Can bureaucracies become more responsive?

14 May 2020

Professor Nick Sitter joins EU research project for better relationships between people and administrative governments.

The demands of populism and identity politics challenge traditional views that the civil service should act based on political impartiality, and neutrally implement the tasks it has been entrusted to carry out.

The research project ReConnect aims to build better knowledge of these demands, and of how they have shaped and continue to shape different European states. Important questions include:

  1. To what extent have changes in attitudes to the civil service led to demands for more administrative responsiveness?
  2. How has the civil service responded to such demands in order to survive and maintain its reputation?
  3. Why do initiatives to reconnect citizens with the civil service vary across different countries and between different administrative state organizations?

The project runs from fall 2020 to fall 2022, and has been granted EUR 1.3 million by the EU NORFACE programme, of which Professor Sitter and BI Norwegian Business School receive EUR 385 000. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) heads the project, with partners from the University of London, Universiteit Leiden, BI Norwegian Business School and Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI).

What will they study?

The administrative state is what is known as the civil service in the UK or ‘embetsverket’ in Norway. It is in principle not political, and employs career bureaucrats who remain in their positions regardless of which political party is in power. Some of the things it does is to provide welfare benefits, manage public services, collect taxes, support the justice system and govern the central bank.

Like most forms of authority in democratic societies, the exercise of administrative tasks depends on citizens’ trust and engagement. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the twin challenges of populism and identity politics have ushered in an age of ‘administrative turbulence’ as citizens in many European countries have become less satisfied with how civil services operate.

Populist movements have responded to public dissatisfaction with the professional and expert civil service by emphasizing that it should act in the interest of the majority, or ‘the people’. A key populist demand across Europe has been that the state should be more responsive to this main group, at the cost of initiatives that benefit special groups such as women or immigrants.

On the other hand, the central idea in identity politics is that there are important differences between demographic groups (for example based on territory or gender), and that these warrant different administrative actions. Here the core demand is that the state should respond to this by recognizing, supporting and protecting the different identities of individuals and groups.

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