Ideas as Causes of Public Administration Reforms: The Case of Central Europe
The V4 countries , after almost 30 years of, in many respects, spectacular reforms in the field of democratization of governance systems and building market economies, now display a definite preference for governments with populist leanings; the predilection affects the region’s countries with varying intensity (the trend is particularly evident in Hungary and Poland). Likewise, the concept of illiberal democracy is gaining popularity among some of the ruling elites as well as enjoying the support of a considerable proportion of society. As a consequence, changes in the institutional arrangements underpinning governance mechanisms are becoming more and more evident.
November, 09 2020 | Stanisław Mazur
In this context the question of which factors lead to the non-linearity and disruption of the processes of modernization in the CE countries gains a new significance. The answer to this question was formulated by referring to the phenomenon of competing ideas and ideational disruptions. It was assumed that the basic source of both development and collapse of institutions is the nature of their interdependence with ideas. Ideas generate and transform institutions by providing actors with generalized knowledge, which enables them to interpret a particular state of affairs and offer ideas about what reality should look like. Ideas are produced in the political space of metanarrative, strongly imbued with emotions, symbols, generalizations, and simplifications, which find their reflections in institutions.
The consequence of the competition of ideas and ideational disruptions witnessed at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s in the V4 countries was political transformation. As a result, the ideas of a democratic law-governed state and a market economy assumed hegemonic positions on the market of ideas, displacing the ideas associated with real socialism and leading to the domination of the liberal- democratic institutional order embedded in them. Another ideational disruption concerned the geopolitical turn of the V4 towards Europe through their accession to the EU. This resulted in convergence, especially in terms of law, institutional order, and the adoption, at least in a declarative form, of the values and rules of the Community.
However, after EU accession, symptoms began to appear of a radical ideological reorientation of a part of the political elite and a significant proportion of the region’s population, which has been gaining momentum with time. These symptoms included growing criticism of the idea of a democratic law- governed state and the idea of a market economy in its liberal form. The sources of this ideological reorientation included: a) the high socioeconomic costs of the political transformation and, according to many, the unfair distribution of the resultant costs and benefits; b) dissatisfaction with democracy and its elites; c) unfulfilled hopes associated with EU membership; and d) the predominance of the technocratic model of reforms.
The contestation of the so-called mainstream values and principles was conducive to the emergence of new ideas, partly rooted in illiberal democracy and populist narration, drawing strongly on historical legacy. These ideas include illiberal democracy, Euroskepticism, and statization. In recent years, they have become better defined and more meaningful, and have led to the reconstruction of the institutional order in the V4 (to varying degrees in individual countries of the region).
It is also important to answer the question related to the institutional manifestations of the disruption of the processes of modernization in the CE countries. In this regard it is essential to recognize that ideas influence reality through institutions. Thus, the idea of illiberal democracy is reflected in institutional changes resulting in violating the rule of law and the division of powers, curbing the autonomy of independent bodies, manipulating the independence of the judiciary, taking control of constitutional courts, and the subordination of public media with a view to using them as political propaganda weapons (again, these phenomena occur with varying intensity in the V4 countries).
Euroskepticism manifests itself in practice as a violation of EU values and principles, in particular as regards the rule of law, constitutional justice, independence of the judiciary and corruption. To a certain extent, it is associated with the questioning of some of the policies pursued by the EU, migration policy in particular. In the case of the latter, the V4 countries firmly object to the reallocation of immigrants, which reflects the mood and expectations of the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants.
The idea of statization in the practice of governance manifests itself, among other things, as increased state involvement in the economic sphere (e.g., renationalization of certain sectors of the economy), state capture and party nomenklatura practices, strong politicization of the civil service, and weakening of local governments by limiting their competences and sources of revenue.
It is also important to answer the question of the manifestations of the reining in or reversal of the effects of public administration reforms in the CEE countries. The period of political transformation provided the basis for the establishment of a modern administrative apparatus, founded a democratic legal and administrative order, constituted local governments, reformed central banking, and introduced fiscal rules in the public finance system. Another modernizing impulse in the area of administrative reforms was provided by the drive for EU membership. They resulted in the establishment of the civil service; decentralization, including the introduction of regional governments; improvement of the financial control system in the public sector and the establishment of anti- corruption systems; and the introduction, to varying degrees across countries, of NPM-related measures. After their accession to the EU, especially in the last few years, the V4 countries have reduced the dynamics of administrative reforms or even reversed the direction of the previous ones. The phenomenon can be illustrated by the increasing politicization and gradual dismantling of the civil service, centralization resulting in a weaker position of local governments, the instrumentalization of the process of social consultations, weakening of the mechanisms of transparency and accountability, as well as lowering of the quality of regulatory policy.
The essential question is to what extent the institutional discontinuity of modernization processes affects the quality of public governance. It is worth emphasizing at the outset that the effects of administrative reforms in the V4 countries cannot be described as fully satisfactory. This observation reflects a more global trend, for in most cases administrative reforms do not fully deliver the expected outcomes.
In the case of the V4 countries, this was partly due to the impact of historical legacy and the resulting lack of trust in institutions and political elites. Other contributing factors included the lack of a coherent, strategic vision of the desired changes; the weak strategic political leadership; the lack of belief of those in power that professional administration is a key good governance resource; inadequate reflection on the cultural contexts of the transposed models; and actions which were not conceptually orderly, but fragmented, reactive, and unfinished.
The reining in of the process of administrative reforms in the V4 and the reversal of the effects of those already carried out have a decidedly negative impact on the quality of public governance in the region. The dysfunctions present in the administrative systems of these countries since the beginning of the political transformation, largely rooted in the times of real socialism, are becoming more and more prominent. They include, in particular, the politicization of the civil service, state capture, political patronage, the weakening of accountability mechanisms, instrumentalization of law, the perception of public positions as private dominions, and a strong personalization of official relations (loyalty to the political patron rather than to the public interest).
An accumulation of these dysfunctions may not only undermine the efforts to reform public administration in the V4 countries, but also lead to a significant deterioration of the quality of governance in the region.
Stanisław Mazur is Professor at the Faculty of Economics and International Relations, Cracow University of Economics. Chair of the Department of Public Economy and Administration and Member of the Civil Service Council (the advisory council to the Prime Minister on civil service). Director of the Malopolska School of Public Administration, Cracow University of Economics (1997-2004).
The conclusions cited in this paper are taken from the book: Mazur S. (eds.). Public Administration in Central Europe: Ideas as Causes of Reforms. Routledge. 2020.
 The Visegrád Group, V4, consists of four Central European countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.