The evolution of Western public service: from personal servants of the sovereign to representative bureaucracy and multi-level governance

Posted: January 25th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, european union, governance, schoolwork, thoughts | No Comments »

Note: This was originally written as a final assignment for a course on Public Service.

This essay aims to discuss the evolution of the Western public service, reflecting on the historical development of it, and then looking at the specific challenges that public services faces today. The essay focuses in that part on representative bureaucracy and its links with multi-level governance and neutrality. It is not an in-depth study, but rather gives some sketches and preliminary observations on these themes. Particular attention will be given to Estonia and the European Union, which are used especially in the latter part of the essay to illustrate specific examples and current issues.

The question of what we need the public service for has had different answers in different times. If one agrees that the definition of the public service is “mediating institutions that mobilise human resources in the service of the affairs of the state in a given territory” (Bekke et al. 1996, cited in Van den Berg 2011), then it is tightly connected with what the state is and what it does. In this way it depends on what is the status of the state in a given time and place as well as the personal position and values of any individual and her experiences vis-a-vis the state.

When discussing the evolution of the role of public service, it is thus necessary to look at the wider context of what the state is and what are the institutions that mediate human resources in state affairs. This essay aims to discuss the development of Western public service in particular due to its dominance in the academic discourse which of course does not mean that other public service traditions are less important or valuable to study. It also aims to draw upon parallels of evolution of public service in a multitude of Western countries, which does not mean that all countries are or were similar in the way the public organisation was organised. Notably, the US and European approaches to public service were and continue to be different in many details, but there is also significant diversity among European states as well.

Raadschelders and Rutgers (1996) identify five phases of public service. They place the origin of the civil service to 13th century when the state appears although they also admit that government existed also before that. Initially, civil servants were the people who took care of matters for the sovereign and since there was no concept of public vs private sphere, the focus of civil service was to serve the sovereign and only the sovereign.

The next significant development, or phase two, according to Raadschelders and Rutgers (1996) came in the state servants, which occurred with the formation of states and speading of the notion that the task of the monarchy is to provide public welfare. The centralisation and unification of the state meant that there were new professional and ethical expectations of what the ideal civil servant should be: experienced, neutral, honest etc. The relative gain in importance of higher functionaries came due to more expenditure and tasks of the state and a larger number of civil servants.

Phase three sees the formalisation and institutionalisation of the civil service which appears in the 18th century. This started the process of separation of the private and the public spheres which created the conditions for the development of the modern civil service. This also meant that that the public service started to wield more power alongside, or even in competition with, the sovereign. This process culminates in the period between 1780 to 1880, when the modern civil service was born (Raadschelders and Rutgers 1996). In this period, civil servants became the employees of the state, more particularly executive branch of government, which was accountable not to the sovereign, but a separate sovereign power. The concepts of separation of powers and Rechtstaat defined and delimited that power. The civil service also became  increasingly hierarchical and organised, and specific recruitment criteria were established, starting the shift of focus to public service as a human resource issue (setting the stage for representative bureaucracy to emerge later).

The next stage of development was to regulate the civil service and protect it from political interference. In this stage the separate employment conditions and social guarantees for public servants were established. It was the birth of the monolithic and hierarchical public service in which emancipated civil servants not only served, but had rights. This also means the growth of the public sector as a whole, because there was a strong demand for state involvement in provision of social and health services.

The last stage means a complete professionalisation of the civil service. This meant strict entrance exams and elite education, a merit based system which brought about a new elite of high civil servants, a class of protected individuals. As this elite education was not accessible to all, this brought about claims of lack of representativeness of the highly professional service. This meant a pressure to balance the merit-based system with representativeness, which is only recently becoming a more discussed topic in many countries.

Of course, in recent times one of the main impact has been the (in a large part unsuccessful) adoption of business sector organisations practices for the state organisation, collectively referred to as New Public Management (Drechsler 2009). Although the hey-day of NPM was relatively short-lived, it brought a renewed focus on efficiency and reduction of the size of state and public service that has resumed in many places. For example, all concepts of state reform in Estonia still foresee the reduction of number of public servants as the population is also declining. The relative size of government and number of inhabitants do not need to necessarily bear relation to each other, it rather depends on what is the role of the state and public service in a given country.

There are many challenges and possibilities for the public service for the coming years, which will shape what it will become. There are numerous issues that can and should be written about. Future is unpredictable and context changes rapidly due to technological and other events; recent paradigmatic changes have occured due to 11 September attacks and the financial crisis. The impact of these events on the state could not have been foreseen, but it is profound. The emergence of a surveillance and security state, which was revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden and the constant challenges of slimming down the public service have been reactions to the Black Swan events for which people and states were not prepared for.

It is thus questionable whether any specific direction can be predicted or undertaken. We now live in an interconnected and interdependent world of multi-level governance which cannot be controlled or directed due to its sheer complexity. In a multi-level governance setting, the state as a whole and each public official individually is facing a difficult choice of a multitude of relationships and allegiances. I will look at three issues in this setting: representative bureaucracy, value-neutrality and supra-nationality.

In terms of representative bureaucracy one of the main changes that the public service is undergoing is the gradual introduction of diversity and inclusion. This means that each public sector organisation should ideally mirror the ethnic and other types of diversity of those that it governs. In Estonia, the example of inclusion of people with disabilities and of Russian national orgin has been under discussion. The Estonian government has, as a consequence of criticism of its disability benefits reform, promised to employ ca 1000 people with disabilities in the public sector by 2020. This, however, has not been due to ideas of representative bureaucracy, but in order to show an example for the private sector that these people are employable as such.

In terms of challenges for the next years, the challenge of building a more representative bureaucracy is going to be one of the main one. In many countries there are already plans to set specific targets, such as the diversity policy of the Flemish government (De Beeck and Hondeghem 2010), which mentions representative bureaucracy as one of the arguments for diversity and inclusion in the public sector. Although diversity and inclusion has been mainly a private sector initiative, it has been adopted by the public sector using the same organisatsional management arguments by public sector organisations. In my opinion the recent focus on representative democracy stems from both its origins from the private sector (which is using a business case for diversity approach) and also from the propagation of equality and diversity in the EU level (for which it has been given competence). This means that one of the change is that we are going to see more debates around representativeness of public sector in addition to more traditional topics of representation of minorities and women in the political structures and sphere.  In Estonia the topic is still relatively new, although recently state institutions, such as the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund and Estonian Social Protection Fund signed up to the Estonian Diversity Charter, which had previously had only businesses as members. Although invited, none of the government ministries joined at this time.

It has also been shown that representative bureaucracy also brings about organisational performance gains (Meier and Capers 2012), which is counterintuitive, as people associated strictly merit based organisations with more professionalism, although there is not a lot of research in this area yet. It has also been shown that representative organisations have better chances at achieving meaningful co-production and overall better attitudes towards the state institutions.

At the same time, representative bureaucracy is difficult to achieve, because it also depends on the awareness and attitudes, i.e. the social context, but also on the willingness of civil servants to make the changes. Representativeness cannot be solely mechanical or outside of the political context (Meier and Capers 2012), it rather requires a sensitivity and custom approach that is fitting to the specific circumstances and time.

It is difficult to evaluate what the impact of passive, but especially active, representative bureaucracy will be. It has already been shown that there are informal networks consisting of politicians, public officials in the state, local, European levels, academics, lawyers, NGO activists and businesspeople that actively promote a specific interest or value and push for better policies. This has happened for example in the area of legislating same-sex unions in which transnational networks have played an important role (Paternotte and Kollman 2013) as has so-called Velvet Triangle networks for gender equality.

This brings about the question of neutrality of the public servant when it is actively pursuing to protect and advance interests and rights of a specific group. Does active representative bureaucracy means that a value-neutral public service becomes an impossibility? The neutrality of public service has meant traditionally the separation of public servants from the political philosophies and ideologies of the political rulers, as to ensure that it is not necessary to exchange all public servants after a change of political direction (as happens with senior officials in the US).  This is different from public officials having their personal values influencing policy outcomes, which can happens in any case (Witesman and Walters 2013). In this sense representative bureaucracy has existed for a long time, it is only now it has been a subject of more academic research.

So one can argue that value-neutrality in public administration is a practical impossibility and rather than try to protect against it, it should be embraced and brought out into the open. There are specific values that the state stands for that are politically very contested and of course depend on the specific context of the state. In a wider sense, the values of the state are prescribed in constitutions or, in the EU’s case, in the founding treaties. However, the practical application and interpretation of these values by public servants is a more complicated matter. For example, the Estonian constitution has conflicting human rights based values of liberal democracy, but at the same time stressing the importance of ensuring the continuation of the Estonian ethnic nation by internal reproduction (Velmet 2014). In this context how a public servant sees an issue has important implications for policy outcomes.

Public service is not influenced only by national actors, but also trans- and supranational ones. In the European Union, which is the most advanced example of multi-level governance, national public servants participate in policymaking in the European level. Although the national officials work for the national governments (and should it theory mainly represent the interests of their government), this is not necessarily always so. For example, national public servants can be seconded to work in the European level institutions, which can have an impact on how they perceive their work even after the end of secondment. On the other hand, transnational relationships formed between officials can also work for or against the promotion and spreading of certain policy goals, values and laws.

The impact of Europeanisation for public service is much larger topic than just representativeness, but this also brings out the question of who exactly is the subject of a (national) public servant? If the decisions of public servants also have an impact in the lives of people in other member states, then who should this person represent? This might not necessarily mean, then that public service should also include foreign nationals. Member States can deny foreign nationals access to certain core public service positions, which have a special trust relationship with the state.

Representative bureaucracy in a multi-level governance setting is something that will have a  impact on public service in the next years. For example, the (informal) networks of state security public servants/business interests/politicians go against other networks of those politicans, public servants/activists and others that promote privacy and fundamental rights. Active representative bureaucracy means a more level playing field between these competing interests, since it brings in more diversity of voices and allows for better coordination and organisation.

Since the political decisionmaking in the EU has specific deficiencies in terms of democratic governance, representative bureaucracy could offer one of the remedies for overcoming the impasse in policymaking in the European level. This is already happening in the form of Open Method of Coordination, scoreboards and other soft law tools that are usually put together by officials with a specific aim to influence Member States to change their policies in a way that is bypassing democratic decisionmaking by the European Parliament and the Council.

This essay attempted to look at the evolution of Western public service and discuss the changes that are going to impact public service in the future, focusing specifically on representative democracy, neutrality and multi-level governance. It identified some of the pitfalls and opportunities offered by these developments in the current changing context and attempted to bring forward some preliminary observations in this field. One can only hope that these developments do not compromise the enormous social and economic value offered by public service, but are rather used to make it more responsive, just and equitable.

Tallinn, 5 January 2015


De Beeck, S. O. P. and A. Hondeghem. 2010. Evaluation of the Flemish Government’s Diversity Policy. Paper for the EGPA Conference 2010 Toulouse, France.

Drechsler, W. 2009. The rise and demise of the New Public Management: Lessons and opportunities for South East Europe. Uprava-Administration 7.3

Meier, K.J. and K.J. Capers. 2012. Representative bureaucracy: four questions. In: Peters, G. and J. Pierre. Handbook of Public Administration (2nd ed.), London: SAGE, pp. 420-430.

Paternotte, D. and K. Kollman. 2013. Regulating intimate relationships in the European polity: same-sex unions and policy convergence. Soc Pol.

Raadschelders, J. and M. Rutgers. 1996. The evolution of civil service systems. In: H. Bekke, J. Perry and T. Toonen (eds). Civil Service Systems in Comparative Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 67–99.

Van den Berg, C. F. 2011. Transforming for Europe: the reshaping of national bureaucracies in a system of Multi-level governance. Leiden University Press.

Velmet, A. 2014. Kooseluseadus ja liberaalse rahvusriigi paradoks. Available at:

Witesman, E. and L. Walters. 2013 Public service values: A new approach to the study of motivation in the public sphere. Public Administration. pp. 375 – 405.

Leave a Reply