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Governance Through Social Learning

Gilles Paquet

Part III - New Directions

Chapter 12. Betting on Moral Contracts1

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  • 1 This chapter first appeared in Optimum 1991–92; 22(3): 45–53. The critical comments of Jak Jabes h (...)

We need a new “declaration of interdependence.”...
– Warren Bennis

1We already know much about the most important challenges that public management in Canada is likely to face over the next decade. Further, we have good reason to believe that administrative restructuring, technological fixes or gadgets, and soft-headed sloganeering about total quality or client-orientation will not provide an adequate answer, but, at the same time, we appear to be unwilling to engage in the difficult task of engineering the “mores revolution” that might hold the key to our difficulties. I believe that we should and can effect that revolution.

2Mores are defined either as “the established, traditional customs or folkways regarded by a social group as essential to its preservation and welfare” or as “the accepted conventions of a group or community” (Funk & Wagnall’s Standard, College Dictionary [Canadian ed.]. 1976, p. 981).

3Although the diagnosis is unlikely to prove controversial, the proposed cure may be discarded offhandedly because it entails nothing less than a cultural revolution. Yet, the proposal should at least be debated in the public forum. This is especially important because two major Canadian public institutions — the Office of the Auditor General and the Public Service Commission — could effectively kick-start the whole process of change if they were swayed by the argument.


4There are two major families of challenges facing public management in the 1990s. First, modern societies like Canada are becoming more plural, open, and liberal. Most people now strongly assert their right to be in the know. It is no longer easy to ensure that only the centrally interested stakeholders are informed; public managers live in a goldfish bowl. As a result, it is all but impossible to avoid procedural complications in almost every area of public management, as the most powerful resource is public attention and any well-organized minority can more or less define the public agenda.

5This development has been perceived as a tragedy by old-style public servants for whom “a duty of complete disclosure would render impossible the effective operation of government” (Bennis 1976). But this is only the second part of the well-known pronouncement of Edward Levi (former dean of the Chicago Law School and former attorney general of the United States): the first and complementary part of the statement is that “a right of complete confidentiality in government could not only produce a dangerous ignorance but also destroy the basic representative function of government” (Bennis 1976). Obviously, one has to strike a balance between these two evils of excessive disclosure and excessive confidentiality.

6Governments still operate with undue confidentiality. This has undermined their legitimacy and authority and, as a result, they are almost paralyzed. The state cannot command; nobody feels that they have to obey; it cannot persuade or organize; preaching does not work; and even sophisticated structures cannot maintain order for the uninformed citizens put all their energy into trying to circumvent what they regard as unwarranted constraints placed on them. As a result, at a time when there is a need for more collective decisions in our information society (for markets do not always handle information very effectively [Paquet 1987a]), it has become more and more difficult to effect them.

7One important consequence is the omnipresent temptation of bureaucrats to use shortcuts: the public servant condemned to be a frustrated public educator and animateur is often unwittingly led to become a son of homo manipulator. As a result, ethical issues become the new daily bread of the public manager in Canada and almost everywhere else in democratic societies.

8Second, in Canada, but also in many other countries, this new liberal pluralism has become a greater challenge, because of a particular malaise that may be ascribed to what one might call the collapse of the social consensus.

9From the 1950s to the 1970s, one cannot but notice an extraordinary decay of the degree of solidarity in Britain and in Canada, to mention only two well-documented cases (Marquand 1988; Paquet 1991). In Canada, for example, the 1950s were the era when equalization payments policy (an echo of interregional solidarity) and many welfare programs (an echo of intersocial group solidarity) were created. In the 1970s, this sense of interregional solidarity had all but disappeared: this was the era of the Alberta bumper sticker that read, “Let those eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” There have also been signs of a weakening of intergroup, intergenerational, and even interethnic solidarity that have translated into an erosion of welfare programs and heightened intergroup tensions.

10This collapse of social consensus since the Great Depression and the Second World War has had an impact on the governance of the country. The public service, as an institution, can only reflect and echo the malaise of the broader society in which it is embedded and which it serves. A quantum leap in anomie has been noted in Canada (Bibby 1990). As a result, it has become even more difficult to manage the public household in this country (and a number of others), and the tension and frustrations of public servants have been heightened accordingly.


11The result of this sociopolitical degradation has been a particularly debilitating disease for the public service in Canada. Using the language of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I would call it loss of gumption. Gumption is defined by Funk and Wagnall as “bold energetic initiative, courage to act, shrewd common sense” — from the Middle English “gome” meaning “care.” This illness originated as a result of the forces described in the last section, but these have been catalyzed by two additional major factors that have hit the Canadian scene particularly hard.

12The first one is demographic in nature. Canada had a most extraordinary population explosion between 1951 and 1966: some seven million Canadians were born during this period. This cohort generated a phenomenal growth in the demand for governmental services (health, education, etc.), but it also produced what John Kettle (1980) has called “a new kind of people.” On one hand, this cohort was overprotected and “cajoled with promises of a bright future,” but, on the other hand, it has been provoked and made more and more frustrated as overcrowding generated alienation and violence, and as their naive “me-generation” expectations have been put to a terrible test.

13By now, this generation has come to be well represented, mostly in the lower and middle echelons of the Canadian public service. These “Baby Boomers” are a new kind of people with new attitudes to work: more questioning; less confidence in authority figures; more valorization of family and community than their elders; frustration, as their probability of promotion is much lower than the previous cohort; and so forth.

14The oldest members of this cohort are now in their 40s, the 35 to 49 age group will continue to grow dramatically during much of the 1990s. This is the very age group most likely to be hit by an identity crisis and a midlife crisis, with its characteristic vulnerability and equivocation. This is the time when gumption traps like anxiety, boredom, and impatience are most damaging (Scrosone 1990).

15The second factor is organizational in nature. The massive demands for government services from this me-generation have brought a lot of pressure to bear on the public service. The old-style senior public servants, mostly born before the Second World War, were forced by such external circumstances to deal with the new pluralist reality in a very direct way. Moreover, given the new values of the day, they had to attend to these demands in a sensitive way. Consequently, they developed an explicit language of care — the vision statements and the slogans they have hammered out to expound their commitment are all about client-orientation and quality of service to client publics.

16But, internally, the old Taylorian logic of the feudal hierarchical system was still in place. Both at the federal and provincial levels (but also in many large private bureaucracies administering companies that have been in place for quite a while), there is ample evidence that the bunker mentality is not dead. Dissent is still not in good currency, and scapegoating is still a way of conducting business. Indeed, given the increased external vulnerability of the public service bureaucracy in this fish-bowl world, scapegoating (from its radical version, firing, to its softer version, shelving) is increasingly a tool of management.

17In this somewhat schizophrenic world, junior civil servants try their sanity as they are squeezed between the explicit rhetoric of client service uttered by their superiors for external consumption and the Taylorian language and practices experienced internally. Without the benefit of an inclusive public philosophy or guiding professional culture to help these junior civil servants interpret and reconcile both types of utterances and guide them in adapting creatively to ever-changing circumstances, this situation generates extraordinary existential strains.

18Kets de Vries and Miller (1985) have psychoanalyzed the sort of neurotic organization that results. It appears that the current scene in Canada corresponds closely to what they identify as one type of dysfunctional organization — the paranoid organization. The paranoid organization is marred by suspicion and mistrust of others. The result is a “desire for perpetual vigilance and preparedness for emergencies” through a centralization of power in the hands of the top executives. The strategies of such organizations are essentially reactive, with a sizable element of conservatism, and a “loss of capacity for spontaneous action because of defensive attitudes.”


19This world of contradictory signals is a great source of double binds. In town hall-type meetings, senior bureaucrats use language that encourages subordinates to feel empowered, but then do not hesitate to accuse them of incompetence, disloyalty, and disobedience when they take initiatives and the outcome is not entirely “politically correct.” This is a typical Catch-22 situation in which conflicts are suppressed and an atmosphere of false consensus is encouraged. Such confused interpersonal and superior–subordinate interactions generate all sorts of tensions, insecurity, disenchantment, and resentment among second-tier managers and their subordinates. And the situation is yet more serious when the lower and middle echelons are “the new kind of people” generated by the Big Generation.

20The situation is so tense that public servants in the middle echelons are led either to internalize these tensions — “some conscious pretense, emotional suppression, or cognitive unawareness concerning the factors that induce fear... in a crisis situation” (Kets de Vries and Miller 1985: 136) — or to design escape routes — “cooperation with all its half-measures and half-satisfactions is no longer enough. I want it all. I want out” (Scorsone 1990).

21The internalization route may take one of the many forms well-known to psychoanalysts and management specialists like Kets de Vries and Miller (1985) — repression of desires, emotions, and thoughts, regression to passive, child-like behaviour, projection (creating distortions of representations designed to attribute to persons and circumstances all responsibility for the uneasy situation), or identification (leading one to adopt values and patterns of behaviour of those in power. And, finally, a way out of this uncomfortable pew is reaction formation (internalizing one’s deeply felt sentiments and externalizing exactly the reverse).

22Through this internalization process, personnel acquire a capacity to cope and muddle through one day at a time, but, in the long run, it is rather debilitating and counterproductive. The neurosis that has hit a portion of the middle-rank public service has translated into disenchantment, and public servants have been shown to lack commitment to their superiors (Zussman and jabes 1990).

23As for the escape route, it can also take many forms. Some have simply migrated within and withdrawn into a mercenary role, belittling, by example if not always by formal utterances, the importance of both ethics in relations with the clientele and a professional culture of solidarity within the organization. Others have effectively opted out, sometimes by leaving the public service altogether, which is an unfortunate but easy-to-defend action under the circumstances. But others have opted out while staying in, either by submerging themselves in some form of nirvana (which is another way to suppress emotions) or by arguing openly in favour of massive privatization of the public service, as a way out of their quandary and misery.

24The adoption of a mercenary role is a betrayal of public trust. Public servants are not meant to be robots, but rather important elements within government as a learning organization. Their multiple roles vis-à-vis their client publics and their colleagues in the rest of the organization are pregnant with positive freedoms, that is, obligations and duties that go much beyond the mechanical despatch of orders received from above. Public servants have ruling work to do.

25Withdrawing into a passive role amounts to not meeting these obligations and failing to provide clients and colleagues with what they are in a position to demand as a matter of right. At best, it reveals weakness of will; at worst, it generates what Warren Bennis (1976) has labeled “petit Eichmannism.”

26This opting out by middle-echelon public servants, and even, at times, by younger or relatively senior bureaucrats into a blind espousal of deregulation/privatization (as a way to cleanse the system by making public management more like private management) is also a dereliction of duty. Many activities may effectively be shifted from the public to the private sector, with some efficiency gains and no meaningful loss on other fronts. And, indeed, these should be so shifted. In the same way, activities currently under the authority of the federal public management system might be allocated to provincial or local authorities as a matter of economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. However, the nature of the activities that can be shifted this way can only be ascertained on the basis of a reasoned discussion of what the market can and cannot handle appropriately and of what different levels of government can deliver. It is the responsibility of public servants to understand and explain to the citizenry and the politicians the porous, but fundamental, border between public and private matters and between federal, provincial, and local matters.

27Allowing ideological sloganeering to sway a debate, or to carry a decision without the key decision-makers being fully briefed on all its implications, represent failure by public servants to live up to the “obligation de diligence” and the “ devoir de diligence” that are part and parcel of their positive freedoms. The famous “obligation de réserve” should never translate into an “obligation de mutisme.” Bureaucrats who do not accept these obligations are less an aid to enlightened public decision-making than a hindrance to governments as learning organizations. The inescapable and changing responsibilities of active citizens and public servants, even when these are unpleasant, are to make full use of their positive freedoms, that is, of their obligation to participate (Tussman 1989; see also Chapter 5). This is the sense in which it is said that public servants, like citizens, have ruling work to do.


28Senior bureaucrats have a central responsibility in the design of a solution: ethical standards begin at the top. Given their important brokerage function between the public service and its clientele, and their complementary tutelage function vis-à-vis public servants within the organization, one has to recognize first and foremost that they face a prisoner’s dilemma on both fronts.

29A prisoner’s dilemma is one of mutual distrust (see New partnerships and moral contracts in Chapter 11). Although there is an incentive to betray one’s partner in crime, if both partners inform on each other, the penalty is the maximum. The same type of problem exists between the citizenry and the state or in the federal-provincial arena: mutual distrust leads one partner to short-change the other, with the result that the other follows suit and all the benefits of cooperation vanish.

30All this can be resolved by negotiating moral contracts. Ideally, our senior bureaucrats would be the key designers in the development of new conventions/moral contracts, both within (in their dealings with the different layers of the bureaucracy) and without (that is, in their dealings with client publics) as a way out of their dilemmas. For all kinds of reasons, they have not performed this task to the necessary degree. However, it is quite possible to remind them of this central responsibility and to provide incentives for them to engage in moral contract activities.

31What conventions might constitute a way out in the circumstances we have described? Our labels for the internal moral contracts that need to be hammered out between high and low fonctionnaires, and for the external moral contracts between public servants and the general public are rather simple: professionalism and ethics. And, they are closely interrelated.


32A moral contract between senior and junior civil servants must be based not only on a sense of respected identity, but also on rules of mutual obligation and a sense of quid pro quo. Professionalism refers to both “practical knowledge and social skills that are conducive to savvy functioning within the social and political context of an organization or field” (Messick 1988). It also refers to a culture — “a set of intellectual glasses to interpret reality with,” as R.M. Pirsig (1991) puts it — the ensemble of values underpinning this culture and the unwritten agreement in which the mutual obligations these entail are recorded.

33As it stands these days, no one is a civil servant first, not in Canada nor in most of the countries Canada usually associates with (Crozier 1987). People are accountants, economists, plumbers, animateurs, engineers, or oenologists first: they identify with their craft rather than with their métier (from the Latin ministerium), which is to serve the public. This primary identification refers to a bond, an esprit de corps that binds as much as it empowers. It often carries with it not only a sense of pride, but also a code of ethics.

34People can be public servants first; indeed, there are important models of people who have celebrated that profession as their primary self-label (Bloch-Lainé 1976). However, for such self-identification to prevail, the métier of public servants must be refurbished and repromoted to the rank of “honorable profession.” This, in turn, calls for a milieu in which openness, candour, and deliberation (i.e., a true, open, internal forum) exist and there is respect for responsibility.

35Such professionalism could be the basis of a new strategic state — one that would do things better with fewer resources because of the new possibilities opened by networks of mutual trust within the organization. This is a fundamental requirement if one is to experiment with institutional design along the lines suggested by the strategy of special operating agencies or by the more ambitious Swedish model, in which 5% of public servants deal with policy and legislation and 95% deal with management in relatively autonomous agencies. In such contexts, the existence of a common philosophy of public service is essential; the organizational culture ensures some cohesion in decision-making, along with much cooperation and networking, with the result that the principle of subsidiarity can be fully applied without the usual ailments that flow from decentralization in a paranoid organization.


36A new moral contract with the citizenry must be based not only on great respect for citizens’ right to know, but also on client publics’ right to be involved in the evaluation of the public service. This is much more than client-orientation rhetoric: it is a sort of quid pro quo involving the protection of public servants from abuse and harassment by clients, and the protection of citizens from the arbitrariness and negligence of public servants.

37For the time being, there is a fixation on quality of service in the rhetoric of client-orientation. There is a danger that such a phrase can mislead more than it enlightens, for in matters of quality of service in the public sector (at least in the absence of any user fees), the optimum is not, in all likelihood, the maximum. Indeed the notion of “total quality” may be quite misleading. Quality of service in the absence of any price rationing is a bottomless pit. Why should the citizen not demand more if it is free? There develops a logic of entitlements in the clientele to which the public servant responds with a liturgy of service: both parties pretend to be acting in good faith while knowing full well they are not (Paquet 1985d).

38By establishing more clearly, via a moral contract, both the entitlements of citizens (within limits) and the obligations of public servants (but also the limitations that might reasonably apply), and having a transparent evaluation process for public service based on the participation of citizens, one might expect the establishment of a different rapport between public servants and clients and an enforcement mechanism limiting encroachment on both sides.

39For the time being, the two sets of moral contracts linking headquarters to the field and both of them to the citizenry have not been developed into a proud and integrated culture of professional public service. As a result, “la fonction publique manque de patrons” (Crozier 1987) in the two senses of the term: leaders and models. Senior headquarters managers, whatever their zeal or good intentions, cannot avoid sending dual messages: the words (that is, the rhetoric of client-service, openness, etc.) do not always jibe with the music (the old arrogant logic of the internal administration of yesteryear), and the rapport between civil servants and the citizenry is based on misunderstanding, because of the indeterminate nature of the moral contract binding the parties.


40The content of these moral contracts must be explicitly and openly negotiated. But, because the sort of moral agreements that are likely to ensue are to be designed as a way of avoiding excesses and of codifying, somewhat, a sense of limits, it may be helpful to go back to the four cardinal virtues (sometimes called natural virtues) proposed by Plato as primary guiding values. They are temperentia (the sense of limits, of not going too far), justitia (a sense of what is good), fortitudo (a capacity to take into account context and the longer time horizon) and prudentia (the sense of pursuing reasonable and practical objectives). Schumacher (1973) could not find any better set of principles when he was searching for values likely to guide modern choices at the end of Small Is Beautiful.

41These principles may not hold the key to the question of what is moral, but they are most helpful in establishing by negotiation what is not moral. Indeed, this is exactly the plausible framework suggested for “locating and developing post-modern insights in relation to justice,” according to Stephen White (1991). We often intuitively know better what is unjust than what is just. Judith Shklar (1991) goes even further and revives an old distinction of Cicero between passive and active injustice to remind her readers that a citizen may act unjustly not only by breaking a law, but also by remaining passive in the face of a public wrong.

42This is a backhanded approach, but one that is likely to define the bounds within which the moral contracts might be kept by convention of all stakeholders, that is, the tolerable and intolerable bounds of active and passive immorality within which the parties will agree to stay.

Who should kick-start the negotiation process?

43For the process of negotiation of moral contracts to proceed quickly, at least two agencies should be involved, thereby triggering the sound emulation and the requisite competition likely to produce results in short order. Two federal agencies stand above all others, in terms of independence and mandate and, therefore, might be considered as extraordinarily well-suited to kick-start the process: the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) and the Public Service Commission (PSC).

44The PSC might be charged with the primary responsibility of negotiating the professionalism contract. A redefinition of the role of the PSC is already in progress, not only as a result of internal restructuring, but also as a result of a process of critical thinking in the whole Commonwealth about the roles of PSCs (see Chapter 9). In addition, the Auditor General’s (1990) annual report for the fiscal year ending 31 March 1990 began a critical examination of the underlying issues at stake in the definition of such a contract. This might provide many insights into how to do the job.

45The OAG might take primary responsibility for negotiating the ethics contract. It has already gone quite a distance toward comprehensive auditing, i.e., asking not only if public service is provided economically and efficiently, but also asking if it is done effectively. However, it has done this work timidly, without much explicit government support and almost entirely without direct, explicit, or powerful involvement of citizens. Professional experts are acting on behalf of the public: this is not good enough. Even in the private sector, where one has the benefit of a market discipline, the lags involved in waiting for the market test are too long, and potential mistakes too costly for one to rely entirely on this feedback mechanism. Private firms now use real customers as focus groups, to evaluate how well they are doing and to determine in what way their product should be improved. An extension of the auditing function to cover effectiveness, and a direct involvement of client publics in the evaluation of effectiveness, would extend the role of the OAG considerably and provide a basis for negotiation of the moral contract between the public service and the citizenry.


46A strategy based on the definition of moral contracts would contribute much to solving the prisoner’s dilemma that plagues public management in Canada and elsewhere. It would define, as clearly as possible, the mutual expectations of both parties, the legitimate entitlements and obligations they might have, and the corridor or boundary limits within which it is imperative or less imperative to effect these entitlements and to honour these obligations.

47First, it would rebuild the trust of client publics in the public service community and redefine the centrality of the positive freedoms of public servants in dealing with the public. A greater possibility of cooperation between the citizenry and the state would ensue, and the resulting empowerment of the intellectual resources of the bureaucracy would allow public servants not only to serve the public better, but also to be an integral part of the co-evolution of government, society, and business that is the key to international competitiveness (Archibald et al. 1990).

48Second, it would provide the basis for refurbishing the collective decision-making capability within government at a time when it is badly needed and for rebuilding a proud culture of public service within governmental circles with loyalties and commitments attached to it. Further, it would contribute, in no minor way, to eliminating the schizophrenia that plagues public management and prevents it from delivering public services economically, efficiently, and effectively.

49In a sense, these new instruments within the public administration apparatus are nothing more than a concretization and an extension of what has already begun to evolve in the relationships between the state and civil society on the broader political scene.

50Over the last half century, the role of the state has changed considerably in advanced, modern capitalist economics. From simple housekeeping functions, the state has graduated to Keynesian, off-setting functions as a result of the great instability that used to plague advanced industrial economies and paralyze their effectiveness. Lately, it has become clear that off-setting will no longer suffice. We are now entering an era where cooperation between government, business, and civil society is becoming a basic ingredient of national competitiveness and prosperity. As a result, all advanced industrial countries have reworked, more or less explicitly, their participatory/planning functions, and it may be said that they all have a “plan.” As Theodore Lowi (1975) put it, “they do not publish their plan because it would never gain consent. Yet, it is not what one would call a conspiracy.... The plan is not entirely conscious or systematic, and it cannot be as long as it is not written, published, debated, revised and so on. But, it is not what you could call a secret.” Lowi has called on political science “to discover what the plan is and, in discovering it, stopping it or improving it as the case may be.”

51The same sort of agenda is now facing specialists in public administration when it comes to the moral contracts we have referred to earlier. There are important new instrumentalities in the realization of the “plan.” Public managers will not only have to continue to deliver their usual services, but they will also have to take part in some social architecture to design the moral contracts likely to create the best structure of public management. The challenge for senior public servants can be likened to the one facing an orchestra leader trying to restructure the orchestra while conducting the concert — shrieks and other ungodly noises can be expected!

52Yet, only through joint pressures generated by an informational age requiring a much larger and very different public sector output and by an era of legitimate fiscal restraint where public-sector deficits command that resources be rationed to the public household can a public strategy of working smarter and cooperatively be given a real chance to come into being.

53No simple rules will do: nothing is black or white — all is grey. This is the area where evolving negotiated moral contracts are going to work best, and this is why they will be the new tool of public management in the 1990s.

Notes de fin

1 This chapter first appeared in Optimum 1991–92; 22(3): 45–53. The critical comments of Jak Jabes have been very helpful, and the challenging questions and probing of many participants in the October 1991 meeting of the Ottawa Chapter of the Planning Forum helped sharpen the argument.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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