"Under Construction. The Genesis of Public Value Systems": the Project

Scientific aims and problem definition. The Netherlands remains a country that, according to well-informed perceptions, is relatively free of corruption. For 2004 it ranked according to these perceptions as the tenth least corrupt country on earth (Lambsdorff 2004). But such surveys, while valuable, necessarily assume a universal and unchanging measure of the misuse of public authority for gain. Relatively little research has been conducted in developing theoretical models for studying the shifting definitions of corruption over time, particularly the ‘symbolic dimension’ of corruption, in which the abuse of public office is vigorously redefined in the midst of crisis or scandal (Girling 1997; Gronbeck 1989). Uniquely combining a theoretical social science perspective with a practical historical approach, this project raises questions regarding legitimacy, accountability and the ‘moral grounding of power’ as it has been redefined in Dutch history from 1650 to 1950.

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The project focuses on one fundamental issue: how are values established as moral groundings for administrative behaviour, and how do these change over time? The presupposition here is that the exercise of public power needs to be morally justified, that it requires a more or less coherent set of legitimating values. We could call this a ‘value framework’, defined as a set of social and cultural norms and expectations concerning proper behaviour, both of the governing and the governed, and involving such issues as trust, reputation, force and authority. In the interaction between ‘state’ and ‘society’, such a value framework is developed as a specific vocabulary, enabling not only mere description but the legitimation – and deligitimation – of administrative behaviour.

Such assumptions seem relatively straightforward, and barely contested in the scholarly literature. However, it remains unclear in the existing literature as to how and why specific values and norms become dominant in both administrative theory and praxis. In order to conduct research into the genesis of value frameworks, some scholars have used the perspective of public administration as a value-laden phenomenon. This perspective has often been linked to the notion of public administration as a matter of ‘balancing values’. This approach erroneously assumes that value conflicts in public administration are amenable to rational solution. For example, the current emphasis on ‘balancing values’, such as ‘prudence’ in public decision-making, obscures the way in which such values are the historical product of denial, negation and reinterpretation, processes which themselves constitute the very contours of these values.

Another approach to the concept of public administration as a value-laden phenomenon is the attempt to distinguish realms, levels or hierarchies of public values (for a rare overview of the way students of public administration do this, see Schreurs 2003). However, the nature of values in public administration has not been addressed as such, so that little can be said about the status of such classifications. Any attempt to comment on typologies requires insight into the genesis, i.e., the historical origins of the values in question.

In present-day politics and the media, public values are hotly-debated topics. This project is intended to contribute to this debate. In order to reach an understanding of the nature of administrative practices and of the values on which they are based, a two-pronged approach is required. Research into shifting conceptions of public administration are combined with research into changing assumptions within public administration in respect to value frameworks in general and corruption and public integrity in particular. It is only on the basis of in-depth (detailed) research into particular (historical) debates on the values applied to administrative behaviour that we can expect to find material that substantiates, complements and corrects the existing abstract conceptions. Conversely, for any useful insight into the nature and relevance of specific historical debates on public administration, familiarity with social science theories is essential. This is especially the case given that current historiography tends to place changing conceptions of corruption within a broad social context without much attention to the theoretical, discursive and symbolic aspects of the problem. In brief, by pooling expertise and resources from both the humanities (i.e. history) and the social sciences (public administration in particular), this project will provide new insights into the nature of value frameworks and their development in the course of (early) modern Dutch history.

Theoretical framework and research methods. One problem with studying value frameworks is that they remain implicit, largely outside the realm of public debate. But the unacceptable is often publicly articulated, particularly at specific junctures in time, moments of ‘crisis’ (i.e., turning points) when the debate becomes explicit as to which values are regarded as relevant to the behaviour of public officials. This is certainly the case in respect to public debates over corruption, which in such moments of ‘crisis’ take on a symbolic value in defining the public good. The American political scientist Michael Johnston has defined corruption as: ‘the abuse, according to the legal or social standards constituting a society’s system of public order, of a public role or resource for private benefit.’ Thus he invites us to investigate how the content of notions of ‘abuse’, ‘public role’ and ‘private benefit’ in specific places and times are contested. Johnston wanted to know how clashes over the boundary between public and private, politics and administration, institutions and sources of power, state and society, private and collective interest and the allocative limits of the market develop, because it is precisely during such conflicts that such concepts acquire their meaning (Johnston 1996).

When we look at corruption scandals from this angle, we can provide an answer to the questions regarding which values defined administrative behaviour, how such views were argued and debated, and how they changed over time. A useful approach in this respect is afforded by a diachronic view of the ‘public sphere’ as a forum for debate, since the nature of a public ‘platform’ is closely bound up with the way public accountability is demanded or conceded. The changing character of public forums thus has a direct bearing on the nature of the values involved. This Habermasian perspective raises such issues as the gendering of debates on corruption, or the development of a dichotomy between private and public values attendant on the rise of bureaucracies, the growing commodification of everyday life and the increasing significance of the media.

Along with paying attention to thought within public administration, changing conceptions of public administration need to be taken into account. Here, too, shifting conceptions of corruption provide a promising window, in which we consider the rise of notions of corruption in the Netherlands as expressing a view of public administration. Such notions are obviously linked to a wider European or Western perspective. For example, ‘prudence’ has served as a central concept in the history of administrative thought, and is particularly widespread in the early modern literature on philosophical or religious ethics. A (limited) analysis of apposite sources and effective use of the (secondary) literature allows us to gain an understanding of the history of ideas on corruption.

These two approaches – regarding thought on and within public administration – mutually support one another. Study of the first calls for a combination of social scientific (discourse) analysis and history of ideas; the second requires detailed historical casuistry. This combination of approaches evidently gives this project an edge over the more customary (local and contextual) historical and (abstract and universal) theoretical approaches.

The project will be carried out by three doctoral students who will be directed to work intensively together in order to deepen the analytical and synthetic qualities of each dissertation. In order to further guide this process, the project will conclude with a conference and a published edition which, under the editorship of the chief applicant, will systematically consider the significance of the research completed.

Research objectives and methodology. The project comprises three subprojects, each of which focuses on specific historical cases. In order to strengthen the internal coherence of the project as a whole, the subprojects will have similar research objectives and make use of the same methodology. These are outlined in the section ‘Subprojects’. Since it is the project’s aim to develop a diachronic comparative perspective, the project delineates three distinct periods in the history of the Dutch nation-state, each of which may be identified with particular political, social, cultural, intellectual and religious developments. It is important to point out at this juncture that – again, in order to safeguard the chronological unity of the project – the Dutch ‘imperial’ outposts and colonies have expressly been left out of consideration. Secondary literature on developments in the colonies as well as other countries, however, provide asymmetrical points of comparison.

Scientific and social relevance. Existing research on values in public administration is abstract in nature, hardly paying attention to how and why particular values came to the fore, or how they attained their particular interpretation. The dual approach of this project can shed light on this neglected, but highly relevant issue, not only for social scientific and historical research, but for Dutch society, which is now renegotiating its definitions of public rectitude and corruption.

International context. The project extends on established international contacts. The outcomes of research will be presented at international conferences. International seminars are envisaged, as is a special issue of an international journal. Furthermore, parallel research of historical case material in other countries is our express aim.

Literature cited