Our Administration Is Not Bloated At All

Everyone has cursed them at some stage, though German authorities are better than their reputation according to administrative science specialists Geert Bouckaert and Werner Jann. A conversation about modern administrations, friendly officials and persistent stereotypes.

  • Interview by Mareike Ilsemann
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

The administrative scientists Professor Dr Geert E. C. Bouckaert (right) from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and Professor (em.) Dr Werner Jann from the Potsdam Center for Policy and Management (PCPM) at the University of Potsdam jointly head the European Perspectives for Public Administration project at the PCPM. It is financed through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Anneliese Maier Research Award, which Bouckaert was granted in 2014. The project aims to develop a joint European perspective on the process of constant change in public administrations in Europe and looks at how to communicate this in research and teaching.

Photo: Robert Bartholot

Professor Bouckaert, Professor Jann, why does everyone complain about bureaucracy?   
That’s a difficult question. Part of the problem is that it’s not at all clear what people actually mean when they complain about too much bureaucracy. Do they mean there are too many regulations, or that there are superfluous regulations? This then raises the question of what you define as superfluous. And different people – quite rightly – see things very differently.

News from the Humboldt Foundation 

For example? 
When a federal state government in Germany wanted to relax the standards for nursery schools, there was an outcry from parents precisely because they didn’t want to leave certain arrangements to the discretion of the individual providers. When the German government wants to liberalise the fee structure for architects or the regulations governing dispensing chemists, the professional associations concerned invariably protest. But the number of laws and the degree of intervention is a political issue, not a bureaucratic one. Bureaucracy often gets the blame when in actual fact state intervention is the real culprit.   
Bouckaert: Another quite different point of criticism is levelled at bureaucratic behaviour, that is unintelligible jargon, unfriendly staff, impersonal attitudes, dogmatism and impenetrable processes. This criticism is valid, or it certainly was, but it is often very stereotyped and no longer reflects reality.

“I lived in the US for two years and American bureaucracy nearly drove me to distraction.”

Bouckaert: Since the mid-1990s, all over the world – including in Germany, by the way – there has been a considerable push for modernisation, for example through the introduction of modern management methods through e-government services and new options like customer centres. Time and again, empirical studies show that, in the vast majority of cases, direct contact between people or companies and administrations is unproblematic. The stereotype of the slow, unfriendly, inflexible administrative employee is, however, difficult to eradicate.   

Where does the impression of a bloated and bureaucratic administration come from?  
Jann: Well, to begin with, there is no real evidence of a “bloated” administration in Germany. If you consider public sector employees as a percentage of all employees, we fall below the OECD average. This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t sometimes be possible to manage with fewer staff. But public demand veers in precisely the opposite direction. People demand more police, more teachers, more judges – in Germany these are all public service positions, but at the same time it is claimed that the public sector is bloated. To be honest, the conversation here is sometimes a bit schizophrenic.

So, administrations don’t actually need to change at all, they just need more staff?  
Bouckaert: Of course, administrations constantly have to be modernised – just like any other organisation that wants to survive. But at the same time, we mustn’t abandon the achievements of Max Weber’s classic bureaucracy, like predictability, fairness, legal certainty and so on. We can observe such an interrelationship and joint development in many European countries and have coined the term “Neo-Weberian State” to refer to them. It is the best summary of the consensus in modern administrative science.

In our survey, it is the Americans who are most bothered by the German system. Is bureaucracy in the United States so very different from bureaucracy in Europe?  
Jann: Quite honestly, I don’t think German bureaucracy is any worse than American. I lived in the US for two years and some aspects of American bureaucracy nearly drove me to distraction. It starts with the problem of opening a bank account and continues with immigration authorities and visa regulations. In comparison with the IRS, the American tax authority, German tax offices are the embodiment of cooperation and friendliness. The problem seems to be that one knows one’s own bureaucracy and its quirks, but a foreign one seems much more inaccessible.   
Bouckaert: I can only confirm that. Arguing with American bureaucracy is no picnic. I’ve known German bureaucracy for years and yes, it has its faults, but in the end you can rely on it.

Professor Dr Geert E. C. Bouckaert and Professor (em.) Dr Werner Jann (Photo: University of Potsdam / Karla Fritze)

published in Humboldt Kosmos 110/2019

Previous Article A Model Student With the Odd Blip
Next Article Above It All