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The Bureaucracy is broken? Towards the Neo-Weberian State

By Lukas Fuchs

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The state is more than just government. Civil servants in ministries, schools, universities, prisons, statistical offices, libraries, militaries or innovation labs are central agents in carrying out public services. How should the civil service be organised? How should their careers be structured? How hierarchically or network-based should they operate? How much discretion may they exercise in making decisions affecting citizens? What is the relationship between the civil service and other societal forces, like private industry and NGOs? If these questions sound pivotal to you — which they should, seeing that we live in an administered world — then welcome to the study of public administration reform!

On Friday 14 January 2022, the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) — in collaboration with the journal Max Weber Studies — hosted a panel discussion with one of its Honorary Professors, Geert Bouckaert, who is likely the most prominent scholar in this field. The event was chaired and convened by another Honorary Professor (and expert on the topic), namely Wolfgang Drechsler.

In the early 2000s, Geert Bouckaert identified and traced various public administration ‘paradigms’ (together with the late Christopher Pollitt). One of these — New Public Management — was in vogue at that time and stood for a reform movement bringing private sector values into the public sector: stable long-term careers were replaced by performance-based evaluation and hire-and-fire practices, “citizens” became “customers”; and public service ethos was declared dead and government part of the problem. Continental European States were seen as “laggards” in this public sector “revolution”. However, Pollitt and Bouckaert instead conceptualised these countries as following their own model of bureaucracy — the Neo-Weberian State — the Weberian paradigm updated by genuine New Public Management insights.

Today we ask: Is the Neo-Weberian State a suitable model to deal with our societies’ challenges, such as the post-Covid recovery, climate change and inequality? In Geert Bouckaert’s talk, revisiting and updating his own theory, he argued that the Neo-Weberian State is not just an interesting descriptive insight, but needs to be, and is being, transferred from “ideal type” to reality. For the academically-minded audience, the most novel insight of his talk was perhaps the focus on three concepts (hierarchy, network and market) to map this discussion. Using these as parameters, he showed how different public administration “paradigms” differed along them and which implications this had for their likely success.

Afterwards, a panel of scholars commented on Professor Bouckaert’s talk: Professor Camilla Stivers (Cleveland State), IIPP’s own Nadia Monira Mohamed Taib and Professor Sam Whimster (London Metropolitan University). Their reflections demonstrated diverse approaches towards the subject matter and challenges and opportunities for the Neo-Weberian State. Professor Stivers highlighted the need to incorporate democratic inclusivity and accountability into any public administration model. Ms. Taib, who has worked in senior positions in the Malaysian civil service, discussed some of the practical concerns in transferring administrative ideas from one cultural context to the other. Finally, Professor Whimster brought the discussion back to its intellectual roots and compared the present discussion to the debates at the time when Max Weber published his seminal insights on bureaucracy.

The future of the civil service is of prime importance when we consider the steps necessary to tackle grand challenges through a rethinking of the role of the state and mission-oriented innovation policy. In light of this, we are happy to announce that following this panel event, the journal Max Weber Studies will publish a special issue (July 2022) on “Max Weber and the Neo-Weberian State, with Geert Bouckaert’s essay as lead article. In addition, his essay will also be published as an IIPP Working Paper during the coming days.



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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel