Kant and Facebook

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: governance, human rights, law, politics, privacy, schoolwork, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

This essay was originally written as a final assignment for the State and Governance class I took this Fall.

This essay aims to consider the concept of the autonomous individual and its role in the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant. This applicability of the concept to a world that is changing due to social media is then analysed in parallel with other pressures. Finally, possibilities to uphold individual autonomy in this new context are explored briefly.

Kant’s autonomous individual

Kant believed strongly in the rationality and morality of an individual. In order to be moral one needs to be able to make choices, which is where individual autonomy comes in. If an individual makes a moral choice, only then she can be praised for it (Berlin 1971). Berlin puts it:

“If I choose to do what I do, not because I am free to choose between them, but because I am conditioned to do so, by whatever it may be – by education, by my passions, by the behaviour of my body, by the pressure upon me of my society, by any kind of force, whether the external forces of nature or the forces of nurture or education or, as I say, my own emotions – if I am in fact conditioned, if I am simply an object in nature like stones and animals, who cannot help acting as they do, so that some men are generous because they cannot help being generous and others are mean because they cannot help being mean, how then can praise and blame be rationally used?” (Berlin 1971)

This central tenet of Kant’s political philosophy distinguishes human beings from other animals and objects. Kant believed that human beings as autonomous individuals are able to tell right from wrong, if the time comes for such a decision. The autonomous individual is, in turn, an important cornerstone for Kant’s political philosophy.

This autonomy is not mere right to make choice and decisions, but it is the possibility to make choices without influence of others, without social conditioning. It places value in the individual uniqueness of each person and her dignity. In this way human beings can make moral judgments that are also rational. This also means that human beings are capable of self-government and is the basis behind the formation of constitutions and democratic constitutional republics.

Autonomy and freedom are not the same. Autonomy is a state in which a person can be in whereas freedom can refer to specific actions: it can even mean a choice to reduce one’s personal freedom (Feinberg 1982):

“Where manipulative techniques are used to open a person’s options with his voluntary consent, there is an enlargement of freedom and no violation of autonomy; hence, this is the least troublesome category. A harder case is that in which a person consents to behavior control which closes some options irrevocably for the sake of a good he has come to value more than his freedom. Respect for autonomy requires noninterference with such choices provided they are genuinely voluntary and fully informed. On the other hand, manipulation of a person without his consent in order to close his options restricts freedom and violates autonomy too. This third category is the most obviously impermissible kind of case. The most troublesome and controversial kind of case, in contrast, is that in which a person is manipulated without his consent for the benign purpose of enlarging his future freedom of choice, but even here, the doctrine of personal sovereignty requires that a person’s moral right to govern himself within his sovereign domain be given precedence even over his future defacto freedom.” (Feinberg 1982).

The loss of autonomy has a much more profound impact on an individual than the (temporary) loss of freedom. In the Kantian sense, individual autonomy is an ideal state.

Kant’s political philosophy is the basis of liberal democracy and the current organisation of the world into states as political entities. We live in a Kantian world, with the concept of the Rechtstaat, a constitutional state which is constrained by human rights and the underlying principles of which stem from the moral values and consent of its citizens.

Focusing on the individual, Kant believed in a republican political order and not in direct democracy. He stated: “… that of democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which “all” decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, “all,” who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom” (Kant 1795). Thus Kant sided with the individual always, and not with the will of the majority, which he saw as despotism. This is an important distinction that highlights how important Kant considered individual human beings and their autonomy.

Indeed, individual autonomy is a necessary building block from which the Rechtstaat can be built. Autonomous individuals who have an innate understanding of morality choose to associate themselves with others in a political entity in which they agree to be bound by a constitution that reflects those basic moral values. In this state that is based on the principle of Rechtstaat, those individuals retain autonomy and are protected against misuse of power. Other states, which are constructed in the same way, are co-existing peacefully with each other in a global setting.

The Kantian concept of individual autonomy is very much present in John Stuart Mill’s philosphophy, in which he claims it to be “one of the elements of well-being” (Mill 1859). This has been further advanced by Rawls, who considers individual consent essential for his theory of justice (Christman 2014).

Web 2.0

We live in a ICT-centric techno-economic paradigm (Perez 2009). The most powerful technology in this era is the World Wide Web that is changing our society and our behaviour. The Internet was initially text-based and mostly one-way communication in which information was made available on various websites for individual users. Although Web 2.0 is a buzzword that is difficult to define, it is commonly used to denote innovations in websites, including the use of new technologies such as AJAX, social components such as user profiles, friend links and like buttons, user-generated content in different formats (text, video, photos) that also invite comments and ratings (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008). The social aspects of Web 2.0 include:

  • users as entities in the website system, with individualised profiles that includes information about the user that may be added by the user or other users;
  • formation of connections between those users, either individual connections between “friends” or membership of common groups or subscription to information shared by other users (“following”);
  • the possibility to add text, photo, video or other content to the site and to content published by other users, with some control of privacy and sharing
  • other social features including public APIs that allow third party content to bed fed to other sites or embedded in the site in question, as well as real-time chat features. (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008).

The social and “sharing” features have enjoyed considerable success, with social media sites among the most popular on the web. At the time of writing of this paper, there were 1,35 billion daily Facebook users and 323 million daily users of twitter (out of a total of ca 3 billion internet users).  In the United States in January 2014, 74% of all internet users used social networking site of some kind whereas 89% of users aged 18-29 do.

The implications of Web 2.0 and its impact on the protection of privacy has divided experts. According to a recent report by Pew Research Center, experts remain divided over whether there will or will not be a global widely accepted privacy infrastructure in 2025 (Pew Research Center 2014). Those who were more sceptical believed that only a few can protect themselves against “dataveillance”, global agreements are difficult to reach and Internet of Things will make the situation a lot worse. Those who were more optimistic believed that there will be a more tiered approach to privacy and consumers will have new tools to self-manage privacy settings, that there will be a backlash against invasion of privacy. However, experts agreed that revealing personal information to the state and corporations is the new default and that people will adjust their norms to it.

Web 2.0 also has additional implications for democracy in addition to privacy issues, it is questioned whether the existing democratic systems are suitable for the constantly networked young people (Loader et al 2014). Loader reprints Russell Brand’s defence of non-voting:

“I’m not voting out of apathy, I’m not voting out of absolute indifference, and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations and which has reached fever pitch where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system. And that is not something I’m offering up.” (Loader et al 2014)

 Younger generations might consider representative democracy archaic and “uncool” and thus will be even more disillusioned and uninterested in the existing systems. Although efforts are being made to make voting cool for the connected generation (by introducing e-voting for example), this can have unintended consequences on the overall functioning of the democratic governance system and infringe on the basic safeguards that guarantee against fraud and abuse.

Autonomy and social media

Social media also changes our individual selves, because a person continues to have a singular identity that is the same in both online and offline world (Ess 2015). This means that what happens in social media has changes offline lives as well. In this context, Ess considers that in Western countries there is a shift away from the rational, individual and autonomous individual towards emotive and relational individual that increasingly defines herself through relationships she has with others. This is supported by the changing attitudes towards privacy and (intellectual) property that are no longer exclusive and individual, mainly due to the virtual abundance offered by the internet (Kostakis and Drechsler 2013). At the same time, in Eastern countries there is a shift from relational to a more individual emphasis, which means a kind of convergence in the middle.

The key factor in autonomy is individual privacy. The right to privacy became relevant with the advent of the first mass communication technologies, i.e. photographs in a newspaper (Warren and Brandeis 1890). As a consequence of abuses by totalitarian regimes that took advantage of technologies that allowed for infringement of privacy, a strong framework of laws has been in place that guarantees individual privacy, especially in Europe. In the current era right to privacy is seen by some as unimportant, but it would be more correct to note that the understanding and usage of the right to privacy has transformed. Research has shown a phenomenon that could be described as “partial publicity” or “public privacy” which essential means that privacy has become multilayered and that there are several shades of gray between total publicity and total individual privacy (Ess 2015). A new form of subactivism has been identified occurring in the social media space that “is not about political power in the strict sense, but about personal empowerment seen as the power of the subject to be the person that they want to be in accordance with his or her reflexively chosen moral and political standards.“ (Bakardijeva 2009).

As a consequence of the developments of social media, especially in the sense of loss/transformation of privacy, the Western understanding of self is moving away from individual sense of selfhood (that is essential for an autonomous and rational individual) towards a more relational sense of selfhood (Ess 2015).

The other impact that social media has, is the changes in communication. The (national) public sphere is weakened due to the fragmentation enabled by the web, which is dominated by commercial interests. There is a fragmented public sphere in which people are in their own social bubbles in which they engage in computer-mediated communication using non-neutral algorithms programmed to maximise profit or potentially used for something more sinister.

It is well known that Facebook and other social media sites exploit privacy for commercial gain. The business model relies on individuals using social media and reveal more to others, i.e. “if you are not paying for it, you are the product”.

Jürgen Habermas has stated in an interview with FT:

“The internet generates a centrifugal force, …[i]t releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

Seyla Benhabib also sees profound changes in the democratic models induced by new forms of media:

 “The emergence of new media technologies, and new centres of information is leading to everyone doing their “own thing,” so to speak. It’s as if people are going around with bubble wrap around their brains. And inside the bubble wrap is the informational world that they themselves have generated. When we first articulated this model about the interaction of the strong and weak public spheres in the late 1980s and 1990s, many of us were thinking of transformations in Eastern Europe, the emergence of civil society movements, strong women’s movements, ecology and youth movements in the West, and so the model was one of a decentred, weak public sphere of anonymous conversations and networks that would then have some impact on the decisional public sphere. Now, we need to reconsider this model in the light of the complete proliferation of the electronic media and public spheres – the rise of FaceBook; YouTube; community and citizen journalism, etc…”

Thus in an abundance of information and communication options, people are for the first time able to choose for themselves also which spheres to belong to and which to form. Communication no longer knows state and community boundaries, people are no longer bound by their associations in a spatial ways. Also, the former borders of specific ingroups and outgroups are becoming fuzzy and individual identities are becoming blurred as well, which adds to the pressure of relational rather than individual selves, because the latter are not so easy to define any more.

One could imagine a not so distant future in which Facebook and/or its descendants have become even more persuasive than today. Already today, Facebook has shown that it is willing to ethically questionable and possibly illegal social experiments that change the mood of its users. It also already manipulates voting patterns by pushing people to vote by creating peer pressure to go to polls. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that at some point in the not so distant future Facebook could manipulate and nudge users to vote for a particular candidate or political party. For example, it could manipulate its feed algorithms to show more news stories that could make people vote progressive or conservative. As the algorithms are secret, it is not possible to know whether this is already not done.

Currently Facebook already allows paid political advertising. In Estonia, where outdoor political advertising has been banned to improve the quality of democratic debate, an extremely poor decision upheld by an even worse judgment by the Estonian Supreme Court, it is allowed to have banner ads that direct you to the e-voting site where you can vote for your candidate. As social media advertising techniques surely improve, it will be easier than ever to nudge you to vote in the “right” direction, by analysing the commercially available data. You can then be targeted with tailored messages.

The autonomous individual is not only in danger during elections, but social media has also helped to create the conditions to impact the state in other ways.

As social media offers technological tools for bringing together large groups, potentially the whole population, there has been renewed interest towards direct democracy and deliberative democracy. Direct democracy was considered to be despotism by Kant and there is no reason to believe that widespread use of direct democracy would not result in worsening of the status and conditions of minorities. Even when Facebook itself has tried to emply direct democracy methods, it has had to face failure.

Mediacratisation has also been heightened by social media, in which it is much easier to induce moral panics that can be used to force changes in policies or even impact legislative processes. In November 2014, Estonian Minister of Finance resigned due to a arguably Russophobic comment he made on Facebook when commenting there. Even if one agrees that such comment was unacceptable (and I personally do), it shows that politicians are facing new pressures from social media sources, which can organise quickly for or against a specific cause. This could lead to a world of emotional voting which was depicted in the sci-fi TV series “Black Mirror” episode “The Waldo Moment”.

Possibilities for “Facebook Kantianism”

For a Kantian autonomous individual to survive there are several ways to preserve it and keep Facebook too. This requires to regulate Facebook on a global scale, which is difficult, but nevertheless achievable.

If one considers Kantianism as the perseverance of the autonomous individual in a social media setting, then interesting possibilities arise. It partly depends on whether one considers Facebook as a neutral and mechanical platform that simply replicates online the processes that happen offline. However, it seems that Facebook goes far beyond that. The algorithms that define what gets shown to whom are programmed by human beings and even if they try to stay neutral, it is rather impossible to do.

It could be that the solution is the regulation of Facebook according to an understanding of hybrid self (Ess 2015), which means that Kantian autonomy is consciously and deliberately preserved for those purposes which require moral judgment and which have wider political consequences, whereas in other relationships a more relational side prevails. There needs to be some way of delineating these aspects and also regulation that prevents any infringements of the independent side. This means certainly more regulation of Facebook and the likes and an enforceable ban on those activities that intrude on autonomy. Regulation of Facebook is, however, somewhat difficult as it already wields enormous political influence.

Another option would be a move towards cosmopolitan federalism, which would expand the Kantian concept of autonomy beyond the borders of the state. This is supported by the fact that democracy is undergoing a transformation also due to the decoupling of state and citizenship. Nation state is losing its monopoly to trans- and supranational, but also local levels of governance, leading to a growing ideas of globalised governance.

This does not necessarily mean the end of a nation state. Benhabib writes:

“This sketchy vision of cosmopolitan federalism is not based upon a hostility toward the nation-state; quite to the contrary. Only within a framework of sub- and transnational modes of cooperation, representation, and collaboration is it possible to protect the fundamental values of liberal and republican liberty, that is of private and public autonomy.”  (Benhabib 2005).

The fate of the autonomous individual is uncertain. However, if enlightenment values such as human rights, equality and democracy, upon which Western societies have so far prospered and which have managed to maintain a relative level of peace and non-violence in the world, were to be upheld more attention should be diverted towards the impact of social media on the concept. It might be necessary to create global regulation that would ensure that technology does not end up controlling human beings, but human beings continue to have autonomy in the dynamically changing world. There are no reasons why the principles of the Enlightenment could not be equally applied social networking sites. If done properly, this could bring about unprecedented levels of growth, peace and stability, because it is an opportunity to apply those principles not within Rawlsian self-contained nation states, but globally, to all those that are connected.

Tallinn, 6 January 2015



Bakardjieva, M. 2009. Subactivism: Lifeworld and politics in the age of the internet. The Information Society 25:91–104.

Benhabib, S. 2005. Borders, Boundaries, and Citizenship. PS: Political Science and Politics 38.4: 673-677.

Berlin, I. 1971. The Assault on the French Enlightenment. Kant and Individual Autonomy. John Danz Lectures, University of Washington, 22, 24 and 25 February 1971. Unpublished, available at: http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/lists/nachlass/assault2.pdf

Christman, J. 2014. Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Cormode, G., & Krishnamurthy, B. 2008. Key differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. First Monday, 13(6).

Ess, C. 2015. The Onlife Manifesto: Philosophical Backgrounds, Media Usages, and the Futures of Democracy and Equality. in: The Onlife Manifesto Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era (ed. L. Floridi). Springer

Feinberg, Joel. 1982. Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Privacy: Moral Ideals in the Constitution. Notre Dame L. Rev. 58: 445.

Loader, B., A. Vromen and M. A. Xenos. 2014. The networked young citizen: social media, political participation and civic engagement. Information, Communication & Society, 17:2, 143-150.

Kant, I. 1795. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

Kostakis, V. and W. Drechsler. 2013. “Commons-based peer production and artistic expression: Two cases from Greece. New Media & Society

Mill, J. S. 1859. On Individuality, as one of the elements of well-being. On Liberty.

Perez, C. 2009. Technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms. Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics no. 20

Pew Research Center. 2014. The Future of Privacy. Available at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/12/18/future-of-privacy/

Warren, S. D. and L. D. Brandeis. 1890. The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 5 (Dec. 15, 1890), pp. 193-220

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


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