Political Reform Research Paper

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In its most ordinary sense, political reform is any departure from the status quo that a proponent believes or represents as an improvement. But if reform is defined as those changes that democratic political systems have adopted in order to improve the legitimacy, accountability, and efficiency of modern government, it is possible to identify some common core values and reform actions in advanced democratic states. A recent survey of the 29 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the most frequently stated public service values were (in order): impartiality, legality, integrity, transparency, efficiency, equality, responsibility, and justice (OECD 2000). Since to date less than half the OECD countries have explicitly adopted the last five of these core goals, they constitute the political reform frontier.

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Democracies incorporate core values into their legal frameworks in the form of statutes, constitutions, civil service regulations, and public service acts. Reformers seek to change the legal framework in order to better realize one or more of the core values. The three main sources of these core values are general democratic principles (i.e., values consonant with systems in which citizens ultimately control governments), professional norms (i.e., standards for those who assume roles in the government), and prevailing ethical systems (i.e., societal conceptions of appropriate behavior).

The OECD survey discovered that impartiality is the most common core value held by its member states. This is defined as acting in a neutral or objective manner when dealing with various citizens and groups. The central idea embodied by this value is that states should not be partial towards specific persons in the administration of their laws. Examples of modern reforms that aim to increase impartiality are the creation of a neutral civil service, merit reviews for public employees, rules for bidding and winning public contracts, and judicial independence. It is not surprising that this is the most commonly stated value in advanced democracies. A government that administered its laws in a biased or partial fashion could not possibly act in the public interest. Partiality undermines democracy (by favoring the interests of the few over the majority’s will), administrative professionalism (by violating the trust that citizens have in the government to act on their behalf ), and conventional ethical norms (fair treatment as practiced in civil society).

Granting the importance of impartiality to modern governments, there is a serious debate as to how far impartiality should extend in public life. Elected officials and their top policy advisors are expected to represent the groups and individuals who put them in office so some forms of ‘partiality’ are routinely accepted in modern democracies. The key reform questions occur over when partiality is permissible and at what levels of government. In general, those who make policy are allowed to be partial to parties, constituents, and key support groups, while those who implement (i.e., public administrators below the highest levels) and those who interpret the laws (i.e., the judiciary or regulators) are expected to be more strictly impartial. But there is considerable cross-national variation in this rule as exemplified by the differences between the American and British Civil Service traditions (Kaufman 1956).

Closely related to the first value is a second: legality (a stated value in 22 of the 29 OECD countries). Legality means that decisions are incorporated into published laws and codes, and that there is due process protection for individuals when governments make decisions. It would be rare to find unpublished laws in advanced democracies although many, for instance, provide for relatively unlimited emergency powers in crises. More commonly, the reform focus is on due process—i.e., what constitutes a fair hearing for individuals who might be affected by government decisions. The problem with due process is that it can create highly complex and slow proceedings, greatly adding to the expense and untimeliness of government decisions. In polities like the USA where judicial due process is highly developed, reform means finding ways to adjudicate matters more informally and expeditiously (Kagan 1991), and in polities where due process is lacking, it might mean adopting an administrative procedures act (i.e., Greece and Portugal).

Integrity, the third most commonly stated value among OECD nations, is the subject of the most heated reform debates. It means that public office holders should not place their own interests above the public interest in the performance of official duties. When they do, this is usually considered corrupt behavior (Rose-Ackerman 1999). The most common forms of corruption are bribery, conflict of interest, extortion, and personal enrichment. Bribery is the exchange of something of personal value for the performance of an official act (Lowenstein 1985). It is almost universally proscribed in advanced democratic societies, but can take increasingly subtle forms. Hence, some bans on gifts, honoraria, and post-public service employment are attempts to prevent potential quid pro quo exchanges that might distort the judgment of public officials.

In the USA, this has led to increasing conflict of interest regulation, the purpose of which is to remove interests that might potentially seem to be corrupting (McAlevy 1988). Hence, officials have been required to recuse themselves from participating in decisions that might directly and materially affect them. Alternatively, they might be asked to place their assets in a blind trust or even sell off potentially problematic holdings to prevent potential corrupt motives. Extortion and personal enrichment occur when public officials exploit the monopoly that the state has over some decision or service in order to extract rents. Some reforms that deal with this type of abuse include prohibitions against the unauthorized use of official or personal information, criminal penalties for those who misuse their office resources, anti-nepotism laws, limitations on accepting gifts, penalties for the failure to perform prescribed duties, bans against illicit enrichment, and laws against impeding or interfering with the public procurement process.

Corruption is a critical area of political reform. In Mexico, it has been a key issue for decades, and ultimately played a role in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional ’s demise in the 2000 national Presidential election. In the USA, anti-bribery logic has been widely incorporated into the campaign finance reform debate. As the modern state has assumed a wider regulatory and service provider role, the potential to use the state for corrupt purposes has grown. Nations that seek to enter into closer trading and political associations with OECD nations are under considerable pressure to address their unresolved corruption problems.

Another hotly contested area of political reform is transparency. Transparency (meaning the openness of the government to citizen observation and participation) is valued both for its own sake and for its instrumental value in promoting other core values. Full disclosure of government information helps to produce a more informed citizenry, which is a good in itself if it improves the quality of electoral decision-making . At the same time, full disclosure fosters greater accountability in the sense that it makes it harder for public officials to act in particularistic and corrupt ways without the public finding out and voting them out of office. Similarly, public participation can be beneficial to citizens, but also to the agency and decision making bodies that must make choices affecting real lives.

The most common transparency reforms are open meeting laws and freedom of information requirements (Thompson 1987, pp.116–122, Pupillo 1993). In the case of the former, so-called ‘sunshine’ laws require that the public and press be notified of impending meetings in which decisions might be taken. Citizens are given time to comment on the contemplated actions, and votes and discussions related to the meeting must be held in the open. ‘Freedom of information’ statutes require the government to release documents and information upon public request. Almost all advanced democracies have some restrictions on the release of confidential information that might compromise national security, police actions, or personal privacy. As before, one can find considerable variation among advanced democracies. The Official Secrets Act in Great Britain gives government ministers much more ability to resist the disclosure of information that would be potentially damaging or embarrassing to the government. At the other extreme, some states in the USA have placed the right to request government information into their state constitutions.

The fifth value is efficiency. It is fair to say that this is a more contemporary reform goal. In an earlier period, public sector behavior was focused on the impartial administration of rules and programs, while private sector behavior was driven by market forces and profit. In the latter half of the twentieth century, private sector norms have been imported into public sector thinking. Government has been ‘reinvented’ to be more consumer-oriented and efficient. Efficiencies can be achieved by fostering competition through the contracting out of service activities to private firms, the promotion of inter-agency competition, and the benchmarking of government performance linked to outcome based rewards. One of the large issues this trend raises is whether accountability can be retained when activities are given over to private sector agents (OECD 1999).

Accountability is the ability to hold public officials responsible for their actions and decisions. Transparency is essential to a system of accountability in the sense that the public needs to know what officials are doing in order to hold them responsible for what the government does. While necessary, however, transparency is not sufficient for accountability; i.e., the public needs to be able to reward and punish officials for the consequences and quality of their actions and decisions. In democracies, this means that voters must have the ability to vote out incumbents who fail them (i.e., hence the need for truly competitive elections) and elected officials must be able to control the actions of those who administer the laws.

The problem that arises in advanced democracies is that incumbent officials and administrative officials often enjoy electoral advantages and legal protections that insulate them from the need to be highly responsive to public demands. In the USA, term limitations for legislators and campaign finance reform are seen as means to increase turnover and responsiveness. Critics charge that this greater responsiveness is purchased at the price of lower expertise and weaker judgment (Cain and Levin 1999). The last two core values are equity and justice. Equity can mean either procedural or substantive equality. In the US for instance, the equity principle led to the ‘one person, one vote’ doctrine of the Supreme court—essentially requiring that all districts that elect officials for general governmental bodies must be equally populated to avoid diluting the vote of one individual vs. another. It also informs the desire to place limits on campaign contributions so that the voice of one constituent is not unequal to that of another because the former has more wealth and resources than the latter (Cain 1995). The preoccupation with equity is stronger in the US than in most other advanced democracies.

Justice, on the other hand, refers to the substantive fairness of decisions that the government makes. Reform at this level begins to conflate with ideology, focusing on the government’s obligation to make laws that provide positive opportunities for its citizens. Parties of the left and right will see these issues differently, and reform for one party can mean undoing the reforms of the other. The most general formulation that can be given to justice is that the laws accord with the common ethical and moral norms in civil society. Hence, where there is consensus in civil society about these norms, justice can be elevated beyond the merely political to broadly accepted goals.

Perspectives On Political Reform

This review of core values among OECD nations and the reforms that track those values is certainly not comprehensive. It merely illustrates the most common concerns. Apart from the debate over each of them, there are general differences among advanced democracies in reform orientations. They relate to the three sources of core goals: democratic, professional, and private ethical values.

With respect to the first, democratic values, there are important differences between those who interpret more democratic to be more majoritarian and those who resist such a formulation. American populists for instance prefer reforms that put more power directly in the hands of voters and less in the hands of elected and unelected officials. Neo-Madisonians in the US see popular control as lacking in the requisite checks against majority tyranny and in the expertise that representative government affords. Advocates of parliamentary systems prefer leaders to be chosen by (and therefore tied more directly to) other elected officials, and that the public show more deference to those in public office. Clearly, the position a society takes on this dimension strongly influences reforms that affect accountability, transparency, and equity.

Perspectives on professional values also shape modern governmental reforms. Systems that rely heavily on the socialization and training of public officials will tend to rely more on codes and internal monitoring (e.g., the British Civil Service). Polities that view professionalism as elitist or that are skeptical that people can be educated to high levels of public service, will rely on external checks and legal regulations (e.g., the American system).

There will also be important differences in the perspectives of those who believe that public ethics derives directly from private ethics vs. those who believe that the two differ in important ways. In the view of the latter group, public officials need to be held to a higher standard and to ever growing scrutiny. In the view of the former, the two sectors can be analyzed within the same framework, and lessons learned from one sector can be imported to another. The shape of reforms to come will be determined by how future reformers situate themselves on these three continuums.


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