A Reflection: Developments in Public Administration

RippleBy Harrie Scholtens*

The developments in public administration over the last decade could be called intense.  Economic circumstances, technological developments, citizens demanding integrity: they all make radical changes in public administration necessary. That’s what this article is about.

Political environment
How different is the behaviour of a member of a Parliament or town council from 20 years ago, and from today? Politics from that time is now often called ‘old politics’. But is ‘new politics’ better than ‘old politics’? This is not necessarily the case of course. In former days, politics was in the right sense, a representative system. Once every several years citizens would choose their representative boards. It was during the post-election years that the “independent” political bodies were no longer really listening to citizens until it was time for new elections. They were operating to find majorities in all kinds of political ‘games’. That was how decisions were reached, and after the period between elections, the voter could express their opinion about the previous period via the voting booth.

This period of ‘old politics’ was the representative democracy in its pure form. The chosen political bodies would represent the people during the time between elections, which meant that there was in principle no interim consultation of the people during that time. It gives the politicians the opportunity ‘to play their game’: the game of finding majorities for proposals they want to realise. These majorities were mostly found in talks behind closed doors, more or less without transparency. Politicians were used to this practice and their qualities were (in general): to be good speakers and act nimbly in the political jungle. For very important questions there was often some time to contemplate the consequences. In many cases there was even some time to find an explanation for the fact that the solution was sometimes different from the promises which were made at the time of election.

There was even some time to explain why it was not wise to blindly follow the ‘one-liners’ of some politicians. Reality still had a chance to rule political decision-making. Of course, there were the ‘sixties’ and other periods of change, and they led to further changes; but nothing can be compared with these current times. And the reason is? The technical and electronic revolution.

Nowadays we still have elections. But instead of an election period of several weeks before the real election, almost every day is election time and it seems as if time is passing faster. This is a result of modern technology. People are communicating with each other through modern technology. We can witness all kinds of events happening across the world in real time. The world is coming into our living room, and we can react immediately to all kinds of events that are occurring anywhere. Opinions are given via modern social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and then collected by the news media and spread all over the world.  Individual opinions can thus become a regular opinion in a very short time. The reality, however, is that these kinds of opinions are not always based on facts, but more and more on personal feelings.

These reactions from the public require action from government, and almost without time to think about the consequences of a response. They make use of the same information channels as the public and the discussions about our future now often taken place in the (social) media, with one-liners and sometimes a more fundamental debate.  The result is that, nowadays, for the most part, fundamental discussions about our future do not take place in our democratic and chosen institutions.

This calls for a different kind of politician than some decades ago. The ability to make a good speech is always necessary, but nowadays, the capacity to put your point across in a few words or sentences is also important: statements seem to be more important than policy. Due to the economic situation, this is now the time for politicians from parties with a populist character. Populist politicians live on one-liners without (any) depth. Online there are almost no borders between the meaning of good and correct behaviour, and almost no boundaries in the use of social media. Many examples can be given already. The use of (social) media is therefore a strong weapon in the hands of people, and governments must be prepared for it. Minor topics are magnified in the press and modern communication channels. Debates in Parliament are commented upon in advance and those comments are supported by polls. All of this information will affect the discussions in the representative institutions. For politicians it is very difficult to change opinions in debates which were brought to the public through the (social) media.

The representative democracy is slowly changing from representatives in Houses of Parliament to the debater in the (social) media; this is where it takes place. More and more political decisions will take place in interaction with citizens, which is made possible by modern techniques. We will see that between elections, political parties must be in discussion with the citizens, and if they are not doing this voluntarily, the society will force them to do so. They have to use the knowledge they get from this discussion in the preparation of the final decision in Parliament. As long as one party does not have a majority in a Parliament, negotiations will be necessary in that case.

But a more fundamental discussion is also needed. What can be seen almost all over the world is that whenever there are elections, in almost every election fewer citizens will take part in them. There is almost no longer any trust in this kind of political system. The only exceptions are the ‘new democracies’, countries where citizens have been given the vote for the first time or are voting for almost the first time. In those countries, democracy and voting is still seen as a privilege.

In most cases, an average of 50% of the people who are allowed to vote, actually do vote. The average for elections for town councils will be higher, and for national or supra national elections sometimes lower. With this kind of low voting turnout during elections, it’s no wonder that decisions of parliaments and other representative chosen institutions are often not accepted.

Besides these more representative aspects, we can also see the independence of the citizens in topics which in the past were typical and even only government tasks.  Think of safety, for example.  When something happens in a neighbourhood, citizens are mobilised through social media and start, for instance, a search for a missing person: in the past this was exclusively the task of the police. Another example is what happens when, for instance, a person who is a known sex offender comes to live in a neighbourhood. When people learn of this through the social media, they will start a movement to keep such a person away from the neighbourhood. Which politician would not listen to these kinds of groups, even though they know that these types of people also have rights which were also set in a democratic way?

A last example is the development that people can express their dissatisfaction when they get a fine for speeding. There is no need for dissatisfaction if people don’t drive too fast in places where there is a speed limit: a speed limit based on regulations set in a democratic way.

The red thread is people are searching for their individual freedom. Nowadays, they use every way possible to express this, searching for traditional media and using modern social media. Politicians thus have to deal with this. It is very difficult to stick to a long-term vision during election time, and this kind of examples happen. Populism lurks and we all know that it doesn’t always create pleasant moments.

Organisational environment
Of course all these developments have their consequences for the functioning of public organisations (of civil servants). Civil servants must have the qualification to function in ‘times of old politics’ and in these times. This is the situation when there is no change in administration after an election.

But even when there is an administrative change, very often it will concern people who have previously worked for a governmental organisation. They will all experience the change in how the relationship between government and citizens develops. It means that civil servants need other qualities and competences. Civil servants nowadays have to go outside and understand society in order to support the democratically chosen government in a good way.

During the time of ‘old politics’ governmental organisations were used to supporting the democratically chosen representatives who were concentrated on doing their job during the time between two elections. The result was an organisation which was mostly busy with internal tasks and not looking outside the governmental buildings at what was happening in the real world, and moreover, what was really being asked of a governmental organisation by the people. In many cases it was a kind of monastery filled with hard-working monks. Advice was often in the field of regulations, which were realised by negotiations. Today, these regulations are still necessary, but advice in the field of communication is almost as important as the content of a regulation.

These times call for an interactive government, and thus civil servants with a competency for interactive government: civil servants who dare to discuss with citizens based on facts, but who are still open to other directions of policy. They should also be creative in this task; this kind of freedom in work also means that it is allowed to make mistakes and to solve them whilst being free of blame.

However strange it may sound, advice nowadays has to be concentrated on communication. How do we tell the politicians what we expect to happen, what the right way to act is, and how to let we know that we have listened to the ‘outside’? More and more, a (self-) learning organisation must be developed.

All these changes require a new way of leadership – not a ‘top-down’ one, but more a form of coaching: coaching on how to advise political organisations in the right way to, of course, advise on the content of a topic, but also about ‘how to act’ and to see the risks of a certain decision.

Society is developing from a ‘representative democracy’ to a ‘media-based interactive democracy’. The preparation for decision-making in a representative and democratic way by chosen institutions will increasingly take place outside these institutions. Nowadays it’s happening on the street, on the internet and in the papers. The danger of this development is that decisions are based on a short-term vision. Long-term effects are disappearing behind the horizon.

Political and organisational leadership, fitting into these times, are required to guide society through this and the future, as well as leaders with trust in the work of civil servants and the know-how to correct them if they do their work in the wrong way.

Communication is one of the key words in modern government and all those who are concerned with governmental tasks must be aware of that.


Maastricht, 11 March 2014

*Harrie Scholtens is Seconded National Expert at EIPA (European Institute of Public Administration) Maastricht, the Netherlands. He writes on personal title.