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public administration and development

Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)

Published online in Wiley InterScience
( DOI: 10.1002/pad.495


State University of São Paulo-UNESP, Brazil

This article examines the interplay between legitimacy and context as key determinants of public sector reform outcomes.
Despite the importance of variables such as legitimacy of public institutions, levels of civic morality and socio-economic
realities, reform strategies often fail to take such contextual factors into account. The article examines, first, relevant literature –
both conceptual and empirical, including data from the World Values Survey project. It is argued that developing countries have
distinctive characteristics which require particular reform strategies. The data analysed shows that in Latin American countries,
there is no clear correlation between confidence in public institutions and civic morality. Other empirical studies show that
unemployment has a negative impact on the level of civic morality, while inequality engenders corruption. This suggests that
poorer and socio-economically stratified countries face greater reform challenges owing to the lack of legitimacy of public
institutions. The article concludes that reforms should focus on areas of governance that impact on poverty. This will in turn help
produce more stable outcomes. Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

key words — public administration; legitimacy; public sector reforms; developing countries

It is largely accepted as a fact that national cultures affect the structure and performance of Public Administration.
Indeed, the subfield of Comparative Public Administration is concerned in knowing how and why different
countries differ in their bureaucracies, public policies and governmental service provision. As Jreisat (2005) has
argued, the current preoccupation with the effects of globalisation has moved Comparative Public Administration
back again to the core concerns of the discipline. Despite global trends, differences between countries remain.
Global trends in Public Administration are changing too. In all continents, ‘manager’s autonomy’ is losing
ground to ‘citizen participation’. After reaching a peak of prestige in the early 1990s, New Public Management
(NPM) is now in decline. Unfulfilled promises, failure to provide legitimacy to managers’ decisions and disregard
for political matters are a few reasons why NPM prestige faded away (Ferlie et al., 1996; Cohn, 1997; Maor, 1999;
Box et al., 2001; Lynn, 2001; Salway, 2001; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2004). NPM’s legitimacy deficit has sparkled
interest in participatory procedures, accountability and transparency (Thompson, 1995; Blair, 2000; Lowndes et al.,
2001a,b; Souza, 2001; Doig and McIvor, 2003; Deighton-Smith, 2004; Wampler and Avritzer, 2004). This
change of spirits can be noted both in developed and developing countries. But many developing countries became
democracies only in the 1980s, a process known as the ‘third wave’ of democratisation (Huntington, 1991). In these
nations, democratisation involves not only establishing traditional political institutions, but also improving
the legitimacy of the civil service. In developed nations, the former have already been accomplished, what makes
easier to move to the latter task. In developing countries, matters are more complex, especially because contextual
factors tend to undermine the performance of public institutions.

*Correspondence to: C. W. Andrews, State University of São Paulo-UNESP, Public Administration, Rod. Araraquara-Jaú, Km 1, Araraquara
14, 800-901, Brazil. E-mail:

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


My purpose in this article is to take a closer look on the implications of contextual factors for public sector
reform in developing nations, assuming that the legitimacy of public institutions is necessary for a successful
reform. As we will see below, due to contextual factors, traditional administrative reform procedures, such as codes
of conduct and training, are not likely to succeed in developing countries. Thus, a more detailed understanding of
the complex relations between context and legitimacy will help reformers understand why civil service reforms in
developing countries more often than not fail. The alternative strategy to traditional reform processes is not simple
to achieve, of course, but at least reformers can have a more realistic view of the task before them. I will start by
discussing the effect of contextual factors on the performance of public institutions, emphasising ethical behaviour,
drawing on examples from developing and developed countries (Section ‘Contextual Factors and Institutional
Performance’). I then introduce conceptual issues emerging from civic culture theory in order to highlight the
importance of civic morality for civil service reform (Section ‘From Civic Culture to Civic Morality’). Next,
I discuss empirical studies that examine the associations between confidence in institutions, civic morality and
socioeconomic factors in a comparative perspective; in this section I also analyse data from the World Values
Survey Project (European Values Study Group and World Values Survey Association, 2004), in order to provide
some additional insight into the matter (Section ‘Empirical Investigations’). Finally, I wrap up the arguments and
present some suggestions for public sector reform in developing countries (Section ‘Final Remarks:
Recommendations for Reformers’).


Public sector reforms are undertaken for several reasons: to reduce public spending, to improve effectiveness, to
respond to new social demands, etc. No matter which reason launches reforms, one thing is inescapable: public
institutions and public servants are integrated in society. Thus, understanding the interplay between public
institutions and the encompassing social context is fundamental to envision a strategy to carry out reforms.
Since long time, academics and policymakers have been claiming for ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ reforms of the civil
service. Recommendations usually include creating codes of conduct, adopting transparency procedures, assuring
social control and providing adequate training (Armstrong, 2005). Few studies, however, have examined how
contextual factors influence the ethical behaviour of public servants. One exception is a study by de Vries (2002). In
an investigation based on opinions of local government leaders from 17 countries, the author noted that the ‘ethos’
of politicians and top public administrators—that is their moral values—did not coincide with their ‘ethics’—that
is the practical application of their moral standards. The analysis of the data showed that although both public
administrators and politicians said that telling the truth was always justifiable, contextual situations dictated
whether they were more or less likely to ‘walk their talk’. Their ethical behaviour was found to depend on two
factors: their perception of the number of social problems in their communities and whether they saw serious
divisions within it. More problems and the seriousness of divisions in the community made politicians and public
servants less likely to tell the truth to the public. Although politicians were more inclined to conceal the truth when
faced with these problems, public administrators also reacted in the same way. Moreover, de Vries (2002, p. 330)
found that administrators and politicians working in the same city hall had very similar opinions on ethical
behaviour, indicating that these opinions ‘are foremost socially–culturally determined’. This suggests that the
traditional procedures recommended for ‘ethical’ reforms are not likely to work in problematic contexts.
The social context is also likely to impact the way public institutions are perceived by the public, that is whether
these are regarded legitimate or not. According to recent public opinion polls, confidence in public institutions is in
decline throughout the world. In well-established western democracies, confidence in institutions have been falling
since 1984; this phenomenon has been interpreted as a change in the expectations of the public, who supposedly is
demanding more from governments than previous generations did (Dalton, 2004). On the other hand, low levels of
confidence in public institutions in the new democracies, especially in Latin America, have been interpreted as a
sign of political instability (Lagos, 2001). Newton and Norris (2000) consider that diminishing confidence in
institutions is a treat to democracy in both developed and developing countries; because confidence basically

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

reflects the overall performance of governmental organisations, this means that governments are simply
Performance, however, seems to depend on contextual factors. O’Donnell (1994) argued that many
contemporary democracies, particularly in Latin America, though meeting the criteria for being a polyarchy (Dahl,
1971), are in fact delegative democracies. According to the author, although delegative democracies can be
enduring, they are neither consolidated nor institutionalised. Nevertheless, they are not necessarily at risk of
imminent regression. This ‘new animal’—as O’Donnell called it—is the result of social and economic crises
inherited from previous authoritarian regimes. Delegative democracies require a ‘second transition’, this time to an
authentic representative democracy. This transition would take longer to be accomplished and would be more
complex than the ‘third wave’ transitions. The success or failure in building appropriate political institutions is what
ultimately would determine whether a delegative democracy will become a representative democracy or not.
O’Donnell argues that these institutions may not correspond to formal organisations; according to his definition,
institutions are patterns of rules and norms which can be known, practiced and regularly accepted. In this sense,
‘institutions’ correspond not only to laws and organisations, but also to cultural patterns. Therefore, this ‘second
transition’ would require both ethical institutions and a political culture based on high moral standards.
Hellsten and Larbi (2006) show that, indeed, cultural patterns in the public at large influence the ethical
performance of the civil service in developing countries. Although they reject the view that some national cultures
are more tolerant to misconduct in the public sector than others, they suggest that corruption in parts of Africa and
Asia emerges from a collectivist cultural tradition that conflicts with formal, bureaucratic institutions. In such
cultures, personal relations are particularly important both as a value and as a means of survival; individualistic
principles of market economies are regarded foreign. In the authors’ view, in order to address the problem of
corruption, reforms should include training of public servants as well as civic ethics education addressed to the
public. However, Hellsten and Larbi (2006, p. 138) admit that contextual factors are important for institutional
performance. They note that one of the reasons why public servants in developing countries are sometimes too
inclined to engage in corruption is due to the fact that formal institutions do not perform their duties properly.
‘When public institutions are not functioning effectively and efficiently there tends to be a vicious circle of poverty
and inequality in distribution of scarce resources: when government waste the scarce public resources, officials in
the public service in some developing countries have little incentive to do their jobs well with their low (and often
irregularly paid) salaries’.
Graham (1968), in his classical study of the Brazilian public service during the 1945–1964 redemocratisation
period, observed a phenomenon very similar to that described by Hellsten and Larbi (2006). Graham concluded that
the Administrative Department of the Public Service—DASP, created as a Weberian bureaucracy by the
authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas (1930–1945), could not sustain its formalism after political parties regained
the control of national politics in Brazil.

The patronage system that developed after 1945 made the formal personnel system inoperative. The values of
economy, efficiency and rationality could not function in an administrative system responsive to the
integrative needs of the political and social systems. Furthermore, they conflicted with the traditional values
stressing personal and kinship with more recent ones emphasising egalitarianism (Graham, 1968, p. 190).

The author observed that in the Brazilian context the bureaucratic principle of separation between administration
and politics was neither feasible nor desirable. For this reason, he recommended that public service reforms in Brazil
should start from the environment in which they are to be implemented, not from some ideal model. Graham’s advice,
although written almost 20 years ago, would have been useful in guiding the most recent civil service reform in Brazil.
During President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term in office (1994–1998), the federal government attempted to
implement an administrative reform inspired in the NPM model; this reform, however, failed to accomplish its
ambitious goals (Andrews, 2002). As in the previous reforms of 1930 and 1968, reformers believed that the ‘efficiency
trust’ alone could guarantee a successful reform, irrespective of the political and social contexts. But by 1998, only the
privatisation program—an important element of the government’s macroeconomic stability plan—had been

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

implemented. The civil service reform was pushed to the sidelines and ultimately discharged just after President
Cardoso started his second term in 1999. Hence, although reforms can only work by means of norms, rules, laws,
organisations and other formal institutions, these are not sufficient to assure desirable outcomes. In fact, the context—
political, administrative, social, cultural—will determine which rules will be functional and which will become a
mere ‘ritual’ within any given administrative system (Matus, 1996).
To summarise the arguments up to this point: in developing countries, administrative reforms usually seek to
curb corruption and establish trustworthy organisations by attempting to raise ethical standards in public
organisations. However, this strategy forgets to take into account the influence of the overall context on institutional
performance. In an ideal world, public institutions would perform at high ethical standards, setting an example of
behaviour for citizens. In practice, however, contextual factors seem to overwrite the efforts of reformists. The fact
that so many administrative reforms have failed, especially in developing countries, suggest that institutional
reform is a lost battle. Still, decision makers cannot simply sit and wait for the adequate contextual conditions to
improve public institutions. What should one do then?


Before attempting to answer the question above, I will like to examine here some aspects of civic culture theory, in
order to introduce the idea of civic morality as a relevant contextual factor within the debate over civil service
For many political scientists, the most important question in their field is: Why democracy emerged and endured
in some countries, while in others authoritarian regimes prevailed? Political scientists associated to modernisation
theory argued that the level of economic development was the determinant factor: highly developed countries were
also enduring democracies (Tipps, 1973). Civic culture theorists, however, sustained that the values held by a
national population determine whether a country will be a democracy or not. Almond and Verba (1963) were the
first to present this argument; other civic culture theorists who followed them expanded the idea and searched for
empirical evidence for this assertion. Inglehart (1988), in a comparative study using multivariable regression
analysis, claimed that interpersonal trust, rejection of revolutionary change and positive evaluations of life and
politics were strong determinants of democratic regimes. However, these claims were questioned by Seligson
(2002). He argued that Inglehart based his conclusions on data aggregated at the country level and this procedure
could not be regarded as an expression of ‘culture’. According to Seligson, if national cultures determine political
regimes (democracy or authoritarian rule), then the values expressing them should be internalised by individuals. In
other words, if the claim put forward by Inglehart was accurate, the same linear association yielded by the
multivariable regression analysis using data aggregated at the country level should be observed at the individual
level as well. In order to verify if that was the case, Seligson undertook a bivariate analysis of the same cultural
variables used by Inglehart. However, he only found weak correlations. The analysis showed that individuals who
had high levels of interpersonal trust not necessarily rejected revolutionary changes and vice versa; this was the case
with all other variables included in Inglehart’s study. Seligson argued that the very idea of ‘civic culture’ was
misleading and that Inglehart’s study was a case of ‘ecological fallacy’. Inglehart and Welzel (2003) contested
Seligson’s claims and accused him, in turn, of committing ‘individualistic fallacy’. According to them, the mass
tendency is the most important determinant of individual attitudes, not the other way round. Who is right?
Seligson’s argument on the internalisation of values is consistent with the phenomenological philosophical
tradition (Habermas, 1984, pp. 102–141): any ‘meaning’ is ‘shared meaning’. On the other hand, one should
consider that Inglehart and Wezel have a point, for mass attitudes surely have an impact on the overall culture of a
particular society. I will return to this argument in the next section. For now, regardless of the controversies, the
merit of civic culture theory is that it emphasises issues that have been overlooked by studies concerned with civil
service reform.
One concept which emerged from civic culture theory should be mentioned here: ‘social capital’ (Putnam et al.,
1993; Putnam, 2001). This concept is widely cited in academic literature and has been frantically promoted by the
World Bank and OECD (Fine, 2003). As Putnam et al. (1993) have argued, social capital can explain the emergence

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

and duration of democratic regimes and why regions and countries have different levels of economic development.
Despite its tremendous success, social capital remains as one of the fussiest concepts in the social sciences. Few can
agree on what social capital actually is, not to speak on how to measure it (Siisiäinen, 2000; Ponthieux, 2004).
Social capital is said to correspond to a bundle of social phenomena that include networks, norms, reciprocity, trust
and shared values. Most of the studies that attempted to measure the impact of social capital on regime type and
development level focused in interpersonal trust and social networks, but the specific variables that express these
social phenomena vary. In one study by Knack and Keefer (quoted by Ponthieux, 2004), civic cooperation and
interpersonal trust were found to be positively associated to economic development, but the effect of membership to
voluntary associations was weak. The study also showed that, although trust and civic cooperation seemed to boost
economic performance, this was only true for countries with small income inequalities, with strong institutions,
high educational level and lacking social polarisations. As to the effect of social capital on democracy, the difficulty
is actually in establishing which causes what: depending on the dataset, democracy seems to be causing social
capital or the other way round (Paxton, quoted by Ponthieux, 2004).
The concept of social capital has also been applied to the more specific issue of public sector reform. Gregory
(1999) has argued that reforms based on the NPM model erode the social capital within public organisations,
because the model emphasises efficiency and deemphasises ethical behaviour and cooperative norms. He argues
that piecemeal efforts aimed at improving the ethical behaviour of public servants are doomed to fail if not
associated with an institution-building agenda intended to reinforce collective commitment within the public
service. In addition, Gregory argues that the negative outcomes of NPM reforms are likely to be more or less severe
depending on the level of social capital in society at large.
Social capital might be a tool in the promotion of ideological agendas (Fine, 2003) or just a fad (Ponthieux,
2004), but we do not need to reach a conclusion on this. What matters is that social capital is not a useful concept
because it aims to express too many social phenomena at once. All things considered, the idea of civic morality is
more empirically relevant when one considers civil service reform. We can define civic morality as the expression
of citizens’ respect for public institutions and for the norms they lay out. In public opinion surveys, civic morality is
expressed in variables that evaluate the attitude of individuals towards institutional norms such as paying taxes,
claiming government benefits and using public transport. Civic morality, therefore, refers to the cooperative attitude
which enables public institutions to achieve their goals.

In this section, I will discuss some empirical evidence regarding the relation between civic morality and confidence
in public institutions. In this discussion, I will assume that the dimension ‘confidence in institutions’ expresses the
level of legitimacy of public institutions. I shall begin with a comparative study by Letki (2006), aimed at
investigating contextual factors that could have an impact on the level of civic morality. Using data from the World
Values Survey Project for 25 countries, she tested multilevel regression models in which civic morality was the
dependent variable and confidence in public institutions was one of the independent variables.
In order to express the dimensions of civic morality and confidence in institutions, Letki (2006) created two
additive indexes. The additive index expressing civic morality was composed of three variables: ‘Claiming
governmental benefits to which you are not entitled’, ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’ and ‘Cheating on taxes if
you have a chance’. Respondents to the survey were asked to say whether they thought these behaviours were
‘never justifiable’ up to ‘always justifiable’ (10-point scale). The additive index expressing confidence in
institutions was composed of four variables: confidence in the army, civil service, parliament and the police.
Respondents were asked whether they had a ‘great deal’, ‘quite a lot’, ‘not very much’ or ‘none at all’ confidence in
these institutions.
The results of the multilevel regression analysis showed that the level of confidence in institutions had a
significant positive impact on the level of civic morality. Letki’s (2006, p. 321) results suggest, therefore, that
trustworthy (or legitimate) institutions have a positive impact on the moral behaviour of the population towards
public institutions. According to the author, the results ‘[. . .] confirm that the creation of stable, transparent and

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

efficient institutions is necessary for the emergence of a culture of honesty and civic morality among citizens’. She
also noted that variables related to ‘social capital’—such as interpersonal trust and membership in volunteer
associations—were not good predictors of civic morality. Although the effect of confidence in institutions on civic
morality differed across countries, the overall effect remained strong. Variables at the country level, such as
corruption and presence of democratic regimes, also influenced the level of civic morality, but not as strongly as the
variable expressing confidence in institutions. Socioeconomic variables at the country level played an important
role in the level of civic morality, while individual characteristics had a small impact: income, gender, religion,
education and age accounted for 3.5% of the individual-level variance. At the country level, unemployment was
found to have a significant negative impact on civic morality. In fact, unemployment had a stronger impact than
confidence in institutions. These findings are consistent with the arguments discussed in Section ‘Contextual
Factors and Institutional Performance’, that is contextual factors, especially socioeconomic, have a significant
impact not only on the ethics of public administrators (de Vries, 2002), but also on the civic morality of citizens. In
addition, the fact that confidence in public institutions also has a positive impact on the level of civic morality
indicates that the belief that public institutions set an ethical/moral standard to the public has an empirical base.
Only legitimate institutions, that is those that deserve the confidence of the public, can have this educational role.
However, in contexts marred by social problems, public institutions should expect difficulties in winning the
confidence of the public.
In another study using multilevel regression analysis involving 129 countries, You and Khagram (2005, p. 152)
noted that inequality had a significant impact on the level of corruption.1 They noted that unequal and democratic
countries were the most likely to be perceived as corrupt. They also noted that people living in highly
unequal countries ‘(. . .) tend to justify bribe taking and cheating on taxes as acceptable behaviour, when individual
characteristics, such as income, education and other macro factors, are held constant’. Inequality and corruption
reinforce one another, establishing a vicious circle that entraps unequal societies. Once again, their findings support
the arguments presented in Section ‘Contextual Factors and Institutional Performance’. Inequality seems to shape a
local culture that values survival above strict civic morality. This explains why civic education is likely to fail in
unequal societies: individuals are compelled to follow the rules that are perceived to be the most effective in
assuring survival in an unfair context.
I will now examine data from the World Values Survey Project2 from another angle, in order to verify whether
there is any particular insight we can get from assuming civic morality and confidence in institutions as internalised
phenomena. The approach, therefore, is similar to that used by Seligson (2002) in his critique of Inglehart (1988).
It should be noted, however, that Letki (2006) and You and Khagram (2005) account for individual level variations
in their regression models. Thus, problems regarding data aggregated at the country level are minimised. The
purpose to examine the internal association between civic morality and confidence in institutions, one country at a
time, is to highlight possible differences at this level.
Before discussing the results of the bivariate analysis, we should consider whether civic morality and confidence
in institutions should be regarded as macro or micro phenomena. I call macro phenomena the factors that apply to a
country (political regime, socioeconomic conditions, etc.) and micro phenomena cultural features internalised by
individuals. Morality obviously requires internalisation of values, for its very concept presumes it, as Kant (1952)
beautifully stated in his famous quote: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe,
the oftener and the most steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within’ (p. 360,
emphasis from the original). We can assume that civic morality, as it is in the case of personal morality, should be
seen as a micro phenomenon. This does not mean that civic morality is determined by personal factors. In fact, we
have already seen evidence that civic morality is affected by macro phenomena.

The authors define corruption as: ‘abuse of public power (or public office) for private gain’ (You and Khagram, 2005, p. 137). They used three
indexes to measure corruption: the World Bank Institute’s Control of Corruption Index (CCI), the Transparency International’s Corruption
Perception Index and the Political Risk Service’s International Country Risk Guide (ICRG). The results of the regression analysis were similar
for all the three indexes when assumed as dependent variables.
The World Values Survey data used in the analysis includes the 1995–1997 and 1999–2000 waves.

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

Table 1. Results of Spearman’s correlations between confidence in institutions and civic morality variables (two-tailed)
Total significant Mean Significant but in the
positive correlations Spearman’s r ‘wrong’ direction (negative)
(0.05 or 0.01 levels)

Developed countries
Austria 8 0.143 —
Belgium 6 0.097 —
Canada 7 0.103 —
Denmark 3 0.080 —
Great Britain 10 0.102 —
Finland 12 0.133 —
France 10 0.114 —
Germany 8 0.102 —
Italy 10 0.094 —
Japan 10 0.089 —
Luxemburg 8 0.128 1
Netherlands 4 0.092 —
New Zealand 6 0.116 1
Latin-American countries
Brazil — — 2
Chile 3 0.070 —
Colombia 1 0.027 —
Dominican Rep. — — 2
Mexico — — 3
Peru — — 1
Post-communist countries and India
Albania — — —
Croatia 9 0.158 —
Czech Rep. 6 0.078 —
Georgia 4 0.085 —
India 9 0.124 —
Lithuania 5 0.103 —
Montenegro 12 0.121 —
Rep. of Macedonia 8 0.145 —
Rep. of Moldova 1 0.067 1
Russian Fed. 8 0.097 1
Serbia 11 0.108 —

Total possible correlations ¼ 12.

Means include only significant correlations.

What about confidence in institutions? Is it a type of internalised phenomenon? According to rational choice
neo-institutionalism (Hall and Taylor, 1996), institutions are external constraints that limit the behaviour of
individuals as they seek to maximise their ‘utility-functions’. Habermas (1998) also see institutions as entities that
are external to individuals, but argues that institutions can only legitimately impose sanctions on anti-social
behaviour if guided by norms that correspond to a moral consensus emerging from the polity. This reasoning
suggests that ‘confidence in institutions’—but not public institutions themselves—should be seen as an
internalised phenomenon as well. Once again, this does not mean that confidence in institutions is determined by
personal factors.
The results of the Spearman’s correlations (two-tailed) for the civic morality and confidence in institutions
variables for 30 countries are summarised in Table 1.3 The results show that the linear correlations between the

The presentation of the data follows the one adopted by Seligson (2002); although it is not usual to present r values as means, this is a useful way
to summarize the overall tendency of the data.

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

variables expressing civic morality and confidence in institutions for all countries are generally weak. Only Finland
displayed significant correlations for all 12 possible correlations. The highest mean r was 0.222 for Lithuania, but
only six correlations were significant in this case. The highest individual r was observed for Croatia, between the
variables ‘avoiding a fare in public transport’ and ‘confidence in the police’: 0.260, meaning that about 6.8% of the
variation in one variable was due to the variation in the other. All other correlations were below this peak.
The most important finding of the bivariate analysis is that one group in particular stood out: Latin American
countries. The data in Table 1 show a clear contrast between this and the other two groups (developed countries and
post-communist countries plus India). Latin American countries showed the lowest number of significant positive
correlations overall. Chile presented three significant positive correlations, but the other Latin American countries
included in the analysis had only one positive correlation (the case of Colombia) or none at all. In addition, this
group had the highest number of significant correlations in the ‘wrong’ direction, meaning that when the variable
expressing confidence increases, a variable expressing civic morality decreases and vice versa. This phenomenon
was observed only twice among developed countries and post-communist countries.
One explanation for these results is that in Latin America public institutions are still too frail to impact the civic
morality of their citizens. Hence, in these countries, high or low levels of civic morality cannot be explained by the
level of confidence in institutions. Thus, other factors are needed to explain variation in civic morality as well as in
confidence in institutions. Therefore, although it makes sense to think about confidence in institutions and civic
morality as internalised phenomena influencing one another, this seems to be somewhat the case only for Western
democracies and post-communist countries. In developing countries, mass phenomena such as inequality (You and
Khagram, 2005) and unemployment (Letki, 2006) appear to be much more important to explain the level of civic


Letki’s finding that trustworthy, legitimate public institutions can boost the level of civic morality of citizens seems
to sustain the argument favouring traditional approaches to civic service reform. However, this appears not to be the
case for Latin American countries, where the association between confidence in institutions and civic morality is
almost absent. We have also seen that unequal countries are more likely to have their public institutions perceived as
corrupt (You and Khagram, 2005). One can expect that in these countries institutions cannot win the confidence of
the public and, thus, cannot be effective in delivering public services, implementing public policies or setting a
moral example for citizens. This situation looks very difficult to transform. We shall now go back to the question:
what reformers can do about this?
In unequal societies reforms should start addressing the hardest of the problems: economic and social injustice.
Starting by doing the most difficult first seems a foolish strategy, but Evans’s (1992) arguments can show that there
is logic in this approach. He noted that in some countries—Brazil was his example—a handful of public
institutions show high levels of professionalism and effectiveness vis-à-vis the overall ineffectiveness of the civil
service. Although this arrangement is still far from the ideal model of ‘embedded autonomy’, it is better than the
situation prevailing in ‘predatory states’, where corruption has privatised public services to such an extent that the
idea of a public good has almost completely disappeared. Thus, it makes sense to focus on key public organisations
at a time, a strategy that Matus (1996) called ‘vertical reform’. He argued that horizontal reforms—that
is reforming specific administrative systems across the civil service—cannot succeed because unreformed systems
within public organisations push reformed systems back to low levels of performance. Because internal systems
depend on one another, public organisations should have them all working at high levels of performance. In
addition, because governmental resources are scarce, it is not feasible to reform all systems in all public
organisations simultaneously. In a study involving European countries since World War II, de Vries (1999) showed
that governments direct their attention to those problems that are seen as the most important in a given period,
shifting to the next problems—issues neglected until they also became problems—after about 12 years. The reason
why governments act in this pattern is because their resources are scarce: they can only address a few problems at a
time. A similar approach should be applied to reforms in developing countries: scarce resources—financial, human

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin. Dev. 28, 171–180 (2008)
DOI: 10.1002/pad

and political—should be targeted to government sectors more likely to make an impact on inequality, poverty or
other pressing social problems.
In many countries, poverty and inequality are the main impediments to development. Thus, it makes sense to
direct reform efforts to the governmental agencies responsible for addressing these problems. However, because
poverty and inequality demand different policies, improving governmental performance may require simple
approaches or very complex strategies. Regarding poverty alleviation, cash transfer schemes have been functioning
quite successfully in Brazil and Mexico for at least a decade (Behrman and Skoufias, 2006; Hoffmann, 2006). This
type of policy is somewhat easy to implement, requiring only a database with information about poor families,
some surveillance on families’ obligations (school attendance, taking vaccines, etc.) and electronic cards. However,
an enduring solution to the problem of inequality requires an effective educational policy. Improving educational
services is quite difficult and even developed countries are dismayed in the face of difficulties. In developing
countries, the point of departure appears discouraging, while resources are never up to the challenge. To make
matters worse, progress in this area can only be verified after many years of continuous investments. This explains
why there is overwhelming consensus about the merits of good education, but very little enduring effort to push
reforms in this area.
Countries burdened by high levels of inequality have a choice, however: either assemble the energy and
persistence necessary to deal with their main problem or continue to see their public institutions destined to eternal


The author is grateful to Natalia Letki (Political Science Department, Collegium Civitas, Poland) for her comments
on a previous draft of this article and to the two anonymous reviewers who provided useful suggestions for the
improvement of this article.


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