Strengthening Canadian Democracy

From Skepticism to Cynicism

Paradoxes of Administrative Reform

Isabelle Fortier August 12, 2003

This study is also available in French.

The crisis of confidence that is currently shaking political institutions and public organizations is generating an increasing amount of discussion of public cynicism toward government. In the context of the reforms aimed at overcoming government red tape and inefficiency, this cynicism reverberates at the very heart of public organizations and among public ser- vants. What should one make of the crisis of confidence and the recent administrative reforms, which claim to be a response to this crisis? Is the cynicism of citizens and public servants justified? This article attempts to show how this cynicism within and toward the public service is linked to paradoxical and ambivalent aspects of the discourse about reform. Although its goal is to restore public confidence and mobilize public servants, the author maintains that in fact it produces the oppo- site effect.

After defining cynicism, the author presents a set of factors that contribute to its emergence. While the archi- tects of the reforms undertaken within the governments of Canada and Quebec extol traditional values, in reality they are orienting the public service toward management practices drawn from the private sector. This only serves to exacerbate the perverse effects of the reforms.

The argument that the reforms have an impact on the cynicism of citizens and public servants is supported by three analytical levels. Beginning at the most compre- hensive level, the impact of the discourse of “marketiza- tion” of government services on the relationship between the government and citizens – who have now become “clients” – is examined. The author then shows that the linkage between the political and administrative systems is not neutral and explains how the current reform dis- courses, by focusing on the issue of organizational effi- ciency, avoid that of the state’s true purpose. Lastly, she examines current dynamics in the administrative sphere by questioning the neutrality of the methods employed to implement the reforms. At the managerial level, the empowerment of public servants, which should have created a new dynamism in the public service and made it more efficient, is in reality a source of confusion. This new direction creates a double con- straint, because control over the public service is chang- ing and intensifying, albeit ambivalently. Given this context, the author questions the rejection of the tradi- tional bureaucratic authority on which the reforms are based. In her view, this kind of authority remains the most honest and transparent form of supervision and control for government employees.

In criticizing the alleged ideological neutrality of the administrative reforms, this article sheds light on the underlying political dimension of these reforms. How can one be surprised that citizens and public servants – confronted with this paradoxical agenda of transforma- tion that affirms continuity but in reality advocates rupture – go from skepticism to cynicism and react with indifference?


In Canada and elsewhere in the world civil services have been the object of much criticism over the past few years, often the manifestation of an increasingly widespread cynicism on the part of the population. This growing problem, which affects the federal and provincial civil services, seems to be exac- erbated by the perception (by no means always justi- fied) that the civil service is inefficient and does not respond to people’s needs. Moreover, some civil ser- vants themselves, disillusioned in their jobs, share this feeling.

To examine this phenomenon, the IRPP organized working lunches in Quebec City and Ottawa at which Isabelle Fortier and Christian Rouillard, professors at the École nationale d’administration publique and specialists in this area, were the featured speakers. The overwhelming success of these events was a clear indication that this issue was of interest to a large number of people, both within and outside the public service. This Choices paper, part of the IRPP’s Governance research program, presents essays writ- ten by Fortier and Rouillard on the basis of these working lunches.

The IRPP asked the authors to examine the notion of cynicism (within and toward the civil service) and to respond to the following three questions: How do you define cynicism? In what forms does it manifest itself? What are its causes? In her paper, entitled “From Skepticism to Cynicism: Paradoxes of Administrative Reform,” Isabelle Fortier shows that cynicism among civil servants, like that in the general public, is caused by ambivalence and paradoxes in the discourse of reform. She argues that this discourse, which is supposed to be restoring the public’s confi- dence and mobilizing civil servants, is in reality hav- ing the opposite effect.

Christian Rouillard, in his paper “From Cynicism to Organizational Disillusion: New Public Management as Confusion Factor,” distinguishes cynicism from organizational disillusion. He maintains that this dis- illusion is a cultural and organizational phenomenon that is much more profound and more difficult to deal with than cynicism. In his view, the increasing organizational disillusion in the federal civil service can be explained by contradictions in the reform dis- courses and in managerial practices.

In addition to shedding light on the issue of cyni- cism in and toward the civil service, the authors examine the major ideas that have influenced administrative reforms over the past 10 years. They also caution against the adoption of private sector principles that might not only be unsuitable for the reality of the public service, but also call into ques- tion the fundamental role of the State.

Canada’s public service, at all levels, contributes to the high rating Canada and the provinces receive from international organizations that assess honesty and the absence of corruption. While as a society we tend to focus on things that need improving, many of our public sector systems actually work quite well. These two essays explore the kinds’ of internal atti- tudinal and confidence issues that those who care about the quality of our public services and the excellent people in its ranks need to consider.

Hugh Segal
President, IRPP

Because of the crisis of confidence that is shak- ing political institutions and public organiza- tions, there is an increasing amount of discussion of public cynicism1 toward the State. This cynicism is said to be undermining citizen participa- tion, the foundation of a democratic ideal which, it is feared, will be weakened by deepening contradictions.2 The term “cynicism” is often used to describe popular reaction to the deterioration of political and public institutions and their representatives, or to denote voter apathy and explain low voter turnout.

The reverberations of this cynicism toward the pub- lic service are being felt at all levels. It resonates and burgeons in the context of repeated reforms aimed at overcoming the top-heaviness and inefficiency of the bureaucratic system, along with the latter’s stereotypi- cal symbol, the caricature of the jaded public servant. Blamed, even despised, civil servants are increasingly compared with their private sector colleagues, who are assumed to be super dynamic and efficient — and sit by as portions of their work are given over to outsourcing and subcontracting. This crisis of public confidence not only is affecting institutions and their representatives, it is also reflected in political leaders’ loss of confidence in their own public organizations. Moreover, as the activities that are contracted out are frequently the most interesting and challenging ones, the civil ser- vants’ role is reduced to administering contracts, which emphasizes the bureaucratic aspects of their functions and robs them of their professional role.3

In this article we do not propose to treat this very complex phenomenon exhaustively, but rather to interpret the pervasive cynicism within and toward the public service by examining the political and managerial discourses dealing with the administrative reforms. We will attempt to show how public servants’ cynicism, like that of citizens, is a considerable phe- nomenon that is symptomatic of the paradoxical and ambivalent aspects of the reform discourses. While not denying that there is room for improvement in public organizations or that bureaucratic manage- ment can produce pernicious effects, we believe that the efforts to improve public administration may be compromised by the very discourses that are sup- posed to bring about the desired changes.

After outlining the definition of cynicism used here, we will present other authors’ explanations of the crisis of confidence, and we will link these expla- nations to the phenomenon of cynicism. We will then develop our arguments about cynicism in the context of public service reforms on three analytical levels. Beginning at the most general level, we will look at the impact of discourses that deal with the “marketi- zation” of services the State provides and the rela- tionship between it and citizens, who now become “clients.” Then we will consider the interaction between the State’s political and administrative spheres in order to show that the linkages between them are not neutral and that they are also affected by the discourses on administrative reform. Finally, we will examine the dynamic in the administrative sphere, questioning the neutrality of public policy implementation, a fundamental objective of the administrative reforms.

What Is Cynicism?

In order to define cynicism, we will first contrast it with skepticism, a seemingly related concept. Skepticism stems from an intellectual doubt about knowledge. Because we cannot know anything with certainty, says the skeptic, who has, in a way, lost his “faith,”4 we must suspend judgment and adopt an attitude of permanent doubt.5 Questioning, debating and revealing one’s premises — in other words, healthy skepticism — are the essence of true democracy and individual freedom of thought.

Like skepticism, cynicism is anchored in doubt. However, the cynic’s doubt is deeper and more seri- ous than that of the skeptic, because it relates to a person’s intentions, sincerity or integrity. This doubt, or suspicion, implies that there are hidden motives behind an idea, an action or even an institution. Cynics do more than question the premises underly- ing social reality, they reject them outright as being corrupt, just as they reject anything that might be constructed based on them. The cynic’s doubt thus leads to the outright discrediting of both the medium and the message, and translates into an attitude of generalized distrust of society and its conventions, values, symbols and institutions.

The concept of cynicism originates in antiquity, and first referred to a school of thought founded on resisting and rejecting social conventions, power and its symbols in favour of a simple life, removed from material goods and rooted in nature. In this sense, cynicism is more a way of life, and the virtues associated with it are given concrete expres- sion and learned through example, not through dis- course.6 Not surprisingly, then, cynicism and politics do not mix: the former is a way of life centred on detachment and nature, while the latter is a collec- tive human exercise that transcends nature and is based on the challenges of collective social interests. Thus, when faced with a regime that purports to be democratic or a management whose legitimacy is based on its rational-legal character,7 the cynic strives to reveal the imperfection of reality in rela- tion to the ideal advocated by the democratic and rational-legal models of these institutions. Political activity, in its broadest sense, appears problematic because of the opportunism it produces on the part of those who aspire to power and crave its prestige and privileges.

This mocking intolerance exploits the essence of a situation to the full, instantly laying bare the derision and conventional nature of the criteria on which value judgments are based, thus revealing them to be unsupported opinions, prejudices, conformity inspired by fear and cor- rupt interests.8 [translation]

Nowadays, the term “cynicism” is generally used pejoratively to describe the jaded attitude of someone who not only no longer believes in anything, but also regards all forms of discourse with suspicion. Faced with the deceptive appearances and social values of civic life, the cynic prefers to return to a natural state. At first glance, this might appear to be a kind of regression to a prediscursive, precultural stage that is justified by the belief that one cannot trust the world in which one lives. The only way to protect oneself from this hostile world is to withdraw, disin- vest, disengage from it,9 and ultimately to reject thinking and speech as the product of social systems. However, perhaps deep down this apparent indiffer- ence conceals an unavowed optimism, even the secret hope that one will find in the other a response that one has given up expecting.

From a psychodynamic perspective,10 cynicism as a state or attitude may be a defence mechanism against disappointment, disillusion, even against the feeling of having been betrayed by discourses, practices and those seen as their representatives. It might well develop as people become worn down by the con- stant feeling of being duped by unkept promises and false claims. Perhaps the cynics in question are peo- ple whose democratic ideals are higher than the aver- age, and the public servants who are most devoted to public service.11 In fact the people who are most emo- tionally involved in the role they play are the most frustrated by their inability to satisfactorily play that role; i.e., according to their values and ideals.

It is possible to conceptualize the stages by which a cynical attitude develops. It begins with disap- pointment — not yet resignation — as the cynic starts out by criticizing the worthlessness of appear- ances and the illegitimacy of social values and con- ventions. Meeting resistance from the system further justifies and consolidates the cynical attitude until the only possible reaction is complete and total withdrawal. That is why cynicism ultimately leads to a refusal to participate in social life: the cynic stays aloof since this is the only refuge from the aberrations of a system that crushes with its con- ventions, the only refuge from the attitudes of those who are content at worst to acquiesce to it and at best to contest it.

Paradoxes of Reform: Confidence and “Satisfaction” in the Relationship between the General Public and the State

The first level of our analysis of the impact of discourses of reform is the erosion of confi- dence that characterizes the current relation- ship between the general public and the State. We will see that although the objective of these dis- courses is to reassure citizens and increase their confidence in the State, they might be creating exactly the opposite effect. They might in fact be increasing citizens’ expectations of public services, and, in changing the very nature of these expecta- tions, creating confusion over the true intention of public services. Paradoxically, by creating condi- tions that exacerbate dissatisfaction, the discourses ultimately contribute to the cynicism they were sup- posed to attenuate.

Declining Confidence Despite a High Level of Well-Being

The public’s confidence in the State is a diffuse reality that is hard to define and even harder to explain. This relationship is built through a large variety of experi- ences, whether direct (through the delivery of certain services, for example) or indirect (through an image of the State presented by the media, and through the per- ceptions people develop on the basis of their experi- ences and personal biases, for example). Nevertheless, this confidence is vital in a democracy, since it guaran- tees the institutions’ legitimacy, which is essential to their survival.

In his meta-analysis of political and cultural changes, Inglehart12 interprets the current crisis of con- fidence by analyzing its links with the changes in atti- tudes brought about by socio-economic progress in advanced industrial societies. He suggests that it is because of the relatively high level of material security that a large portion of the population in developed countries is able to take it for granted that their essen- tial needs will be met, and to base their ambitions on values that are different from those held by previous generations. In the past, the imperatives of survival that underlie modern values meant that individuals were motivated mainly by economic and material achievement. Today, concerns about survival have sub- sided, and modern values have thus given way to “postmodern” values, which are centred more on per- sonal well-being. Without referring specifically to cyni- cism, Inglehart adds that in the postmodern context there has been a change in perspective, which he describes as follows:

The shift from traditional society to industrial society brought a shift from traditional authority to rational bureaucratic authority. But in Postmodern society, authority, centralization, and bigness are all under growing suspicion. They have reached a point of diminishing effectiveness; and they have reached a point of diminishing accept- ability. Every stable culture is linked with a con- gruent authority system. But the Postmodern shift is a move away from both traditional authority and state authority. It reflects a declining empha- sis on authority in general — regardless of whether it is legitimate by societal or state formulae. This leads to declining confidence in hierarchical insti- tutions. Today, political leaders throughout the industrialized world are experiencing some of the lowest levels of support ever recorded.13

Thus, he maintains, a high level of subjective well- being, that is, overall life satisfaction, is an integral part of the postmodern cultural syndrome, and this is producing a transformation from materialist to postma- terialist values. Although on the whole, and as a cul- tural syndrome, postmodern societies provide a high collective level of personal well-being, there has nev- ertheless been a reversal in terms of personal satisfac- tion, which has, on the contrary, increased expectations with respect to personal well-being:

At the individual level, however, Postmaterialists do not report relatively high levels of subjective well-being. Far from being a paradox, this is cen- tral to their nature: Postmaterialists have experi- enced relatively high levels of economic security throughout their formative years. They develop Postmaterialist priorities precisely because fur- ther economic gains do not produce additional subjective well-being: they take economic secu- rity for granted and go on to emphasize other (nonmaterial) goals. Moreover, they have rela- tively demanding standards for these other aspects of life — to such an extent that they often manifest lower levels of overall life satis- faction than do Materialists in the same society.14

Thus, while in most societies rich people would usually feel a higher level of well-being than poor people, in postmaterialist societies this is not the case. Inglehart concludes that progress ultimately leads industrial societies to a point where the marginal return of economic gain for the individual, or that of economic growth for society, does not produce an improvement in subjective well-being.

The value attributed to work, the pursuit of wealth, the legitimacy of authority that induces obedience in exchange for security and remuneration and faith in the ability of science and progress to advance humanity no longer has the influence it once had. Individual motivation is no longer focused on materi- al success as it was once defined, socially, in the con- text of economic development. The postmaterialist reaction to the values of the economic growth era is creating conditions conducive to the development of cynicism toward the reform discourses. This is espe- cially true when they are based on arguments that invoke economic rationality, technological progress and the quantitative logic of efficiency and perform- ance. “Happiness” is voluntary simplicity,15 whose hedonistic nature is entirely postmodern but is never- theless similar to the cynic’s way of life in Antiquity, also ultimately a form of hedonism.

This has been borne out by demographic studies: cohorts of individuals share certain characteristics whose origins can be traced to the context in which they have lived. For example, in his analysis of the four generations currently living in the United States, demographer Ron Zemke reveals the cynical nature of the 1960s to 1980s generation. These individuals, who grew up in the shadow of the baby-boom generation, learned at an early age that they had to be self-reliant. Having witnessed the decline of mythical patriarchal figures and the weakening of the aura of all-powerful America, they are simply no longer impressed by authority and treat “the company president as they would the receptionist,” without deference.

They have learned not to place their faith in others, to be very careful with their loyalty and commitments, for fear of getting burned. One Nike ad says it this way, “Don’t insult our intelli- gence. Tell us what it is. Tell us what it does. And don’t play the national anthem while you do it.” While the Boomers were told, “You can be anything you want — even President of the United States,” Generation X was told, “Be care- ful out there. It’s a dangerous world”…There is no evidence that Xers expect work to be totally engaging and completely meaningful. They are not naïve kids; they learned self-sufficiency early and never expected the world to be a bowl of cherries. As long as you don’t pretend that some meaningless task is really important, they will respect you for your frankness and hon- esty…They require real human judgment.16

This rather sombre portrait nevertheless contains a glimmer of hope that, despite the loss of defer- ence17 toward institutions, the postmaterialist move- ment can find political expression in a blueprint for a fairer and more equitable democratic society. In fact, according to Inglehart, postmaterialist values are more democratic and participatory. For example, he views the currently low voter turnout as a reflec- tion not of political apathy on the part of citizens (as is frequently claimed in the media), but of a shift in political participation from the simple vote toward collective, ad hoc, targeted and more radical actions, such as boycotts and demonstrations.18

Fidelity or Capacity of the State?

Although the crisis of public confidence in the State and public service appears to be confirmed by public opinion surveys, there are few empirical studies determining whether this loss of confidence is justi- fied. This raises the question of whether, at the politi- cal level, the orientation of the reforms is based on a thorough examination of the reasons behind this decline in confidence. Putnam et al.19 define two dimensions that enable us to analyze the current cri- sis of public confidence and help us answer these questions. The first is the crisis of confidence regard- ing the fidelity of the State, which relates to a discon- nect between the State’s ultimate purpose and the values of the collectivity; and the second is the crisis of confidence in the State’s capacity, which is linked to organizational inefficiency in public service deliv- ery. This is an important distinction, because the cur- rent reforms too often focus, a priori, on the State’s capacity rather than its fidelity. Consequently, the responses are structural and managerial, while the problems are perhaps of a completely different nature — the questioning of certain values and choices that are based on these values, for example. As Gow and Guertin clearly state:

Government policy has become a risky opera- tion. The strategy of rejecting any increase in “visible” taxes and successively targeting rela- tively isolated categories of taxpayers for cuts will perhaps result in the creation of protest movements like the ones faced by reformers in other provinces. This is why reforms will hence- forth be aimed even more directly at the struc- tures of the Quebec government, thus focusing less on the political choices made than on the operative, technical “rationalization” for them. The review of administrative processes is the route chosen in the search for new reference points with respect to public policies. The object of the political game is more and more often the definition of the “problem” and the “logic” of the approach taken to solve it.20 [translation]

We emphasize this distinction because, depending on whether the phenomenon of declining confidence is of the first or second type, very different consider- ations will be taken into account. Thus, a crisis of confidence related to the fidelity of public action to citizens’ values and social issues should stimulate and contribute to the debate over public policy making. However, a loss of confidence in the State’s capacity to offer high-quality public services is more a reflec- tion of the loss of confidence in the competence of public servants or a criticism of the public service and its management.

A crisis of confidence related to fidelity is per- haps more difficult to understand and confront because it places a government under scrutiny vis- à-vis the legitimacy of its actions. Besides, the abili- ty of the average citizen to evaluate public policies is relatively limited, as they have neither all the information nor the means necessary to do so. More often than not they base their judgment on specific experiences of public service use. In these circum- stances, opinions are volatile, fluctuating according to the events reported, particularly in the media. Evaluation like this of the State’s legitimacy, created by people on the basis of specific experiences, can be contradictory. For example, Dwivedi and Gow show that despite people’s quite high satisfaction with federal government services they have re- ceived, they have a negative overall impression of the State and the public service.21 As Inglehart sug- gests, this probably explains why people’s percep- tion of a government’s legitimacy is predicted by their overall satisfaction with their lives, rather than their more or less favourable opinion of political institutions.22

Reforms Focusing on the State’s Capacity

The current reforms, which almost exclusively centre around the State’s administrative and managerial aspect — supposedly unrelated to the issue of the State’s fidelity — appear to be based on the interpreta- tion of a loss of confidence linked to its capacity. They overwhelmingly place the burden of this incapacity on the shoulders of public servants and the bureaucracy, without taking into account the devastating effects that prolonged downsizing might have had on the organiza- tional capacity of the public sector. This is to a certain extent reflected in the following observation by a sen- ior Quebec public servant:

There is no doubt that right now public service employees feel completely unmotivated. No new public servants have been recruited in the past ten years. Public servants haven’t had a wage increase in the past ten years. For years, the politicians have been saying over and over that there is no more money and that we have to restore our financial health and they’ve practically implied that if public servants had performed better, we would not be in the dire straits that we are in today.23 [translation]

The budgetary restrictions, which seem excessive when viewed from this perspective, must have satisfied those who believed that the State apparatus had grown so large that the budget deficit was spiralling out of con- trol. However, these restrictions concretely diminished the State’s capacity to offer the quality and number of services that the public still expected to receive. It was therefore necessary to turn to the private sector to com- pensate for the public sector’s incapacity. During this time, this judgment of the public sector’s incapacity was never questioned. It is a vicious cycle made worse by the fact, welcome in the context of deficit aversion, that this use of private sector resources does not appear in the State’s “official” workforce figures and that costs associ- ated with transactions with the private sector are not included in the operating costs of the bureaucratic machine. Moreover, this workforce can be increased or decreased without infringing on existing agreements, especially with respect to human resources management.

The crisis of public confidence is clearly a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily rational. Nor is it the result of a realistic assessment of organizations’ perform- ance or the quality of services offered despite serious constraints. Thus, in the current context, it is relatively easy for supporters of a minimalist state to advocate resorting to the private sector as an indispensable solu- tion to offering better services at lower costs. This competition between the public and private sectors as suppliers of certain public services is sustained by numerous debates. The controversy raging in Quebec over the “two-tier” health care system is a good exam- ple. Nevertheless — and this is not pointed out fre- quently enough — sometimes public opinion is manipulated during these discussions, because it is assumed that the private sector is necessarily more efficient than the public sector. However, a number of well documented studies that use more than the nar- row criteria of efficiency have shown that the private sector’s “competitive advantage” is far from being a given.24 Thus, at the very stage of defining the “prob- lem” of the State’s capacity, a bias is introduced into the reasoning: to state that recourse to the private sec- tor is obviously “the solution” only masks the detach- ment of politics and the disengagement of the State.

Citizen or Client?

It is also important to recall that citizens’ level of “satisfaction” with public services is related to the nature of the services they are promised. Thus, the logic of the market, part of the discourse of public administration reform,25 turns citizens into con- sumers, who then react like clients to the “merchan- dise” delivered to them. We are all accustomed to hearing the discourses of marketing specialists singing the praises of customer service and preaching that “the customer is king and always right.” It shouldn’t be surprising that citizens now expect “sat- isfaction guaranteed or money back,” reducing the idea of taxation to a form of purchasing power that they acquire for services they personally receive.

We thus consider the relationship between the State and its citizens, whose premises pervade the whole of civil society, to be the crux of our analysis. We will return to it below when we analyze the impact of the reform discourses at other levels. For the moment, what matters is that the phenomenon has an impact on the dynamic of the expectations and actors involved. We can see this influence on the development of gov- ernment policies in the United States, where the logic of private interests predominates.

Many designs reinforce the self-interest motiva- tion in US politics and signal that people are expected to look after their own interests (with little regard for the elusive “public interest”), and everyone is expected to cut the best deal they can for themselves. Policy so designed cre- ates a particular culture that permeates demo- cratic institutions and has far-reaching negative consequences for justice. A more just society depends on citizens not only expressing their own interests but empathizing with other citi- zens different from themselves and accepting compromise…Citizenship also has an impact on whether policies will solve the problems toward which they are directed…Because citizens are often an integral part of making policy work, attitudes toward policies become self-fulfilling prophecies.26

Aucoin recognizes that this “client focus” is at the heart of federal government reforms: the Treasury Board Secretariat, for example, has promised that Public Service 2000 “will make affordable, ‘client- focused quality service delivery’ its top priority.”27

At least two factors are crucial to the success of improved public services in the above respect. One is the need to foster a culture that gives high priority to a focus on clients; the other is the need to establish criteria for assessing per- formance in responding to clients’ expressed demands. The record of achievements within the federal public service suggests that leadership can be found in several departments and agen- cies, and that this leadership has contributed to the adoption — formally or informally — of total quality management principles.28

Because citizen-clients are being encouraged to express their expectations in individual terms, it is easy to conclude that the State’s actions amount to satisfying the sum of these private interests, without real concern for the public interest or common good. The democratic system is thus jeopardized by the weight of the majority or the ability of certain groups to make their interests prevail. Symons and Deschênes show that this approach reduces the identities, roles and relations between citizens and the State, since it limits citizen participation to expressing satisfaction/ dissatisfaction with services received. By concealing social inequalities and undermining collective solidari- ty, this approach also affects interactions between citi- zens: “[C]onsumers of public services such as the poor on welfare, the student in the school, the sick patient in the hospital, or the elderly in a retirement home are hardly customers in the same sense as shoppers at the local department store.”29

Assigning the status of consumer isolates and differentiates people as individuals, since it is in an isolated fashion that decisions and actions of consumption are taken. Inequalities become pri- vate troubles rather than public issues.30

When the End Justifies the Means

In the discourses of advocates of the “marketization” of public services, there is no room to question the relationship between political choices and the adminis- trative procedures employed to implement them. This is a good reflection of the gap that is created between the ends and the means, whereby the means are seen as “neutral” ways to achieve the ends. In the name of an “authentic” pragmatism centred on efficiency, the proponents simply claim to be choosing the best means to achieve the end. In this way the means end up making efficiency an end in itself and leaving far behind the ultimate purpose connected to the State’s role. The following are examples of this concept as it is presented in the federal and Quebec public sectors:

The advantage of the Canadian approach in these regards lies in the fact that it has not been excessively preoccupied with external or internal debates and conflict over schemes to privatize, market-test, or contract-out government opera- tions. Rather, the full range of “alternative serv- ice delivery” options has been pragmatically deployed in the service of meeting the objectives of affordability, better service and improved pol- icy outcomes.31

Moreover, within the administrative units of departments and agencies [of the Quebec gov- ernment] for which services produced or deliv- ered to the public can be measured quantitively, performance and accountability contracts will be signed between unit managers and ministers. These performance contracts will allow adminis- trative units to apply real management by res- ults, with the precise targets to be achieved. Above all they will have greater latitude with regard to the means used to achieve the objec- tives.32 [translation]

Finally, the separation between ends and means, which is the logic underlying the establishment of an endless number of autonomous administrative units and independent agencies, is problematic in terms of the common interest. Ultimately it is impossible to serve the common interest, which requires a degree of renunciation and sacrifice, as well as a societal per- spective, and treat citizens as clients whose sole pre- occupation is to satisfy their own interests in their dealings with service units, whose sole objective is to optimize their performance.

Three Interacting Systems

Having set out the underlying features of the discourses of reform in terms of their impact on the relationship between the citizen and the State, we will now analyze how these discourses characterize the relationships between the political and administrative spheres. Pollitt and Bouckaert33 present a three-level analysis of civil society. Although this triangular representation of reality is an oversimplificaton, it allows us to illustrate the broad lines of our argument. The three corners of the triangle (see figure 1) represent the political system (politicians and their allies), the administrative system (public servants) and the market (businesses and con- sumers). The whole triangle represents civil society in which citizens are the actors. Note that the boundaries between the groups are not watertight, and individuals can be members of the different systems simultaneous- ly. Each system has its own peculiarities and its distinct role in society. Recalling what was presented in the first part of this article, we can see how, if we look at the interactions between the three systems, the reforms centred on the “marketization” of services tend to stan- dardize citizens’ identities and the relationships between the systems in the direction of the third cor- ner, thus reducing the specificity of characteristics and relationships with the State.

Let us examine the interaction between the political and administrative systems in this context. First, note that in the cases of both federal government reforms (since the 1990s) and Quebec government reforms (since 2000), the bureaucracy is presented as the princi- pal cause of public organizations’ poor performance in the past. Public servants’ bureaucratic behaviour, focused on following predetermined rules and proce- dures, is thus presented as a factor in the bureaucratic red tape and rigidity of the system. By thus blaming the public service and making people’s dissatisfaction a problem of bad management, the actors in the political system and their allies distance themselves from the administrative system and find a target toward which to divert citizens’ dissatisfaction far from themselves. Moreover, the discourse of empowerment and public servants’ accountability supports this trend by diluting or creating a screen for ministerial responsibility, which still prevails in our parliamentary system. Since minis- ters have the power to reprimand and even replace managers,34 they can, paradoxically, avoid responsi- bility for certain actions and at the same time claim to have things in hand by showing that they are in complete control of the administrative machine.

Figure 35

[O]n the one hand we see policy-makers using administrative reform to displace accountabil- ity for public policy; on the other hand we see the very same policy-makers trying to increase their control over bureaucracy. Whilst this appears to be two inconsistent develop- ments, they may in fact reflect a general desire among elected politicians to increase their influence over bureaucracy while at the same time avoiding responsibility for the bureaucracy’s actions.35

As we are no longer in the era of big social pro- grams (projects that contributed to politicians’ populari- ty), it is becoming more difficult for elected politicians to dazzle. Citizens expect more from their public serv- ices and are skeptical (even cynical) when it comes to assessing their representatives’ credibility and actions, especially when these actions reduce social programs and increase taxes. Even if they do not want to partici- pate more in decision-making processes, which demands time and energy, citizens still demand the right of critical review, that is, the right to comment on decisions and resist public authority. In this context, politicians tend to curry favour with the electorate by responding to their dissatisfaction with promises to make changes in the areas where people’s sensitivities are most visible, such as the current electoral-style debate on the functioning of the health care system.36

The administrative reforms put services to citizens and budgetary issues at the forefront and relegate their underlying political concepts to the background. This allows politicians to claim that the reforms of “doing more with less,” based on “purely administra- tive” changes, are ideologically neutral37 and thus have no political consequences.

When you aspire to be the most effective, the most competitive, you have to realize that you cannot be the best in everything. It is impossi- ble. You have to define your main activities and entrust the management of other activities to partners in the private, even in the parapublic sectors who have more expertise than you do in some areas. [It is not the role of the State that is being challenged here], but rather the way it plays its role and the way it delivers the services to the population.38 [translation]

However, placing so much emphasis on efficiency is far from neutral: the obsession with control, and thus with the evaluation of results, distorts the very nature of public services, which are based on quite a different logic.39

Paradoxically, the discourses of reform neverthe- less claim to simultaneously reinforce the power of the system’s three poles: those of “consumers,” administrators (through decentralization and delega- tion of authority), and politicians (as a result of the control of politics over administration through accountability).40 There are great tensions between these three groups of actors, and the pressure is greater on those who are responsible for the daily, on-the-ground successes and failures in government services. This is the very ground from which ministers seem to want to distance themselves by placing themselves above the technocratic and bureaucratic reality.41

If it is the managers’ duty to achieve results, min- isters reserve the right and power to intervene, which they use when things go wrong, particularly in the eyes of the public. They can then claim to be the sav- iours of the situation they had distanced themselves from by giving the managers involved a greater mar- gin for manoeuvre. In the next section we will look at this ambivalence between control and autonomy, which colours the relationships between politicians and managers and tends to have repercussions in the entire hierarchical structure of the administrative machine.

Reform Strategies

We have established that the sources of citizens’ cyni- cism toward the public service are, among other things, the distortion of their expectations and participation as a result of their transformation into “clients,” and the discrediting of the public service for its alleged inability to deliver quality services. We will now analyze the reforms more closely in order to interpret their effects within the public service, while attempting to under- stand the cynicism of public servants themselves. In using the term “administrative reforms,” it is important to make some distinctions among the great variety of measures included in this seemingly monolithic term, and to take into consideration the historical and cultural differences in the societies involved as well as the public sectors in question.

In their comparative study of administrative reforms in 10 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Pollitt and Bouckaert42 examine the different systems involved and categorize the various strategies used in this wave of reform that has swept over the public sector since the 1980s. As it is impossible to present the details of this analysis here, and in order to better contextualize the federal and Quebec government reforms being analyzed, we present a summary of the four types of reform strategies identified by these authors in table 1 below.

On the basis of this classification, Pollitt and Bouckaert define four reform strategies, compare them with the traditional State administrative sys- tems, and then analyze their impact on the legitima- cy of the governments that implemented them. The modernizationstrategy,43 oneofthetenetsofthe federal and Quebec government reforms, has all- owed costs to be restrained to a certain extent, but has only moderately increased governments’ legiti- macy, according to Pollitt and Bouckaert. The mar- ketization strategy is more drastic in terms of its potential to redress public finances. However, when citizens get the impression that fiscal concerns are being given priority over the service ethic, or that public organizations are more concerned with their image and competition than with the reliability of services and their accessibility for the “client,” this strategy loses credibility and undermines the legiti- macy of those implementing it. We should point out that the marketization and minimization strategies both tend to reduce the distinctiveness of the public sector.

Table 23

With respect to the “mind-set” of these reform strategies in terms of rupture with the past, Pollitt and Bouckaert make significant distinctions regarding the maintenance or modification of traditional public service values.

Within a modernization strategy, leaders can still appeal to traditional public service values, such as career service, probity, equity, equality and so on. In value terms the basic thrust of this approach is that something valuable and worthwhile is being updated and improved — whereas MARKETIZE and, even more MINIMIZE entail the substitution of a substantially different set of values and, by impli- cation, a blaming and discarding of the older set.44

Dwivedi and Gow45 analyzed the new public man- agement movement in Canada, officially launched with the publication of the White Paper in 1990 and culminating in Public Service 2000. Their first obser- vation was that those implementimg this reform claimed to want to innovate without abandoning traditional public service values. According to the typology set out above, this would therefore be a modernizing strategy. However, Dwivedi and Gow found that, despite a modernizing discourse, several of the new values presented conflict with traditional values. Nevertheless, citing Hall and Plumptre, the authors46 acknowledge the humanist aspect of the reform, which is expressed in the value accorded to human resources, and note the extreme optimism that emerges from the unifying potential of the alignment of values with the goals of the organization.

Once alignment (of values) is achieved, managers are freed from command-and-control type responsibilities. Employees know precisely what they are working toward…and understand generally what will help the organization achieve its goals and what is tangential and counter productive.47

Thus, the values are supposed to have a mobilizing potential, but serve above all to guide and direct action, taking the place of traditional bureaucratic controls. However, it is clear that the confusion between the explicit values underlying the manage- ment methods prescribed by the reform and the reaf- firmation of traditional public service values instead creates problematic, indeed paradoxical, conditions for public servants. This ambiguity between continu- ity and rupture is evident in La Relève, a more recent federal human resources management reform, as can be seen in a speech made by the Treasury Board pres- ident. Having asserted that it is not due to a deficien- cy in the public service that reform is necessary, in the same breath Minister Robillard went on to describe the public sector’s lag behind the private sector in terms of “modern” management theories.

So when we talk about changing the rules gov- erning how we manage our human resources, it is important to stress that we are not doing so because we think the Public Service is deficient. We are making these changes to ensure that our managers have the tools to keep and develop the people who are already in place, and attract the talent we need to meet the demands of an ever- changing world. We are making these changes to ensure that our employees look upon the work they do with a source of pride and accomplish- ment, and are happy to come to work every day. We are making these changes to ensure that our Public Service continues to provide the best quality programs and services to Canadians.

None of this can occur under the current human resources management framework. It is, quite simply put, outdated, archaic and completely out of step with modern management theories. It is unfortunate that we did not focus earlier on what, in my view, is the number one resource of any government: its human resources. No service industry in the private sector could survive with a human resources system like ours.48

In Quebec, the enthusiasm of the instigators of the Improving Services for Citizens reform, launched in 2000, is such that some commentators have drawn a parallel between the extent of the proposed changes and those of the Quiet Revolution; as if the proposed rupture with the past were almost worthy of a second “exit from the Great Darkness.” The following com- ments by André Dicaire clearly point to the reform’s orientation toward market mechanisms, that is, clear objectives, results-oriented in terms of “goods,” and planning worthy of a private sector business plan.

This is a remarkable policy statement. It now remains to deliver the goods. The government must adopt a business plan, that is, determine the precise goals of the reform, establish clear schedules, and appoint the people in charge who will report on the smooth running of oper- ations.49 [translation]

Whether the outcome of this reform will be conti- nuity or rupture remains to be seen, considering that the current discourses are united in calling for the state to play a lesser role and to give more promi- nence to market mechanisms. It is reasonable to question the foundations of this neoliberal shift, which threatens the legacy of Quebec statism that emerged out of the Quiet Revolution. It is criticized by Montpetit and Rouillard, among others:

Far from concluding that the institutional legacy of the Quiet Revolution could not be improved in any way whatsoever…[we emphasize] the necessi- ty to subscribe to a logic that refuses to give pri- ority to the individual over the community, to private savings over public expenditure, and refuses to pit the State against civil society.50 [translation]

The dominant neoliberal discourse, which openly attacks the bureaucratic dimension — in the Weberian sense of the word — of public policy implementation and State administration, neverthe- less encourages us to consider the necessity for this bureaucracy, with respect to the collective values that fostered its development.

Since we refuse to reduce bureaucracy to its dys- functions and perverse effects, which are, inci- dentally, real, should we not acknowledge that the legal constraints on which it is based are the best guarantees of equity and equal treatment for all citizens?51 [translation]

This brings us to the last level of analysis, where we will examine the transformation proposed by the reforms: the reduction of the bureaucratic dimension of the public service.

A Discourse of Radical Change?

Let us first summarize what we have said so far about the trend in reform discourses, particularly in Anglo-American systems. We said that politi- cians and their allies in the upper levels of the public service are distancing themselves from their adminis- trations, which they publicly blame for a “poor” past performance. They are attempting to reassure citizens by showing that the situation is “under control.” They promise, and have begun, “in-depth” reforms that they claim will lead to a more efficient public service, since they are based on private sector practices.

The bureaucratic and technocratic stereotypes that ridicule the work civil servants do by reducing it to the dumb application of rules or mind-numbing processes consisting of not much more than form- filling, are hurtful to those for whom dedication to public service was the motivation for their choice of career. This is the viewpoint presented by Leduc when he says

It has never been the practice of the public serv- ice to question its efficiency, its capacity to pro- vide quality services to the population and to do so at a lower cost. The current management framework, developed in the 1970s, is based on respect for internal procedures and reinforcement of controls from the Conseil du trésor and the ministère des Finances. What matters is not the service that one provides to citizens, but compli- ance with rules and standards.52 [translation]

This opposition between complying with “the rules” and concern about “service” ultimately leads to a sepa- ration between the ultimate purpose of State action and the bureaucratic means employed to achieve it. But why should bureaucratic practices be opposed to the traditional values that underlie public administra- tion? On the contrary, integrity, equity, competence, professionalism, impartiality, respect, prudence and continuity are the very values that give meaning to bureaucratic practices and that constitute the best means to accomplish them, as Montpetit and Rouillard53 remind us above. Is it because we cannot accept the necessary “heaviness” involved and the inevitable pernicious effects that we prefer “lighter,” private sector inspired values such as efficiency and effectiveness, flexibility and innovation, risk and change — values that nevertheless generate their fair share of perverse effects? Perhaps we prefer to ignore these effects for the moment, for fear that the very source of the inspiration for the reforms will vanish.

To present the concept of “services for citizens,” and even make it the title of the provincial reform, as a new type of mission, is insulting to long-time pub- lic servants who must surely be wondering what val- ues they have been serving up to now!54 Within the Quebec and federal public services there is a noticeable decline in troop morale,55 after years of staff cuts and scornful comments about public servants’ alleged inef- ficiency. It is not surprising, but it should be a cause for concern. On this point, the emphasis in the reform dis- course on the necessity to draw on the services of all human resources (for example, see Minister Robillard’s comments on page 12) is somewhat paradoxical. While full of scorn for the past practices of public servants, the discourses are meant at the same time to motivate these individuals, who will once again be expected to put their shoulders to the wheel of change.

Moreover, there is talk of a mandate to be entrusted to the “next generation” because the young people who are going to enter the public service in massive num- bers will supposedly bring dynamism of youth to foster change.56 As a consequence we are witnessing, in organizations and in society in general, the intensifica- tion of an intergenerational conflict that is being abu- sively exploited without regard for the human effects that it may be having, or taking into account the loss of experience and even wisdom (which fortunately often comes with age). In this respect, it is interesting to note that the historical dimension of this genera- tional situation is being denied, and it is being present- ed, rather, in an ahistorical dynamic of changes in values through rhetoric that is shrouded in vague and ambiguous concepts such as “the new knowledge socie- ty,” “globalization” and “the new millennium.” Evidently, the myth of progress dies hard, particularly when times are politically tough. Rather than question- ing ourselves seriously, we often prefer to give the impression of advancement or progress.57

There is another major ambivalence in the symbolic discourses of reform. While attempting to rekindle public servants’ enthusiasm about the distinctive and noble nature of public service so as to compete with the pri- vate sector and attract the next generation of public ser- vants, the discourses also maintain that private sector management methods will mobilize public servants.

Performance bonuses,58 for example, are a practice borrowed from the private sector to encourage staff commitment to results.59 Associated with more freedom in the ways of achieving results, this practice is a dis- turbing potential source of blunders, where the ends can justify the means while the means lose their specif- ic meaning. Yet this risk is never mentioned when the practice is vaunted as an essential incentive to increase performance in the context of the reform of the Quebec administration.

Isn’t there is a contradiction in wanting to revive values that are specific to the public service vocation by emphasizing competition and the lure of a reward instead of co-operation and the spirit of service? What we are seeing in the public service is a phenomenon we described earlier in society in general: the encourage- ment of individual interests to the detriment of collec- tive interests. The paradox of borrowing approaches from the private sector to revive the distinctiveness of the public service would raise eyebrows among the most confident of optimists. Public servants have always been subject to multiple reforms, changes in discourse and visions in the wake of elections or cabinet reshuffles, as well as a high turnover among sen- ior management. This has long justified the necessity — probably beneficial, whatever may be said of its effects — to resist change in favour of continuity. In this sense, it can probably be said that the public administration is made up of people who tend to be skeptical about any process of change. For the same reasons, public servants are probably used to reading between the lines of the political statements and grand pronouncements that are meant to mobilize and unify. Conditions are thus quite ripe for a shift from skepticism to cynicism. By dint of regularly finding themselves in the same situations and facing the same discourses, civil servants end up having to decide for themselves: are the reform discourses the fruit of hypocrisy or innocence? And, whatever the answer, this can lead to cynicism. According to Arpin,

[p]ublic servants have become “cynical” about government initiatives. For years they have been hearing about the improvement of services to citizens and modernization of the management framework, and they don’t really believe in them. They are convinced that they will not hap- pen…They can only happen through mobilization of teams and ministries; not through mobiliza- tion around a management philosophy, but rather through projects. It’s not easy to get peo- ple who have 20 years of experience to believe in a new management philosophy. You get them to support the projects. And I’ll say it until the day I die: public service employees’ capacity for creation, innovation and production is impres- sive.60 [translation]

This comment by a senior public servant helps explain how the hope that young people will facili- tate the achievement of the reforms61 denies the value of the experience and skills of those already there. Considering the synchronization of the reform and the expected “exodus” from the Quebec public service,62 the reform discourses to a degree exploit and exacerbate an intergenerational conflict in which existing public servants will be made to bear the costs; those who helped build and run the State in the past are presented as a source of resistance to change. This comment also underlines the need to understand human reality and change on the basis of local contexts rather than on the level of man- agement philosophies (very often disguised as politi- cal discourse).

Continuity or Rupture?

Between continuity and rupture confusion reigns, and it is affecting public servants’ work. For example, the much anticipated flexibility, touted as the outcome of

the administrative reforms, is based on public servants taking initiative in the course of their duties. Is it not problematic, then, that this initiative has to be com- manded from above, by decree63? Surely there is a paradox in being “ordered” to take initiative, to partici- pate, part of the discourse under the omnipresent theme of “empowerment.” In such a context, the only way to truly exercise one’s power to take initiative is to do nothing with it! That is the thrust of the following comment by an observer after the tabling of the Quebec government’s detailed draft bill and before the consultations to examine the legislation on the public service reforms:

The government’s approach is relatively authori- tarian…The Conseil du trésor’s decision to pro- duce a draft bill before holding consultations with public service managers and employees is indicative of the “authoritarian” approach adopted by political leaders in this process of modernizing the administrative apparatus of the government. Confronted with an act of authori- ty, especially in a general context that is not favourable to great upheaval, people submit, remain indifferent and do not necessarily get on board.64 [translation]

In this respect, studies of public service reforms ori- ented toward private sector methods have shown that public servants are very likely to resist initiatives for change when the compatibility gap between the situa- tion to be changed and the proposal for change is too great.65

From Control to Empowerment

Talking about cynicism in the public service inevitably leads down the slippery slope of examin- ing intentions. We should state clearly that our study focuses primarily on the ambivalence in the discourse of reform. It is not our goal to accuse managers or politicians of bad faith or lying. For example, despite the underlying good intentions, the leitmotiv of “empowerment” was recognized as one of the most critical elements of the reform.

Edwards succinctly summarizes the basic PS 2000 thesis: the public service would perform better if it were “liberated from excessive con- straints and served by streamlined administrative systems.” PS 2000 explicitly contained a strong element of changing the way public servants conceived their roles. Consistent with admoni- tions from best-selling management gurus of the day, public servants were encouraged to be less driven by rules and more concerned with results. They were to be more innovative, more service- oriented and more people-oriented in managing the workplace. PS 2000 was fueled by the prom- ise of empowerment.66

Managers, it must be recognized, are sometimes unaware of their ambivalence with respect to control. For example, seen from this perspective, employees will perceive discourses on participatory management as empty words if they see, in their day-to-day activi- ties, that the principles being put forward have not in any way changed the prevailing command-and-con- trol, hierarchical culture. It seems that in reaction to the authoritarianism that has long prevailed in man- agement, the managerial process has become suspect and participation has been incorporated into manage- rial ideology as a gauge of good conscience.67 Considering this ambivalence between control, born of the tradi- tional values of bureaucracy, and the forms of partici- patory management that mark the new discourses — empowerment, initiative, risk — one can see cynical detachment as a psychological defence.68

The strategic role accorded information technolo- gies in the implementation of the reforms should also be underlined. Their transformation of control process- es and the transfer of power are highly incompatible with the desire for flexibility and “debureaucratiza- tion.” Under the legitimate cover of progress and the quest for efficiency, the information and communica- tion systems present a potential for control that was until now impossible. It is increasingly obvious that we are seeing a resurgence of Taylorism which, under a new guise, is hitting the public services sector full- tilt, driven by the reforms.69 The introduction of new information systems based on work flows and the fragmentation of tasks to increase efficiency fre- quently leads to deskilling of work, because now the system “possesses” the expertise, despite the omnipresent discourse that stresses the importance of human resources.

Furthermore, even when employees comply with the new discourses and the new service management and delivery methods, this does not prevent the emer- gence of cynicism. On the contrary, say Murphy and Mackenzie Davey,

employees may submit to managers’ assaults of cultural control, but may also resist them by developing subcultures and counter-cultures, expressing cynicism and detachment at manage- rial attempts to whip up commitment and enthusiasm.70

In this sense, even if it means going against the current, we believe that as a management approach, the explicit obligation to respect a number of bureau- cratic rules — especially if they can be made more meaningful — is more honest and less harmful to public servants than ordering them to participate or take initiative. This is especially true when it is known that, regardless of whether or not employees take “initiative,” they will be blamed in one way or another. This is what Minister Robillard was hinting at when she said:

Our current system has little faith in managers and is stifling them with processes and outdated rules. We must encourage them and give them the proper tools to make their own decisions about their employees.

She went on, reacting to the anticipated fears of favouritism elicited by a relaxation of the rules:

Let me state for the record that this will not be tolerated. In other words, it will be zero tolerance! While we firmly believe it is important to put more responsibility in the hands of managers and trust them to do a good job, we are also putting in place accountability frameworks and safeguards to make sure that hiring a new person is first and foremost based on that person’s qualifications.71 [translation]

Discretionary areas already exist in the work of pub- lic servants. Why not identify them and give them their proper place in modes of operation, instead of dream- ing up new ones that in reality simply are not discre- tionary areas? This in itself would be a laudable reform of administrative practices, and a sign of recognition for employees who use their judgment to increase their contribution to the public service. Let us not be naïve: rules and procedures do produce unfortunate abuses. But, to paraphrase Churchill, we should ask whether bureaucracy is not the worst form of organization for the management and delivery of public services…with the exception of all the others!


In this article we first looked at the ways in which cynicism toward the public service is symptomatic of a contradiction in the role that politics plays. While policy makers are supposed to define societal projects, the current reform discourse — whose objec- tive is to restore the electors’ confidence in public insti- tutions — is wrongly targeting the public service in the name of a pragmatism that does not acknowledge, and even denies, its ideological allegiances.

We then attempted to show that within the public service, the implementation of these reforms is creating ambivalence in the exercise of power and hierarchical authority. Those who are being called upon to “empow- er themselves” realize this, and their reaction is the opposite of what is intended. What we are seeing is the “demobilization” of human resources and their with- drawal into a degree of cynicism in a last-ditch attempt to foil this type of “forced mobilization.”

The trends examined here — “the cult of efficien- cy” that is dominant in reform discourses, to the detriment of the State’s values and purpose72; open competition between the public and private sectors over service delivery and management (including human resources management and recruitment and retention of new public servants); the growing pre- dominence of a logic of consumption and personal interest over public service, citizenship and the com- mon interest — undermine the State’s symbolic dimension and identity as well as its social role. The current cynicism as defined in this article is, we believe, indicative of citizens’ and public servants’ awareness of the inconsistencies between the dis- courses and individual and collective desires, incon- sistencies that are difficult for them to accept.

Whether politician, senior public servant, manager or management professor, cynicism concerns every- one. It indicates that we cannot deny the eminently political dimension of these roles without insulting people’s intelligence, especially when, paradoxically, we are calling on that intelligence to take up the new challenges of public service management. For instance, the questions raised in this article echo the current debate about the need to supervise public servants’ behaviour in order to counterbalance the ongoing “debureaucratization.” In current management mod- els we see the transition from the open exercise of bureaucratic authority (rational-legal) to more subtle (but no less instrumental) management methods; in other words, a movement from controlling organiza- tional culture to controlling individual ethics. This attempt to standardize not only people’s behaviour but also their thinking, feelings and their very souls, is liable to provoke cynical resistance.

Questioning the legitimacy of power, regardless of the form it takes, is an act of both intelligence and awareness. Questioning and being skeptical, even resentful, of authority because one is loathe to submit to it is, however, easier than calling virtues and val- ues into question. After all, who can be against virtue, even if it has been used time and again to legitimize the worst practices? The passage from skepticism to cynicism is a passage from legitimate questioning, which is healthy in a democratic regime and in management, to a justifiable feeling of betray- al. Cynicism is disturbing because it strips us of our pretenses, but, however distressing it may be, it also keeps us alert.

I would like thank Éric Montpetit, Geneviève Bouchard, Gladys Symons and Daniel Lozeau. I would also like to thank the reviewers, whose pertinent comments helped to improve the article.

  1. A general survey of articles published in The Economist over the past few years reveals that this phenomenon is quite widespread, for example, in Great Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair himself has openly de- nounced the cynicism and apathy of citizens and is making them the target of political action. See, for example, the following article in the September 30, 2000, issue: “Confidence or cynicism? That is Tony Blair’s choice for Britain, but it is also Britain’s choice about Tony Blair.”
  2. Based on the evolution of the phenomenon during the last 25 years, and despite the widespread — and seri- ous — erosion of public confidence that they have observed in several trilateral democracies (including Canada), Putnam et al. (2000) do not, nevertheless, conclude that democracy is threatened in the sense that Crozier et al. (1975) had suggested in The Crisis of Democracy. On the whole, they note an increase in support for democratic values and are optimistic about the possibility that these values will become deeply rooted on the basis of the stability of the last 50 years.
  3. Dwivedi and Gow (1999, pp. 149-150) note that the Canadian Union of Public Employees have expressed fears that jobs are being deskilled as a result of in- creasing use of contract employees. See also Garvey (1993) on the relations and interface between public agencies and contractual employees, though in the American context.
  4. In this sense, skepticism marks the entry into moder- nity, through the separation between the Church and science, the former being under the yoke of faith and the latter praising doubt. At the same time, with the separation between Church and state came the passage from an authority based on tradition to a rational- legal authority on which bureaucracy rests.
  5. Durozoi and Roussel (1990, p. 299).
  6. Mourral and Millet (1995, under “cynisme”).
  7. By legal-rational character, we mean the “Rational-Legal Bureaucratic Authority” identified by Max Weber, which rests on the following elements:
    authority vested in the offices of the State, rather than the individual
    impersonal and formal rules, regulations that have been legally established written documents, files to record decisions and actions specialized training; appointment criteria
    fixed salary determined according to the position in the hierarchy career (one’s position within an office is a full-time vocation)
    vocation (each office is designated a specialized area of competence) free contact (based on technical expertise and qual- ifications)
    See Dickerson, Flanagan and Nevitte (1995)
  8. Encyclopaedia universalis, corpus 6, under “cynisme.”
  9. Obviously, cynicism may also serve as an excuse for refusing to become involved; it is then, contrary to what we are proposing here, secondary to this refusal and constitutes an a posteriori rationalization that serves more to conceal its intentions than to defend or protect itself.
  10. The psychodynamic perspective is a psychoanalytic approach which, unlike the Freudian approach, is not based on the psychic structure and developmental stages that one goes through, but rather on the fundamental psychic mechanisms that remain present throughout life and can be (re)activated through events and experiences. The Kleinian Object-Relations school is part of this approach.
  11. A number of studies support the idea that, in occupa- tional fields such as education and health, professionals who are enthusiastic and have a high service ideal are likely to experience significant disappointments. Therefore, to protect themselves, they have to reduce their aspirations and commitment so that they can carry out their work in conditions in which they have the impression that they cannot have the impact on service quality that they would like to have. See Miech and Elder Jr. (1996) as well as Cherniss (1991).
  12. Inglehart (1997).
  13. Inglehart (1997, pp. 78-79).
  14. Inglehart (1997, p. 87).
  15. For example, Mongeau’s (1998) invitation to adopt a lifestyle that is strikingly different from that encouraged by the consumer society.
  16. Zemke (2000, pp. 101-102; 107-108).
  17. For a more in-depth analysis of the changes in values observed in the 1980s in Canada, see Nevitte (1996).
  18. On this issue, see O’Neil (2001).
  19. Putnam et al. (2000).
  20. Gow and Guertin (1996-1997).
  21. Dwivedi and Gow (1999, p. 146).
  22. Inglehart (1997, pp. 178-179).
  23. Comments by Roland Arpin, Director of the Musée de la civilisation, reported by Leduc (1999, p. Z5). Arpin was a key figure in Quebec’s administrative reforms. He was assistant deputy minister of education and of cultural affairs, and he was also secretary of the Treasury Board.
  24. Stein (2001).
  25. Regarding the different relations between the citizen and the State, the text of the federal reform states as one of its goals: “providing effective and responsive service to clients — those who benefit from a Government of Canada initiative, whatever it may be” (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2000, p. 12).
  26. Schneider and Ingram (1997, p. 81).
  27. Aucoin (1995, p. 202).
  28. Aucoin (1995, p. 199)
  29. Symons and Deschênes (2000, p. 8).
  30. Symons and Deschênes (2000, p. 11).
  31. Aucoin (2001).
  32. Leduc (1999, p. Z2).
  33. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000).
  34. Leduc (1999, p. Z2).
  35. Pierre (1995, p. 3), quoted in Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000, p. 134).
  36. On this point of the political advantage derived from reforms, Aucoin (2001) emphasizes the distinction of the Canadian reform which, with the political leader- ship seeing little advantage in it, was the result of “an initiative conceived and entirely driven by the Public Service” with the aim of “letting the managers man- age.” In the other Westminster systems, accountability was central and was aimed at forcing managers to better manage their resources and solve the “bureau- cratic problem” which was an obstacle to the full exercise of political leadership.
  37. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000, p. 136).
  38. Comments made by André Dicaire, reported in Leduc (1999, p. Z3). Dicaire has worked in the Quebec public service for 30 years. He has occupied key functions such as deputy minister of health and social services and secretary of the Treasury Board. He is now secre- tary general of the Executive Council. The comments in square brackets were added by Leduc.
  39. On this point, Symons and Deschênes (2000) point out the contrast between economic rationality and Weberian-style substantive rationality.
  40. In Quebec, the Loi sur l’imputabilité des sous-min- istres et des dirigeants des organismes publics (Act respecting the accountability of deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies) was adopted in 1993 and amended in 1995. At the federal level, accountability has been implemented since 1986.
  41. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000, p. 137).
  42. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000, p. 136).
  43. It should be noted that as a reform strategy, the concept of modernization is used by these authors in the usual sense that is similar to the idea of “improve- ment” and does not refer to the concept of moderniza- tion used to characterize the Quiet Revolution. This lat- ter concept involved moving the State into the era of modernity, in particular through the separation of poli- tics from the Church and the transition to rational- legal authority.
  44. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2000, p. 180).
  45. Dwivedi and Gow (1999).
  46. See their detailed analysis of the values expressed in the reports of the Public Service 2000 working groups. Dwivedi and Gow (1999, p. 142).
  47. Hall and Plumptre (1991) cited in Dwivedi and Gow (1999, p. 144).
  48. Robillard (2002).
  49. Comments made by André Dicaire, reported in Leduc (1999, p. Z3).
  50. Montpetit and Rouillard (2001, p. 139).
  51. Montpetit and Rouillard (2001, p. 137).
  52. Leduc (1999, p. Z2).
  53. Montpetit and Rouillard (2001).
  54. Murphy and MacKenzie Davey (2002) showed that reforms, which are based on the affirmation of trivial values, are, contrary to their anticipated mobilizing potential, demoralizing for the staff.
  55. For example, see Government of Canada (1999).
  56. Leduc (1999, p. Z5).
  57. Murphy and MacKenzie Davey (2002).
  58. For an overview of federal practices of variable compensation based on performance, see “Performance Management Program Guidelines for Chief Executive Officers of Crown Corporations” at https://www.pco- Secretariats&Sub=mpsp&doc=pmp_hcc_guidelines_e.htm
  59. It is also revealing that human resources counsellors ask private companies that seek to retain their staff to release their best employees so that they can con- tribute voluntarily to a cause that is dear to them, since they can hardly be content with working for money only! See Whiters (2001).
  60. Comments made by Roland Arpin, director of the Musée de la civilisation, reported in Leduc (1999, p. Z5).
  61. Leduc (1999, p. Z5).
  62. Comité de travail sur l’intégration des jeunes à la fonction publique québécoise (2001) (Task force on the integration of the young into the Quebec public service).
  63. The instigators of reforms emphasize the importance of human resources and appeal to employees to undertake to guarantee success. However, at both the federal and provincial levels, the reforms were initiat- ed by a legislative process in which these very same “resources” were not invited to take part. Dwivedi and Gow (1999), in the federal case; in the provincial case, see Arpin, quoted in Leduc (1999, p. 25).
  64. Comments made by Roland Arpin, director of the Musée de la civilisation, reported in Leduc (1999, p. Z5).
  65. Lozeau et al. (2002).
  66. Clark (2001). John Edwards was the director of PS 2000.
  67. Lapierre (1998).
  68. Murphy and MacKenzie Davey (2002).
  69. Duval (1996).
  70. Murphy and MacKenzie Davey (2002, p. 19).
  71. Robillard (2002).
  72. Stein (2001).

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For Immediate Distribution – Thursday, August 12, 2003

Montreal – Rather than being part of the solution, the new public management movement can be part of the problem, new studies from IRPP reveal. Attempting to simply emulating private sector practices to reform the public service, as suggested by some in the new public management movement, has contributed to aggravation, cynicism and decreased morale among civil servants, say two new studies published today by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP).

In Canada and elsewhere in the world over the past few years, bureaucracies have often been the object of much criticism. This growing problem, which affects federal and provincial public services, seems to be exacerbated by the perception that public service is both unresponsive to people’s needs and inefficient, a perception that has led to several efforts at reforms of the public service, often modelled on private sector principles. Instead of solving the problems, the two IRPP studies have found that, in fact, these reforms have fed cynicism and disillusionment among civil servants.

The IRPP asked two professors from Quebec’s École nationale d’administration publique to examine the issue of cynicism (both within and toward the public service) and to respond to three questions: How do you define cynicism? In what forms does it manifest itself? What are its causes? In her paper, entitled “From Skepticism to Cynicism: Paradoxes of Administrative Reform,” Isabelle Fortier argues that cynicism among civil servants, like that among the general public, is caused by ambivalence and paradoxes surrounding the reform process. While not denying that there is room for improvement in public organizations, or that bureaucratic management can produce pernicious effects, she maintains that the efforts to improve public administration may be compromised by the very ideas that are supposed to bring about the desired changes.

In his study, entitled “From Cynicism to Organizational Disillusion: New Public Management as Confusion Factor,” Christian Rouillard maintains that the new public management movement does not live up to its claim of bolstering collective morale, and it is a source of confusion that contributes to both the creation of and the gradual but steady spread of an organizational culture of disillusionment.

The authors caution against overemphasis on some private sector principles that might be unsuitable for the reality of the public service and call into question the fundamental role of the state.

The two papers are part of IRPP’s governance research program and are published in the latest issue of Choices, now available online in Adobe (.pdf) format on the Institute’s Web site (

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Founded in 1972, the IRPP is an independent, national, nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve public policy in Canada by generating research, providing insight and sparking debate that will contribute to the public policy decision-making process and strengthen the quality of the public policy decisions made by governments, citizens, institutions and organizations.