Towards a new civic bureaucracy

By: Matthew J. Quinn

Why does it often seem so difficult to engage with government bodies about the value of working in places and of co-producing ideas and actions with local communities? This has been something I’ve wrestled with over my career in public service in the UK and, more recently, as part of the SUSPLACE project team. Every time there seemed to be progress in administrations pursuing co-production and support for local communities to shape or govern their own futures, something seemed to cut across it and drag it back to a top-down approach, leaving participants frustrated and disillusioned.

In my book, ‘Towards a new civic bureaucracy: lessons from sustainable development for the crisis of governance’, I set out to explore in detail how and why place-based working and related deliberative and systemic approaches to governing for sustainable development simply seem not to ‘compute’ with the deeply embedded practice and narratives of public bureaucracy. In researching for the book, I was also struck by the connection of this practice to wider public disaffection with democratic governance.

The systems understanding which lies at the heart of sustainability and place is a real problem. The siloed organization of public bureaucracy runs very deep. This determines the spread of responsibilities, to whom you are answerable and on what you can spend funds or legislate. The narrow purple or function of the silo equally bounds the rationality which has to be applied. Many of the siloes correspond to professional or academic disciplines which each have their own view of the world. I was amused to remind myself in preparing the book, that Max Weber covers academia in a subset of his chapter on bureaucracy in the classic work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Bureaucrats and academics pursue a zweckrationalität, as Weber dubbed it, where the specific, bounded goal is pursed technocratically and without regard to wider values or emotions. This is an industrial not an ecological model of how things work.

From my cases and interviews with colleagues, bureaucratic rationality is further bounded by detailed practice – the tools and rules.  These are almost all economic and financial tests: numerical hurdles to be met which exercise a ‘metric power’ over what and how things are considered. This is the world of cost-benefit analysis, of discount rates, of requirements for best financial return or lowest price, of modelling and prediction, of short-term funding cycles, of payment for ecosystem services, nature-based solutions and other market-based instruments. These squeeze out values other than narrow economic efficiency and economic ‘growth’. This sustains what Michel Foucault described as a governmentality with political economy as its purpose

Alongside this bounded rationality, the systems of management, accountability and risk drive a managerialist need for control in pursuit of accounting, order and uniformity – performance indicators, closely defined invitations to bid for work, audit against original goals, hierarchies of oversight, and impenetrable forms. These do not permit reflexivity and are not open to possibilities of local variation, community control or pursuit of civic dialogue.

In seeking possibilities for bureaucracy to work in new ways, the book looks to the tradition of civic republicanism and to an ecological rather than an industrial analogy. In contrast to current practice, civic republicanism sees the purpose of the design of the institutions of government not as a technocratic efficiency but as the means to avoid tyranny and minimise domination by and over others. A corresponding ecological model of governance looks fundamentally not at the parts but at the whole and seeks a reflexive, collaborative and connected approach in which effective feedback and co-operation, not control, are central. Together these offer a blueprint for an unbounding of the existing narrow rationality of public administration and an unlearning of its controlling practice.

I was fortunate to play a part in the Welsh Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015 which made a practical attempt to provide new rationale for governance in place of a narrow economic rationale and toolkit. The Act set sustainable development as the purpose of governing and expressed this through seven narrative goals in which the work of public bodies and government could find common purpose and connection. It also established five ways of working – long-term, joined-up, collaborative, integrative and involving – in an attempt to reshape present practice. The Act put ‘place’ centre stage as a means to deliver these approaches through new statutory local public service boards developing well-being plans for their areas, linked to area natural resource statements. 

The Welsh Act remains a singular example of legislation which seeks to govern for sustainable development by establishing a different form of administrative practice. While this remains to date more ‘a license to think differently’ than a complete model, innovations like this from the field of sustainable development do open the possibility of creating a very different administrative world. This would be a world in which local connectedness and wider values have voice and agency within a new civic and ecological purpose for governance. Through this, we may together transform places for the better: living well both with one another and with the earth. 

Click here for more information on the book.

Matthew J. Quinn has over 30 years of experience of work on sustainability governance as a senior UK official. He is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Cardiff University.

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