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Good governance while politics fails

The word bureaucracy does not have negative connotations for Ken Meier. Meier, Professor of Bureaucracy and Democracy, has a clear grasp of the relationship between elected politicians and bureaucracy, or the civil service. Inaugural lecture on Monday 20 May.

In his inaugural lecture, Ken Meier focuses on the special relationship between bureaucracy and democracy. He addresses two points in particular. First, he argues that politics fails in democracies all over the world, thus increasing the gap between voters and politicians. This gap creates a problem for civil servants because they are expected to follow policy but at the same time face criticism from the population. Public confidence in the government drops. This leads on to Meier’s second point: the civil service should also be seen as an institution that represents the public.

Ken Meier
Ken Meier: 'The work of civil servants has become more complex.'

In a perfect world

Elected politicians should ideally filter out ideas for effective governance and spending from the cacophony of opinions and interests. In prior research, Meier concluded that the civil service functions best if:

  1. it is given clear goals;
  2. there is political support for these goals;
  3. adequate resources are available; and
  4. it has the autonomy to apply its expertise to achieve these goals.

The democratic system is designed to ensure these conditions are met.

But politics fails

However, politics fails. Although Meier believes that examples of this can be found all over the world, he uses the US as a point in case. ‘Rather than solve conflicts, the political system drifts from crisis to crisis, and parties and candidates try only to gain political advantage in the next round of elections.’ This results in major budget problems and the now familiar shutdowns.

All of this has made the work of civil servants much more complex. If public services are to meet the needs of citizens and society as a whole, more is needed than the customary top-down perspective on government. Numerous forms of public representation have been introduced in policy development and implementation, but these do not reach all groups in society. A diverse and representative government apparatus is needed to achieve this.

Text: Rianne Lindhout
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