Reforming public administration in Europe demands a good grasp of nuances

Too different? Europe’s bureaucracies defy uniform approaches to reform, writes Gerhard Hammerschmid.

Contrary to many predictions that greater European integration would lead to a convergence of public administration reform, administrative systems and reform practices across Europe today remain highly heterogeneous, EU-funded COCOPS research shows.

Based on the largest survey of top bureaucrats in Europe undertaken to date, COCOPS (Coordinating for Cohesion in the Public Sector of the Future)  is a unique source of data and evidence on the shape and development of Europe’s public administrations. Drawing on the experiences and perceptions of 6,701 top executives in 17 European countries, the research paints a picture of the current state of public administration reform and provides new insights into the world of Europe’s bureaucratic elites. The findings are featured in the new COCOPS book, Public Administration Reforms in Europe: The View from the Top.

While public administration reform is alive and well in Europe and high on the agenda of most governments, approaches and outcomes vary substantially. There are many reforms aimed at improving transparency, collaboration and e-government – especially in Estonia, Finland, Norway and Portugal, for example.  And there is evidence that New Public Management (NPM) – the idea that private sector concepts are applicable to the public sector – remains a powerful force. Downsizing and focusing on outcomes are top priorities in most countries (especially in Ireland, the Netherlands and UK), and management concepts such as strategic planning, management by results and performance appraisal are widely used by most  governments. There are substantial differences between managerial ´champions´ such as the UK, Estonia, Norway and the Netherlands, and more legalistic and traditional public administrations such as in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary and Spain where key ideas of a legalistic Weberian-style bureaucracy are still deeply embedded.

Continental European countries seem to be the least enthusiastic reformers, while the countries of Northern Europe appear to be the most committed to radical administrative change. In Southern and Eastern European countries, cost and efficiency concerns have proven fertile grounds for downsizing and NPM-related reforms.

Regarding administrative systems, there are strikingly different levels of politicisation, even among countries of a similar tradition (e.g. Austria more politicised than Germany; Sweden more politicised than Denmark). Political interference in senior level appointments is perceived as substantially higher in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Austria and Italy, whereas Iceland, Denmark, Ireland or the Netherlands seem to be quite immune to such politicisation.

More in-depth analysis of individual countries shows that administrative traditions or fiscal circumstances  are not always helpful in explaining or predicting the dynamic and direction of reforms. The politics of each country, in particular, plays a critical role in shaping the strength of commitment to,  and particular types of, administrative reforms. For example, there are substantial differences in the scale of reform between Germany and France,  both regarded as  paradigms of Continental European public administration. In France, the power of the central state was instrumental in enabling the  government to push through major structural reforms such as mergers of government departments or a new budgetary system. In contrast, Germany´s strong federal system, along with a more pronounced legalistic tradition, only allowed incremental changes. Germany is one of the very few countries where top executives overall see a need for more reforms.  In most surveyed countries, a majority of top executives perceives too many reforms.

There are also significant country differences in the backgrounds, experiences, values and role perceptions of bureaucratic elites.. The share of female top-executives in our sample varies significantly: from 16.9% in Germany or 22.7% in the Netherlands, up to 40-50% in most Scandinavian and Eastern European countries. With regard to educational background, we see a clear dominance of legally trained top executives in countries such as Hungary (47.5%), Germany (45.6%) and Italy (43.9%) whereas in other countries disciplines such as business and economics (e.g. in Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands, UK), political sciences and public administration (e.g. Denmark) or natural sciences and engineering (e.g. Serbia, Lithuania, Estonia, France) are prevalent. Careers in central governments still seem to be rather closed to the private sector. Only 11.2% of the surveyed top executives had  private sector work experience of more than ten years (ranging from 3.6% in Germany to 22.6% in the UK).

What key lessons can we derive for future public administrations in Europe? Our findings reveal that the multifaceted nature of  administrative systems and reform developments requires careful attention to subtle differences – even between countries with apparently similar administrative traditions. This goes hand-in-hand with a continuous need for further public administration reforms, due to a sobering success of many reforms to date . The surveyed elites tend to report a modest improvement on managerial issues such as efficiency, service quality and innovation, but also observe the deterioration of important dimensions such as staff motivation, attractiveness of the public sector as an employer, social cohesion and citizen trust in government. More systematic and comparative evidence on countries’ needs for reform as well  which reforms have worked well (or not) is essential and should guide the agenda for reforming and strengthening public administration throughout Europe.

More about the author

  • Gerhard Hammerschmid , Professor of Public and Financial Management | Director, Centre for Digital Governance