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Four Main Administrative Traditions

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Outwardly similar administrative reform projects may have different meanings and different prospects for success when applied in countries with distinct national administrative traditions. The assumption here is that the values and understandings embedded within state structures will be among the principal influences shaping how the state and its component parts function (Ashford 1986; Immergut 1992). As in historical institutionalism (Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth 1992) policy choices analyzed from this perspective will be “path dependent.” That is, final outcomes will largely depend upon initial conditions (Krasner 1988).

There appear to be at least two ways in which these values can play a role in administrative reform. One is through defining which reforms are compatible with the political system. For example, reforms in personnel policy such as "pay for performance" appear entirely compatible with the values of countries such as the United States that are individualistic and oriented toward personal competition (Bellah 1986, Girvin 1989). Reforms of this sort would be less compatible, however, with the institutional values of the German public sector, with its greater status orientation (Lohmar 1978). Of course, values are not immutable. For instance, the long tradition of wage solidarity in the Scandinavian countries appears to have been broken over the last decade in favor of pay for performance (Sjolund 1994; Laegreid 1994).

The second and more subtle influence of values on reform is through the interpretation of reform projects. Take, for example, the idea of creating largely autonomous executive agencies in Great Britain. As devised by the Thatcher government this was a means of breaking the power of traditional ministries and their civil servants, and forcing the public sector to be more efficient (Jones 1989). The same reform, with the same name (when translated), has been adopted in the Netherlands with little of the anti-statist ideology prevalent in Britain. In the Netherlands these reforms have aimed at strengthening the policy formulation role of the ministries by removing some of the day-to-day implementation responsibilities (Kam and Haan 1991). Such cross-national differences in motivation and interpretation suggest the need for a more careful examination of the ideological and conceptual interpretation of administrative reforms.

So what are these state traditions and what do they entail? By tradition we refer to clusters of institutions and cultural practices that constitute a set of expectations about behavior (Perez-Diaz 1993:7). We will examine here four distinctive state traditions from among the developed democracies. Broad classifications of this kind are inevitably gross simplifications of complex realities. However, we will argue that there are sufficient similarities to employ these traditions as useful analytic categories.

Four traditions

The four major state traditions in Western Europe and North America are as follows:
1) Anglo-Saxon (minimal state)
2) Continental European: Germanic (organicist)
3) Continental European: French (Napoleonic)
4) Scandinavian (mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic)

The most fundamental difference is between the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental European traditions. In the former, the state as such does not exist as a legal entity but rather one speaks of "government" or "government departments". In the latter, by contrast, the state (l'Etat, lo Stato, el Estado, de Staat, der Staat, etc.) is an overarching entity capable of entering into legal contracts with other moral persons (such as regions, communes, universities, etc.). It is true that a weak form of this exists in the Anglo-Saxon tradition in the form of the "Crown" (states in the British tradition) or the "Constitution" (United States). But these understandings are very different from the continental European State.

One of the most clearly identifiable state patterns is that of countries in the Germanic tradition, including much of continental Europe, and perhaps Japan (Dyson 1980; Gluck 1985). In this tradition the State is a transcendent entity. Any particular regime or government of the day is but one manifestation of that more permanent and less tangible entity. Thus, despite the inevitable division of government into departments and agencies, the authority of the state is not considered divisible or bargainable.

A citizen in this tradition is not an atomistic individual but rather a member of an essentially organic society. This social reality is perhaps best demonstrated by the prevalence of corporatist patterns of representation in these systems (Lehmbruch 1991; Kraemer 1955). Similarly, in this tradition the servants of the State - civil servants - are to some degree the personifications of the power and centrality of the State. This relationship to state power is manifested, in part, through the importance of legal training as a qualification for civil servants. It is further manifested in the constitutional status of the civil service and the continuity of its basic forms through several major regime transformations (Derlien 1991). In short, because the state is so central to political life, servants of the State must have a firm moral and legal foundation.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition evident in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Anglo-American derivative systems is in many ways the antithesis of the Germanic tradition. Stillman (1991) describes the United States as a "stateless society." That is perhaps an exaggeration, but it does express something important about the nature of the state in the Anglo-American systems. Whereas in the Germanic tradition state and society are conceptualized as a part of one organic entity, within the Anglo-American tradition the state commonly is conceptualized as arising from a contract among members of society. The boundaries between state and society are therefore more distinct, and perhaps more flexible and bargainable.

The role and position of the civil service also are more subordinate within the Anglo-Saxon tradition than in the Germanic. This does not mean that the civil service is unimportant in government policy making. But the civil service in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is not assigned a constitutional role, and tends to be subject to structural changes produced by the government of the day (Hood 1990; Aucoin 1990, Scott, Bushnell and Sallee 1990). The separation of politics and administration is prominent in a good deal of thinking about governance in the Anglo-American tradition. And issues of politicization or possible bureaucratic dominance of public policy have been most salient in the Anglo-American democracies (Benda and Levine 1988; Peters 1992).

The Napoleonic State is conceived as unitary and indivisible, much like the Germanic State (Hayward 1983). Indeed, this state form evolved as part of a nation-building project focused on overcoming deep divisions in civil society. The same is true of many states in the so-called Third World, which emerged from colonialism with Western state forms, but with societies deeply divided along tribal lines. In the French case, nation-building was largely, if not completely successful. In other countries, such as Spain and Belgium, the process was far less triumphant.

The Napoleonic conceptualization of government naturally has been associated with a highly centralized state structure, using instruments such as prefects (Bernard 1983, Machin 1977) to ensure the uniformity of policy throughout the political system. The most obvious difference between the Napoleonic and the Germanic traditions is that the later relies more fully on the legal framework of the state to guide action by policy makers. The Germanic tradition therefore permits, or even encourages, federal solutions, whereas the Napoleonic tradition relies more on the direct imposition of central state authority over its citizens.

The Scandinavian State tradition is perhaps the least homogenous of the four presented here. For instance, the Swedish and Danish systems appear similar to the Germanic pattern outlined earlier. Yet the Norwegian state has evolved in some ways to be more similar to the Anglo-American tradition, with a contractual basis for defining the relationship of the people and their government. The characteristic that best distinguishes this tradition is substantive, specifically a welfare state tradition. These states have extensive commitments to the social and economic well-being of their populations. This means, in turn, that even if the state has some existence that extends beyond any simple contract with its population, it also has extensive responsibilities as well as extensive rights as it deals with those populations. These rights are political as well as social and economic, so that there is a strong participative ethic in the society and government (SOU 1992).

Table 1: Key Features of Four State Traditions

Is there a legal basis for the "State"?NoYesYesYes
State-society relationspluralisticorganicistantagonisticorganicist
Form of political organizationlimited federalistintegral/ organic federalistjacobin, "one and indivisible" decentralized unitary
Basis of policy styleincrementalist"muddling through" legalcorporatist legal technocratic consensual
Form of decentralization"State power" (US); local government (UK)cooperative federalismregionalized unitary statestrong local autonomy
Dominant approach to discipline of public administrationpolitical science/ sociologypublic lawpublic lawpublic law (Sweden); organization theory (Norway)
CountriesUK; US; Canada (but not Quebec); IrelandGermany; Austria; Netherlands; Spain (after 1978); Belgium (after 1988)France; Italy; Spain (until 1978); Portugal; Quebec; Greece; Belgium (until 1988)Sweden, Norway, Denmark
Source: Loughlin (1994).

When reform initiatives meet administrative traditions

In this section we will attempt to describe the compatibility of various administrative reforms with these distinct administrative traditions. A wide variety of specific reforms can be grouped into a relatively few categories. These are:

  1. Privatization and deregulation - removing functions from the public sector (i.e., “rolling back the state”) or eliminating a set of public regulations (Feigenbaum 1994; Wright 1994).
  2. Personnel management - recently this trend has been dominated by “new public management” principles (Pollitt 1990; Massey 1993).
  3. Financial management - reforms directed toward minimizing the costs of government and increasing its efficiency (Schick 1990), particularly through the development and implementation of specific techniques intended to improve financial management in the public sector (e.g., FMI in the U.K. and the FMIP in Australia) (Keating and Holmes 1990).
  4. Customer orientation - government organizations and their employees should think about their relationships with the public as if they were operating in a market providing services to customers with alternative choices about where to receive those services (Peters 1994). This is closely associated with the “new public management.”
  5. Empowerment - a reaction against the tradition of public management based on a hierarchical, Weberian model wherein lower level employees are expected to act only as instructed by of their superiors (Kernaghan 1992). In addition to having important humanistic values, empowering the lower echelons in public organizations also permits governments to reduce the number of middle managers and therefore to reduce the total costs of government.
  6. Deconcentration and decentralization - political decentralization refers to transferring decision-making power from the central government to lower levels of government. Administrative deconcentration involves transferring certain tasks to lower levels of government, but without a corresponding transfer of political decision-making power.

Each of these reform types may be interpreted differently in different countries. That itself is indicative of the impact of distinct state traditions and political cultures. Furthermore, understanding these differences may help to explain why particular reforms have been more successful in one setting than in another. A particular administrative tradition is neither necessary nor sufficient for the success of a given reform. However, a “friendly” tradition appears to make success more probable.

The Germanic Tradition. Relatively few of the reforms popular in the recent past are compatible with the Germanic State tradition. For example, pay-for-performance and other aspects of the new public management do not appear to fit well with this tradition. The position of civil servants as servants of the State confers upon them a status in which that service, rather than specific levels of efficient management, is the basis for their rewards (Derlien 1994). Moreover, it is not clear that the conceptual transformation of citizens into consumers would be generally accepted. Privatization has barely occurred in the German case.

Decentralization is much more compatible with this tradition. Even nominally centralized countries in this tradition, such as the Netherlands, have engaged in significant efforts at decentralization (Hupe 1990). The other set of reforms that is compatible with the German tradition is financial reform, with efficient management, if not managerialism, being perfectly compatible with this tradition.

The Anglo-Saxon Tradition. This state tradition is compatible with almost all of the reform efforts summarized above. Arguably the reform effort that is least compatible with this state tradition is "empowerment," even though it is being implemented in several countries within this tradition. As this state tradition is the most suspicious of government and of its own civil service, attempts to grant greater power to lower level civil servants is likely to be unpopular. For similar reasons, deregulation of the public sector may encounter resistance, even though it has been promoted strongly by scholars and practitioners.

Napoleonic States. There is great variation among these countries. France has displayed a keen interest in administrative reform, and this has been accepted by bureaucratic elites, provided they remain in control of it. (Indeed, la réforme administrative is now a major them of French public administration as is le management public.) This tradition appears, on paper, hostile to political decentralization. However, there have been significant and successful decentralization efforts in many countries within this tradition (Putnam 1993; Garcia de Enterria 1984; Costa and Jeguozo 1988). Greece is a prominent exception. As a state consisting of a mainland and a large number of islands - many of which lie close to Turkey - Greece has always emphasized enosis (union) rather than decentralization. It is only recently, under pressure from the European Union, that Greece has set up administrative regions to implement the Integrated Mediterranean Programmes.

Several types of reform that were antithetical to the Germanic tradition appear to be acceptable within the Napoleonic tradition. For example, pay for performance is compatible with the established pattern of differential rewards for public employees in France (Rouban 1994) and Belgium (Brans 1994). Furthermore, the spread of private sector management techniques into the public sector would not be particularly antithetical to this tradition (Meron 1988).

The Scandinavian State. Lastly, it appears that many of the most popular administrative reforms of the last two decades are incompatible with the Scandinavian State tradition. The strong bias in favor of state action runs counter to privatization and deregulation policies (Lane 1994). Even when there has been a retreat of the state and some apparent privatization, the supporting rhetoric was primarily that of "modernization" rather than the terms more common in other settings (Olsen 1991). Pay for performance is another category of reform that might appear incompatible with Scandinavian-style states, given the tradition of solidarity in the labor movement and an economic culture that tends to be self-effacing. Nevertheless, individualized pay systems have been adopted rather widely by Scandinavian governments (Sjolund 1994; Christensen 1994).

On the other side of the ledger, decentralization is fully compatible with the Scandinavian State tradition. There is a strong history of local autonomy that has been reinforced by the politics of the 1980s and 1990s (Baldersheim 1989). Furthermore, within the central administration itself the Scandinavian pattern has been deconcentrated, utilizing Boards and agencies as quasi-autonomous implementing organizations - a pattern copied, at least in part, by "Next Steps" reforms in other countries. In addition, empowerment of the lower echelons of the public service (and of their clients) is compatible with the democratic and participatory ethos embedded in this tradition.


This Web page provides only a very preliminary exploration of the relationship between broad state traditions and administrative reform. One of the most interesting findings is the number of occasions in which reforms have successfully gone against the grain of their state traditions. It must be noted also that these traditions are mutable in response to international pressures and the diffusion of ideas.

Recommended readings:

  • Aucoin, P. 1990. “Administrative Reform in Public Management: Paradigms, Principles, Paradoxes and Pendulums.” Governance 3, pp. 115-37.
  • Baldersheim, H. 1989. Sentral styring og institutionjell autonomi. Bergen: Alma Mater.
  • Bellah, R.N. 1986. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Benda, P. M., and C. H. Levine. 1988. “Reagan and the Bureaucracy: The Bequest, The Promise, The Legacy.” In C.O. Jones, ed., The Reagan Legacy. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.
  • Bernard, P. 1983. L'etat et la decentralisation: du prefet au commissionare de la Republique. Paris: La documentation francaise.
  • Brans, M. 1994. “Public Office and Private Rewards.” In C. Hood and B.G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • Christensen, J.G. 1994. “Denmark: Institutional Constraints and Personal Advancement.” In C. Hood and B. G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • Costa, J. P., and Y. Jeguozo. 1988. L'administration francaise face aux defis de la decentralisation. Paris: Les Editions STH.
  • Derlien, H. U. 1991.”Historical Legacy and Recent Developments in the German Higher Civil Service.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 57, pp. 385-401.
  • Derlien, H. U. 1994. “Germany: The Structure and Dynamics of the Rewards System for Bureaucratic and Political Elites.” In Hood and B. G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • Dyson, K. H. F. 1980. The State Tradition in Western Europe. Oxford: Martin Robertson.
  • Esser, J. 1994. "Germany: Symbolic Privatizations in a Social Market Economy.” In V. Wright, ed., Privatization in Western Europe: Pressures, Problems and Paradoxes. London: Pinter Publishers.
  • Garcia de Enterria, E. 1984. “El futuro des autonomia territoriales.” In Garcia de Enterria and J. Linz, eds, Espana: une present para un futuro. Madrid: Instituto de estudios economicos.
  • Girvin, B. 1989. “Change and Continuity in Liberal Democratic Political Culture.” In John R. Gibbins, ed., Contemporary Political Culture. London: Sage.
  • Gluck, C. 1985. Japan's Modern Myth: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hayward, J. 1983. France: The One and Indivisible Republic, 2nd. ed. New York: Norton.
  • Hood, C. 1990. “De-Sir Humphreying the Westminster Model of Bureaucracy: A New Style of Governance?” Governance 3, pp. 205-16.
  • Hupe, P.L. 1990. “Implementing a Meta-Policy: Decentralisation in the Netherlands.” Policy and Politics 18, pp. 181-91.
  • Immergut, E. 1993. Health Care Politics: Ideas and Institutions in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jones, G. W. 1989. “A Revolution in Whitehall? Changes in British Central Government Since 1979.” West European Politics 12, pp. 238-61.
  • Kam, C. A. de and J. de Haan. 1991. Terugtredende overheid: realiteit of retoriek? Een evaluatie van de grote operaties. Schoonhaven: Academic Service.
  • Keating, M., and M. Holmes. 1990. “Australia's Budgetary and Financial Management Reforms.” Governance 3, pp. 168-85.
  • Krasner, S. D. 1988. “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies 21, pp. 67-82.
  • Lane, J. E. 1994. "Sweden: privatization and deregulation." In V. Wright, ed., Privatization in Western Europe: Pressures, Problems and Paradoxes. London: Pinter Publishers.
  • Laegreid, P. 1994. “Norway.” In Hood and B. G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • Lohmar, U. 1978. Staatsburokratie: Das hoheitliche Gewerbe. Munich: Piper.
  • Loughlin, J. 1994. "Nation, State and Region in Western Europe." In L. Beckemans, ed., Culture: The Building-Stone of Europe, 2004. Brussels: Presses Interuniversitaires.
  • Machin, H. 1977. The Prefect in French Public Administration. New York: St. Martins.
  • Meron, M. 1988. “Les migrations des salaries de l'Etat.” Economie et Statistique 214, pp. 3-18.
  • Olsen, J. P. 1991. “Modernization Programs in Perspective: Institutional Analysis of Organizational Change.” Governance 4, pp. 125-49.
  • Perez-Diaz, V. M. 1993. The Return of Civil Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Peters, B. G. 1992. “Public Bureaucracy and Public Policy.” In D. E. Ashford, ed., History and Context in Comparative Public Policy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Peters, B. G. 1994. “Administration in the Year 2000: Serving the Client.” International Journal of Public Administration.
  • Pierre, J. (forthcoming) “The Marketization of the State: Citizens, Consumers and the Emergence of Public Markets.” In D. Savoie and B. G. Peters, eds., Governance in a Changing Environment.
  • Pollitt, C. 1990. Managerialism and the Public Service. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Putnam, R. D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Rouban, L. 1994. “France: Political Argument and Institutional Change.” In Hood and B. G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • Savoie, D. J. and B. G. Peters. 1994. “Comparative Civil Service Reform: Misdiagnosing the Patient.” Public Administration Review.
  • Schick, A. 1990. “Budgeting for Results: Recent Development in Five Industrialized Countries.” Public Administration Review 50, pp. 26-34.
  • Scott, G., P. Bushnell, and N. Sallee. 1990. “Reform of the Core Public Sector: The New Zealand Experience.” Governance 3, pp. 138-66.
  • Sjolund, M. 1994. “Sweden.” In Hood and B. G. Peters, eds., Rewards at the Top: A Comparative Study of High Public Office. London: Sage.
  • SOU. 1992. Demokrati och makt. Stockholm: Statens offentliga utredningar.
  • Steinmo, S., K. Thelen, and F. Longstreth. 1992. Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stillman, R. J. 1991. A Preface to Public Administration. New York: St. Martin's.

This page was authored by Prof. Guy Peters of the University of Pittsburgh. It was submitted on 04 December 2000

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Administrative Traditions