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System justification and public sector reform: The psychology of the permanent government

Why, perhaps even more noticeably than other election promises, have successive governments’ pledges to reform the public sector, failed? Why, when previously in opposition vociferously calling for changes in practice, do politicians seem to substantially dilute their proposals? What exactly happens to the politicians we elect once they get into government?

In this post I shall outline psychological factors which I believe are at work in this context. At the outset, by ‘public sector reform’, I mean all aspects of the state – not only health, education, and similar departments, but also political reform – so as to encompass the organizational behaviour of every person employed by the state. Thus I am outlining what I believe to be the major psychological processes which militate against a new government’s reform agenda, whatever it may be.

Organisational change

How can ‘the system’ be changed? This is rather unclear theoretically, but we can be sure that it is an emotional, not a logical process. ‘Organisational change management’ is a particular academic subdiscipline in itself which has grown substantially in recent years and is generally applied to private sector enterprises, though we can find some clues for public sector reform also. It is worth noting at the outset, however that it is an area riven with difficulties – a recent review suggests that the organisational change management frequently fails…

…. since what is currently available is a wide range of contradictory and confusing theories and approaches, which are mostly lacking empirical evidence and often based on unchallenged hypotheses regarding the nature of contemporary organisational change management. (By, 2005, p. 378).

… which isn’t exactly encouraging. In practice, we find that organisational change is a very difficult and tiresome process. I’ll try to outline some global themes:-

  • An study of the Italian public sector reform rather simply concluded that a particular set of reforms (namely managerial performance management) regularly failed in several different cases largely because of a lack of “effective understanding of the purpose and the usefulness of the new instrument by key organizational actors” (Azzenone and Palermo, 2011, p. 107)
  • An Israeli study suggests that the single most effect predictor of resistance to organisational change is trust in management (Oreg, 2006).
  • An Australian study suggests that irrational ideas, exacerbated by emotion, increase behavioural intention to resist change (Bovey & Hede, 2001).
  • A New Zealand case study of a failed and expensive attempt to introduce a new information system found that the basic reason for its failure was simply pessimism about the proposed change (Dale & Goldfinch, 2002).
  • A French study of change management identified the lack of inclusion of middle management as problematic for higher management’s implementation of the change process (Fronda & Moriceau, 2008).
  • Another Australian study of improving efficiency in local government is less effective when implemented from a ‘top-down’
    perspective than from a ‘bottom-up’ (Dollery, Crase & O’Keefe, 2005).

In summary, certain questions must be asked of the strategy by which public sector reform has currently been attempted. Chief among these must surely be regarding the level of faith and trust which the employees have in management. Such a question would necessitate genuine consultation with the workforce. In such a process, it would also be advisable to go some length to acknowledging the anxieties and fears of the workforce with regard to their employment, which may go some way to countering pessimism of change.

With public sector reform, the bottom line is: how often, how comprehensively and how honestly are lower levels consulted? This is the basic point – the management of expectations and emotions. People must be consulted on changes which they perceive will affect their lives.

System justification

However, these aren’t the core psychological issues. Largely the work of John Jost at NYU, system justification theory essentially holds that people will work to maintain the status quo, which is not in itself surprising, but will also do so when it is not in their own interest – it is the “…process by which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interest” (Jost & Banaji, 1994, p. 2). Jost has continued to develop this vein of research in explaining how disadvantaged and minority groups will support social systems which are clearly not in their favour, but in our current context we can see a straightforward application of these ideas – notice how often phrases such as ‘that’s the way things are done’, ‘that’s just the way it is’ are used in the context of the civil service. These ideas are at the heart of system justification theory – the rationalisation of the status quo.

In this regard there is a human psychological preference for a system, institution, procedure, outcome, practice or behaviour which is currently in place, and will regard it as fair and legitimate, even when there are good reasons to believe otherwise. In fact, those who are most disadvantaged by a system are often the strongest supporters of it.

But the bottom line is really that the longer that a person is part of the ‘system’ the more likely they are to support it and as such, it is naive to expect that even a reforming or young career politician will be able to affect much change once elected, as they simply become part of the system and working in and with it. We should also not be too surprised that, in reactance to this effect, that politicians hire friends and family as advisors and staff – this is an attempt to counterbalance the effect of being outnumbered by the civil service system.

Jost’s (2002) work has also shown how the use of stereotypes are regularly used, often interchangeably, to support the argument that the system cannot be changed – think of the stereotypical picture of the public sector worker, and think again of your own opinion of changing the system. Even though we might be the ones most disadvantaged by the current state of affairs, we fall back on clichés and heuristics in returning to the conclusion that nothing can be done about it. Consequently, when reforms fail, for the reasons mentioned earlier, these opinions of ours are reinforced – that that’s the way things are, and nothing can be done about it. As such, changing the way the public sector works is always going to be an uphill battle because of these deep-seated psychological factors – and that’s even before we get into other ideas like our overt desire for, but ultimate rejection of, creative ideas.

Interestingly though, what Jost has found though, is that once a social change is portrayed as inevitable, that even the most strident opponents of the change rapidly come to terms with it. This is a useful observation for those implementing change, as it means that while there may be resistance to ideas presented fait accompli, it is unlikely to last. It does, however, present us with a problem, based somewhat on the realisation that the above relationship is one that is understood by certain politicians and decision-makers – they know that if a reform is presented as fully decided, and inevitable, people will go along with it eventually – indeed, this is often lauded as decisive decision-making. Hence, this ‘route one’ method of reform is favoured by politicians, as the changes made will come to pass and eventually be accepted, once they are presented as unavoidable.

However, such a process is not dependent on the actual quality of the decision or reform being implemented – it does not relate to success or viability (decentralisation, anyone?). From the preceding review of organisational change, we know that successful reforms must be developed in consultation with those who they will effect, which will inevitably take time. Such a lengthy process is precisely the opposite of the sort of behaviour which politicians like to be seen to take – the dithering report commissioner. Without getting too much into the psychology of leadership and decision-making, we are therefore in something of a time-bind when it comes to public sector reform, even before election cycles come into play: act quickly, gain acceptance quickly, appear decisive, but run the risk of making huge mistakes, or act slowly, in consultation, probably making better reforms, but appear as a ditherer. In addition, as politicians know, there exists a certain goodwill window of opportunity for new governments to implement reforms easily and in good faith, but once that closes, reforms prove much more difficult. How the current administration has utilised these features of the psycho-political timescape remains to be seen.


Permanent government

I would like to close on an optimistic note, but that isn’t exactly easy. As I hope I have outlined in some detail, there are considerable organisational obstacles and psychological factors which will militate against public sector reform, in any context. The system will basically react against any attempt to change it, having the advantages of holding the territory and demoralised opponents, as Sun Tzu might say. I can’t see any but I do think that it is essential that policy-making diversifies beyond political party headquarters. Ireland needs more independent think tanks and research institutes, and possibly a place for the citizens’ assemblies of the kind that David Farrell et al are fond of in that regard also. Ultimately, the only solution lies in hard work, good research and open minds.


Questions, comments and suggestions for future posts of this kind all warmly encouraged,







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