Chapter 5, the ‘administrative management paradigm’ with its emphasis on the Constitution, statutory controls, hierarchical lines of responsibility to the President, the distinctive legal character of the governmental and private sectors, and the need for a cadre of nonpartisan bureaucrats ultimately responsible not only to the President but to Congress as well, is depicted as the ‘system’ that failed.

    This paradigm is the cause of the government being broken in the eyes of the entrepreneurial management promoters. It has not proven flexible enough to permit change to occur at the speed considered necessary in the new, information-driven technological world … The report argues, almost deterministically, that the entrepreneurial management paradigm will prevail in the future. Those who question this paradigm are not merely incorrect, they have no place in the government of the future. (Moe, 1994: 114)

    Whilst recognizing that the ‘entrepreneurial paradigm’ has been presented as something akin to a fait accompli for those working within state service, Moe (1994: 116) is nonetheless disturbed by the fact that ‘much of the public administration community leadership early-on joined in celebrating this unshackling from the allegedly outdated bureaucratic paradigm’ and in welcoming the opportunities provided by entrepreneurial ‘change’.2 Questions about ‘reinventing government’, he suggests, may well be intellectually challenging and personally exciting to public administrators but the latter need to be careful that this does not lead them to act with degrees of enthusiasm and personal involvement not consistent with the detachment normally expected of bureaucrats working within government. In particular, they should respect the fine, if often unclear, lines separating their own responsibilities from the responsibilities of politicians. Responsible public servants, he insists, should still be advocating evidence first – decision afterwards.

    The enthusiasm with which senior bureaucrats in a variety of institutional domains have sought to ‘own’ the transformative vocabulary of managerialism offers cause for concern in just this regard. For a century or more, what senior bureaucrats did was called ‘administration’. This term contained two distinguishable elements, ‘policy-advising’ on the one hand and ‘management’ on the other. Management usually meant ‘mobilising and co-ordinating resources to carry out accepted policy’ (Parker, 1993: 170). However, a crucial feature of contemporary programmes of organizational reform within the public sectors of many OECD countries is the supersession of ‘administration’ and ‘administrator’ by the terms ‘management’ and ‘manager’. Does this matter?

    The argument of this book has been that it matters very much indeed. First, in the commercial and industrial domains ‘management’ has long existed as the inclusive term for the role of administrative leadership. That alone would account for the political conversion to the term in the present climate of opinion. But, secondly, maybe management functions in business are not identical with administrative functions in government? Perhaps in business and industry most managers spend their time in ‘mobilising and co-ordinating resources to carry out accepted policy’ (Parker, 1993: 170) made by senior directors, and business lacks any real equivalent to advising on policy, which in government includes framing legislation, dealing with other governments, regulating aspects of the economic system, administering justice and distributing all sorts of social services? Perhaps there is a good reason for the broader term ‘administration’ prevailing in government? If this is indeed the case, do recent shifts in terminology assume that members of the administrative cadre should now approximate their role to this, dare I say it, more ‘modest’ business management model? The logics of both public choice and managerialist critiques of the bureaucratic ethos of office point inexorably in this direction.

    Gyroscopes of State

    While it may well be true that the proportion of modern governmental activity resembling that of the private sector is now vastly greater than it was in the past, and that as a result there is a clear need for specific sets of management skills that may have been neglected in more traditional public service training, this should not blind us to the vital importance of continuing aspects of public service which are unknown in private enterprises. Indeed, one inescapable part of the ethical role of the public bureaucrat, as a bureaucrat, is to serve the interests of the state, as a state (Chapman, 1993; Minson, 1997; Rohr, 1979). In this sense, as Rohr (1979: 40) has put it, the public bureau should not be seen, or see itself, simply as a ‘neutral instrument of management’, but rather as ‘a mighty institution of government’. Only by being recognized and appreciated as an ‘instrument of state power’ (Hennessy, 1995: 121) can the public bureaucracy develop a self-image that is directly connected to the public interest that it inevitably affects.

    In an era of reinventing or modernizing government such étatiste sentiments have become virtually unutterable in polite democratic society. As we have seen, a central tenet informing new managerialist programmes of reform is the democratic-political imperative of ‘responsive government’ (Parker, 1993). Because popular election is increasingly represented as the sole constitutionally legitimate entitlement to govern, the idea of state or public interest is equated exclusively with the interests of the duly elected government of the day. Consequently, the public interest role of state bureaucrats is held to consist exclusively in the ‘managerial’ tasks of delivering results efficiently, economically and effectively for their political masters (and with maximum enthusiasm and commitment to boot).

    There is a certain logic to this position, but it assumes a supremacy for popular election that it simply does not possess. In the USA, for instance, elections – congressional or presidential – are not viewed as exclusively an expression of the will of the people. Elections do, of course, albeit in a ramified sense, express the will of the people but they do so only in fulfilling the design of the American Constitution, which is ‘the object of the primordial expression of the will of the people’ (Rohr, 1995: 65). Elections express this ‘will’ only because the Constitution indicates when, where and how they may do so. The Congress or President elected is itself a creature of the Constitution and has no meaning whatsoever outside that Constitution. Therefore, constitutional supremacy overrides electoral supremacy. ‘In American constitutional theory, elections do not confer power on anyone. They merely determine who will occupy a particular office that the Constitution has already endowed with certain powers’ (Rohr, 1995: 66). In this sense, the public bureaucracy as an institution of government derives its legitimacy from its constitutional role, from the fact that it ‘is part of the constitutional order that was chosen by the people in the great ratification debate of 1787/88. The fact that administrators, like judges, are not elected in no way diminishes their constitutional stature. Popular election is simply one of at least twenty-two ways that have been or still are approved for holding office under the Constitution’ (Rohr, 1986: 185).

    Although the constitutional context is very different, a similar argument can be made for the Civil Service in Britain. British civil servants are ‘servants of the Crown … employed in a civil capacity’ (Chapman, 1988a: 295). At the most basic level of analysis this definition may be uncontroversial, but beyond this difficulties soon arise from the largely unwritten nature of the British Constitution. Formally, the Crown means the Queen, but for all practical purposes the Crown is the government: not a particular administration with a constitutionally limited period of office, but the executive branch of the state which is ultimately controlled by the Cabinet.

    This aspect of the British Constitution makes it very different from that of almost every other modern nation state. Unlike most other countries, Britain has no Civil Service Act. There is therefore no fundamental legal document to which officials can refer which contains a statement of their organization and their responsibilities. Individual government departments may similarly lack such basic documents. Indeed, departments and other forms of governmental organization can be created or abolished almost overnight by Order in Council (as the development of Next Steps agencies testifies). Acts of Parliament are not necessary (Chapman, 1988a: 295).

    One of the practical implications of this constitutional arrangement is that there can, quite legitimately, be a variety of opinions about what is constitutionally correct in particular circumstances. This applies to the administrative sphere of government as well as the political sphere. For all day-to-day purposes, however, loyalty and duty to the Crown has meant loyalty and duty to the Queen's ministers who act in her name and are accountable to the Queen's Parliament. A civil servant's primary professional duty therefore is to his or her minister, not to the people who are ministers, but only to people in so far as they are holding the office of minister. This duty, though, is prima facie not absolute, and it cannot override all other considerations (Jay, 1996: 141; O'Toole, 1990).

    So why is this the case? First, it is important to recognize that ministers are political animals. As professional politicians, this is their vocation. However, if the idea of ‘state’ or public interest is to possess any meaning it cannot be registered solely in terms of the political interests of any duly elected government. Political acts are not necessarily acts geared towards ‘the public interest’. Perhaps the question could be settled by simply asserting that there is an acceptable area of political controversy and political debate that is itself bounded by a perimeter of propriety entitled ‘the public interest’. But who, in a state without a written Constitution, where convention and precedent are all, sets this perimeter and who possesses the authority to say when it has been breached?

    In Britain, as O'Toole (1990) has argued, the Civil Service has traditionally played a crucial role in providing one of the bases for the stability of the state in just this regard. It has done so by dint of its constitutive characteristics – its permanence, party political neutrality, impartiality, provision of frank and fearless advice and its expert knowledge of the business of government. As Trollope put it in Phineas Finn: ‘every question so handled by [the Prime Minister] has been decided rightly according to his own party, and wrongly according to the party opposite. A political leader is so sure of support and so sure of attack that it is hardly necessary for him to be right. For the country's sake, he should have officials under him who know the routine of business’. Cue the Civil Service – that ‘gyroscope of state’, in Peter Hennessy's words – whose function is precisely ‘to act as a permanent piece of ballast in the Constitution’, providing a degree of balance and permanence in what can be ‘a very volatile legislature and an equally volatile ministerial executive’ (Lord Bancroft, quoted in Hennessy, 1995: 127).

    This is not simply a managerial role. It is a crucial constitutional and hence ethico-political one. As Graham Wallas (1908, quoted in Chapman, 1993: 108) argued long ago, ‘The real “Second Chamber”, the real “constitutional check” in England, is provided, not by the House of Lords and the Monarchy, but by the existence of a permanent Civil Service appointed on a system independent of the opinion or desires of any politician and holding office during good behaviour.’ Whether they be an administrative assistant using their discretion in assessing a case across the counter from ‘a customer’ in the Benefits Agency, or a Permanent Secretary offering advice on constitutional practice to, or interpreting constitutional conventions for, their minister, civil servants in the British system of government do not simply execute policy, they play a significant role in governing the country.

    In this sense there is an obvious political dimension to their work. As I have argued throughout this book, the so-called ‘Westminster syndrome’ has never required civil servants to be apolitical, in large part because the nexus of responsibility that defines that syndrome presupposes the intertwining of policy and management.3 How, then, is this political role to be squared with a ‘reason of state’ or ‘public interest’ vocation?

    The answer lies, once again, in distinguishing between different uses of the term ‘politics’ (Wheare, 1955: 26–7). Public bureaucrats work within a political environment: that is their fate. Most of what they do has potential political implications, even activities of an apparently routine nature. Their mistakes may lead to political embarassment for the government of the day and even, in extreme cases, to its downfall. Awareness of the political nature of their work, and expertise in the dynamics of the political environment within which they have to operate, is a crucial competence they have to master. However, this political dimension does not make them partisan political actors in their own right. It does not establish them as an independent political force vying with government and opposition for ultimate power.

    The public bureaucrat may be a political beast but she is not a party political beast. This is a crucial difference. The doctrine of public service neutrality requires her not to be. This doctrine means not being committed, by convictions guiding one's official actions, to the creed and platform of a current political party, while being able without a crisis of conscience to further the policies of any given party. The fact that public bureaucrats do work in an inherently political environment and perform work with political content and implications does not make a nonsense of the notions of objectivity and neutrality as defined in the orthodox view of the public servant's role under the Westminster conventions. As Weber (1994b: 331), for example, argued, the idea that the political content of public administration makes public servants incapable of minimizing the influence of their own political opinions on their daily work is nonsense. Without this ‘supreme ethical discipline’ that they bring to their duties, he stressed, ‘the whole [governmental] apparatus would disintegrate’.

    Civil servants have been trained to conduct themselves in such a manner. Indeed, in Britain, as elsewhere, people with strong party political views have – at least until recently – been unlikely to be appointed to senior Civil Service positions, or to present themselves for consideration in the first place (Chapman, 1988a). As a result, civil servants have been likely to greet the panaceas of all political parties with caution if not scepticism. Inevitably this leads them to embrace party political programmes with less fervour than party enthusiasts would like. But that is part of their job, and in that way they may be seen as servants of the public interest. As Richard Wilding (quoted in Chapman, 1993: 109) wrote some time ago, it is necessary for civil servants ‘to pursue today's policy with energy; it is equally necessary, in order to survive, to withhold from it the last ounce of commitment’.

    It is the Civil Service's étatiste role as a governmental/constitutional ‘gyroscope’, as evidenced in the ethical discipline required by the doctrine of party political neutrality, that is perhaps most threatened by contemporary programmes of management reform in the public sector.

    Successive governments have made no secret of their wish to divert Civil Service attention from a presumed concentration upon policy advice to ministers towards better management of their departments/agencies. The current favourites amongst ministers may well be those who genuinely espouse managerialism. In principle, this need not be reprehensible, even if it is distasteful to the doubters, as long as it does not lead to a significant diminution of the bureaucracy's ‘state interest’ obligations. However, as Richard Chapman (1988b: 16–17) has argued, recent reforms in the British context

    seem to represent such a significant change of emphasis and ultimately of direction, that even if welcomed on the grounds of cost-cutting and rolling back the frontiers of the state, they seem out of character with the highly regarded traditions, standards and expectations of public sector management in this country. It may appear premature to issue dire warnings of the dangers of corruption, but if the sorts of safeguards that worked so well in the past are removed – safeguards involving the regular posting of staff, recruitment on the basis of open competition with the objective assessment of applicants, and socialisation which encourages the highest standards of integrity and public service as the most desirable qualities in public sector management – if these safeguards no longer exist, then it may be necessary to ask if alternative measures should be introduced to ensure that high standards of public sector management are still achievable … Quite simply, to move at great speed in the apparent direction of improved value for money, while disregarding other values, may not be what most citizens would wish to experience if they were better educated about the British system of government and better informed about the probable and possible consequences of fashionable new management techniques.

    The issues at stake in the enthusiastic ‘reinvention’ of state administration in Britain, as elsewhere, are not simply issues of operations, costs and responsiveness, they are ethico-political and constitutional in that ‘they affect the foundations of political life and capacity’ (Dunleavy and Hood, 1994: 16). Dramatic, epochal representations of the ‘bad’ old ‘public service ethic’ being replaced by a ‘good’ public sector adaptation of market-oriented managerial ethics signally fail to pay attention to these very issues. In no small part this is due to the way reformers imagine the environment they seek to reinvent.

    As I argued in Chapters 4 and 5, protagonists of the Next Steps reforms in the British Civil Service claimed, without any sense of irony, that they had no wish to alter directly existing constitutional practice because they saw themselves as operating in a completely different dimension, namely that of restructuring the financial management of public administration. They were concerned with issues of financial rather than political accountability. Because government/Civil Service relations were understood in quasi-commercial terms, it was no surprise to find the unitary structure of the state administration being replaced by a quasi-autonomous multidivisional structure, in the manner of presumed best private sector practice.

    Indeed, once the discursive map informing the Next Steps initiative is recognized, much that happens in relations between executive agencies and their parent departments becomes readily explicable. It is not uncommon in the private sector for a group managing director and a subsidiary managing director, ‘each under huge pressure to make a success of the enterprise at the level for which each is responsible, to come into conflict about the management of the subsidiary, and to argue whether the sphere of autonomy of the subsidiary management, often conceptualized as a split between policy and operations, has been sufficiently respected by the group management. On occasion these quarrels can even result in the dismissal of the subsidiary managing director’ (Freedland, 1996: 27).4

    As a number of commentators have pointed out, the financial/organizational innovation of Next Steps has profound consequences for a key constitutional principle – the doctrine of ministerial responsibility (Bogdanor, 1996; O'Toole and Chapman, 1994). The executive agencies created under the Next Steps programme constitute groupings with interests which are distinguished from those of their parent department by the structures of separate financial accountability which it is the very aim of the Next Steps programme to produce. Through this process ministerial responsibility for departmental decision-making is transmuted and fragmented into two distinct accountabilities each of which is primarily financial. If the relationship between the parent department and the agency is working in the manner it is intended to, the decision-makers and decision-making at agency level cannot be seen as a part of an integrated (bureaucratic) departmental structure, a departmental unity, such as the doctrine of political ministerial responsibility demands and requires (Freedland, 1996).

    As this example indicates, rather than lying within the boundaries of constitutional orthodoxy, contemporary programmes of organizational reform have some startling constitutional implications. That senior civil servants, and not simply politicians, enthusiastically embraced the Next Steps programme without, perhaps, adequate prior consideration of its constitutional implications, once again highlights the dangers such enthusiasm poses for the proper conduct of bureaucratic office and, in particular, for what Weber termed the bureaucrat's ‘ethos of responsibility’. Not only this, it also indicates the problems with imagining that business management and public administration are identical in all regards.

    There can be no doubt that state bureaucrats bear a real responsibility for the efficient and economic use and deployment of the resources at their disposal – taken as these are from the people they serve and returned to them in the form of benefits and entitlements sanctioned by the system of government. It would, as Sir Frank Tribe (1971: 159) argued in 1949, be quite improper for the many Departments of the public service to believe that mundane questions of cutting out unnecessary expenditure were issues beneath the dignity of those charged with proffering policy advice to ministers: ‘every officer … should take an active interest in the cost of the particular service he administers, and should ask himself at frequent intervals whether the service is giving the State and his fellow tax-payers full value for what it costs’. In these circumstances, every civil servant bears a responsibility for the economic use of resources and to this end must be ready and willing to use such methods of management as will offer the best prospect of optimum performance.

    But, and this is the crucial point, this does not exhaust the civil servant's responsibilities. State officials are subject to competing and often incommensurable demands. In negotiating these competing value claims they are required to exercise discretion and make ethical judgements. Efficiency, economy and effectiveness, for example, are plural and often competing values within the public administration context. An exclusive emphasis on one can have serious implications for the degree to which the others will be secured. Anxieties arise when the pressures for change and an emphatic emphasis on financial economies pay inadequate attention to the governmental/constitutional context within which public services are administered.

    Bluntly stated, the function of officials in the British system of government cannot be exhaustively defined in terms of achieving results with maximum ‘economic efficiency’, ‘value for money’ or ‘best value’. There is a host of other obligations and responsibilities imposed on state officials, be it the varied limits imposed on action by public bodies or the political imperatives of public service – loyalty to those who are politically responsible, sensitivity to the complexity of the public interest, honesty and fearlessness in the formulation and provision of advice to government and so on. Administrative responsibility focuses on governmental/constitutional capacity, process and structure, not simply on ‘outcomes’. Public administrators are responsible for doing all they can to maintain what Parker (1993: 38) calls ‘the integrity and independence of representative government’. This in turn suggests, once again, that they have ethical responsibilities of a ‘state interest’ or ‘public interest’ kind that are more complex and onerous than those required simply to meet the bottom lines of management. The contemporary concern with financial economies, ‘efficient’ management and the obtaining of results should not be allowed to obscure these crucial ‘state interest’ responsibilities. The pursuit of better management – different from the pursuit of better bureaucratic public administration – has to recognize the political and governmental limits to which it is – or should be – subject. As John Rohr (1998: 104) has argued, this does not require a complete renunciation of contemporary managerialism but rather involves an attempt to ‘tame its excesses by subjecting it to the discipline of constitutional scrutiny’.5

    Concluding Comments

    Without trying to excuse its shortcomings of argument and scholarship, this book has been intended as a sustained attempt to find some thought-provoking things to say in praise of bureaucracy and bureaucrats. By focussing on bureaucrats' capacities and character as bureaucrats, rather than as critical intellectuals or entrepreneurs, and through locating their working environment at the intersection of distinct orders of governmental and political life, I have sought to amplify the Weberian perspective on the ethos of office as an extension of the repertoire of human possibilities (rather than as a dehumanizing subtraction).

    Such an enterprise is at odds with the conventional wisdom of many analysts within the social and human sciences, as well as with many contemporary reform exercises in the field of public administration. Both the philosophical-critical and contemporary managerial/political reformist agendas regard the ‘ethos of office’ as an anachronism and represent those who would defend it as suffering from an unworldly nostalgia. It has been my contention, however, that on both counts the critics are mistaken. Charges of unworldliness are best levelled at the anti-bureaucrats themselves, because it is they who have most vociferously sought to establish commandments of identical content across what are plural life orders.

    In their different ways, both philosophical and managerial forms of bureau critique evaluate the ethos of office in relation to its failure to register a certain sort of morality. For the philosophical critical variant, this failure is registered in terms of a distinction between personal and collective morality. Because the ethos of office is antithetical to the consistency and interactive unity of heart and mind which this form of critique expects of an ‘authentic’ moral personality, it is interpreted as a symptom of moral failure.

    For the managerialists the demands are rather different. Here the (public service) bureau ‘fails’ because it is seen to be incapable of fostering the forms of conduct and habits of action that are deemed essential for organizational survival and flourishing in the dislocated environments of the present. Unless public bureaux are ‘modernized’ and learn to become more ‘enterprising’, it is argued, they will lack the capacity to pursue their goals and objectives. The problem here is that in taking up this entrepreneurial challenge and ‘modernizing’ or ‘reinventing’ themselves in the manner suggested, the ability of public bureaux to continue carrying out certain of their governmental/constitutional responsibilities has been somewhat incapacitated.

    My criticisms of the managerialist and various politicized or self-styled ‘radical reformist’ agendas for the reshaping of the public service have been registered with precisely this concern in mind – that they are playing a crucial role, whether consciously or unconsciously, in evacuating public administration of its determinate content by making it into something else. Within the managerialist critique, for example, the public bureaucracy is represented as an inefficient form of organization without due regard to its ethico-political role in contemporary liberal democracies. In the context of public administration under the so-called Westminster conventions, as distinct from management in other contexts, a distinctively bureaucratic type of organization, with accountability both hierarchically and to elected officials – such as the doctrine of ministerial responsibility requires – may be an extremely appropriate form of organization. To subject that form of organization to critique for its failure to operate more like a business is, perhaps, to misunderstand its role. ‘Bureaucratic rationality’ may seem inefficient viewed through the concerns of the new public management, but it might also be seen as crucial to the securing of effective parliamentary democracy.

    In sum, it is both misguided and remarkably premature to announce the death of the ethos of bureaucratic office. Many of its key features as they came into existence a century or so ago remain as or more essential to the provision of good government today as they did then – as a number of recent well-publicized cases of improper conduct in government, at both national and supranational level, indicate all too clearly. These features include the possession of enough skill, status and independence to offer frank and fearless advice about the formulation and implementation of distinctive public purposes and to try to achieve purposes impartially, responsibly and with energy if not enthusiasm. Representative democracy still needs the bureaucratic ethos.


    1. Anyone wishing to see a paradigm instance of ‘irrefutable metaphysics’ functioning as government policy need look no further than the current British government's Modernising Government (Cmnd 4310, 1999).

    2. The leadership of the National Academy of Public Administration in the USA, for instance, aligned itself with the supporters of this new paradigm to the extent that it created an Alliance for Redesigning Government chaired by David Osborne within its own walls. Such enthusiastic grasping of the ‘opportunities’ provided by ‘change’ was also exhibited by public bureaucrats in other contexts. See, for example, the 1994 article ‘Re-inventing British government’ by the then head of the British Civil Service, Sir (now Lord) Robin Butler.

    3. Under Westminster conventions, legislative and executive powers are united and between them there are none of the formal ‘checks and balances’ present in the American context.

    4. Comparisons with the Derek Lewis case immediately come to mind! Lewis was appointed as Chief Executive of the Prison Service after a career as a television executive in the private sector. In his autobiography, Lewis (1997) raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of public sector management and draws attention to what he considers to be certain crucial weaknesses in the British context. However, his book is also revealing in that it indicates Lewis's lack of familiarity with Civil Service ways of working and, in particular, of the political environment within which that work inevitably occurs and which affected the activities for which he was responsible.

    Perhaps the key issue arising out of all this is that attempts to ‘reinvent’ public administration so that it will function according to ‘regime values’ quite extrinsic to it risk undermining the crucial ethico-political role the public administration plays in liberal-democratic societies such as Britain. Attempting to make public administration embody some goal (e.g. commercial enterprise, consumer sovereignty, wealth maximization, liberty, community) that can be specified apart from public administration and that can serve as the standard by which public administration is to be assessed, is a sure-fire way of losing the determinate content of public administration by making it into something else entirely.

    When a legal practitioner listens to a client's story, for example, she listens with legal ears and what she hears is quite different in its emphases from what the client hears when he tells her his sad story. The client may stress a moment or action that appears to him to be defining of his cause only to hear the lawyer say that it is not something that can be brought under categories with which and within which the law thinks (Fish, 1995: 21). A similar point can be made in relation to the different frameworks within which public administrators and their private sector counterparts operate. The ‘regime values’ that shape the respective endeavours of public administration and commercial enterprise are not identical. Attempts to view one through the lens of the other's complex of concerns are likely to generate more heat than light. ‘Public administrative phenomena’ come into view only under the pressure of a public administrative analysis; otherwise they would not be public administrative phenomena but something quite different. As we saw in Chapter 6, unfortunate consequences can flow from attempts to think the political environment of public administration from the standpoint of private sector management regime values.

    5. Maybe such an exercise would conclude that enhanced representative democracy requires neither more democracy nor less administration? It might even challenge the popular supposition that ‘big’ government is bad government and that ‘lean’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ government is better government. While it would undoubtedly be suspicious of ministerial attempts to vest more control over the public policy process it might not lead to an enthusiastic demand for radical parliamentary reform. Most importantly, perhaps, for our current concerns, it might also reveal the continuing constitutional and ethico-political importance of the kind of worldly professional conscience associated with the ethos of bureaucratic office.


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