In Europe, Weber’s bureaucracy still rules

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EU administration now prioritises due process and absence of corruption. [Shutterstock]

The European institutions remain fundamentally Weberian in nature and they are considered to be slow reformers. But there are clear differences between public administration systems across Europe, writes Steven Van de Walle.

Steven Van de Walle is research professor at the Public Governance Institute, KU Leuven, and professor of public management at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

After 30 years of public administration reform in European countries inspired by New Public Management (NPM) ideas, traditional Weberian administration still is the main organising principle. This is the picture that emerges from a large-scale survey, funded by the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme, among the entire population of top civil servants in 18 European countries. The findings have now been published in our book — Public Administration Reforms in Europe: The View from the Top.

True, many tools and management practices associated with the NPM, such as staff performance talks or management by objectives, have become very common. Across all countries, the almost 7,000 top civil servants we surveyed list achieving results and ensuring an efficient use of resources among the most important roles they have. They are also in agreement that compared to five years ago, the public sector has made major progress in terms of efficiency and service quality – two main objectives of the NPM.

There are ‘NPM champions’ – countries that have gone further than others in reforming the Weberian state. Think the UK or the Netherlands, where public employment is increasingly normalised, and delivery contracted out. But even there, the structures of traditional public administration remain firmly in place.

Some elements of the NPM are still mainly absent from current management practice in European countries. Internal steering by contract is not very common, and performance related pay is very rare despite the popularity in reform talk. The weak presence of flexible employment also shows that the Weberian model still dominates. Despite attempts to normalise public employment in some countries, civil servants still enjoy a unique status. We also observed this during the fiscal crisis, where the outright firing of permanent civil servants or the cutting of salaries has been relatively rare.


Managerial and policy autonomy perceived by top civil servants. COCOPS Top Public Executive Survey. N=6109. 1=very low, 7=very high. Scale based on 8 items.

For civil servants, referring issues upwards in the hierarchy is still the dominant response in situations when responsibilities or interests conflict with that of other organisations. Top European civil servants consider the impartial implementation of laws and rules as one of their dominant roles, and largely prefer state provision of services over market provision, with the exception of the British, Danish and Dutch.

There are clear country differences, with management ‘champions’ such as the UK, Estonia, Norway and the Netherlands, and more legalistic and traditional public administrations such as in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary and Spain. The adoption of newer reform ideas suggests that the Weberian state may now be in decline. Yet some of the other findings of the survey, reported above, show that Weberianism’s main ideas are still deeply embedded in European countries.

What we see in current European public administration is mainly a modernisation of Weberian practice, where several NPM-inspired innovations have firmly taken root without fundamentally changing the basics of the system. We also see that recent waves of reform have helped to ground the Weberian model. When asked to assess changes in equal access to public services, top civil servants reported improvements across Southern and especially Central Europe, countries that suffered from favouritism and unequal treatment.

There are, however, also many European countries that are still struggling to implement some of the basics of the Weberian model. One example is that political interference in senior-level appointments and in routine activities remains high and the autonomy of top civil servants remains low in countries such as Portugal, Italy or Spain.

What does that mean for the European institutions? Initial public administration reform support by the EU to member states and then-candidate countries in the 1990s were mainly attempting to introduce NPM ideas and practices, through making the public sector more market-like, through privatisation, and through introducing modern business techniques.

Since then, the focus of the EU’s public administration reform support – and that of other international bodies – has shifted, and now emphasises the importance of solid civil service laws, due process, and absence of corruption. Public administration reform is no longer seen as a means to integrating the internal market through red tape reduction, but as an exercise in administrative capacity building in order to guarantee equal access for citizens and companies, as well as accountable spending of ESF support.

The European institutions themselves remain fundamentally Weberian in nature, and public administration scholars consider them slow reformers. Trends such as agencies, open government, or an emphasis on (social) innovation have become common. Below reforms and reform rhetoric, however, there lies an organisation that was modelled after the French administration, and that has maintained a strong hierarchical nature.

An earlier version of this contribution was originally posted on

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