Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

A Must Read on Irish Political Culture

May 9, 13 • Political Culture2 Comments



Pierre Rosanvallon has written extensively on democracy in general and on the history of French democracy in particular. In two recent books Counter-Democracy (CUP 2008) and Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity (PUP 2011), he brings his scholarship to bear on the condition of modern democracy. Though France is his prime concern, he is well acquainted with contemporary political science and philosophy. The trends he dissects with acuity are not specific to France. They are found, of course with local accents, in all western democracies. They are certainly evident in Ireland, as I hope to show in this post. Rosanvallon analysis points us towards a more accurate, and a much more useful account, of the strengths and weaknesses of our democracy and the dynamics that shape it than most Irish commentaries. In this post I apply the analysis in Democratic Legitimacy to Irish circumstances. I pay little attention to his discussion of the history of democracy in thought and action that adds depth and strength to his arguments. This is Rosanvallon applied, not Rosanvallon the preeminent political theorist of democracy explicated.

What is wrong with Irish democracy – the analysis of political culture as political culture

We may distinguish between the ‘game of democracy’ and the particular ‘matches’ that are played under its rules. The latter are always unsatisfactory, failing to meet the expectations of the discerning citizen. Sometimes the dissatisfaction is so great that the attention moves to the game. Many of the commentariat have made this move. They find our democracy dysfunctional. We have the wrong dispositions, motivations, towards politics: our political culture is deformed. The explanation is found in our history which, of course, is told as melodrama. The villains are British colonisers and the Roman Catholic Church. Each on their own could seriously damage the national psyche. Given the trauma of the famine and the fact that they acted simultaneously, it is hardly surprising that we lack all sense of civic responsibility and think only of our own interests and those of our locale. Thanks to the malign influence of brits and bishops, we have stubbornly refused to embrace the Enlightenment.  Unwilling to question authority and incapable of thinking for ourselves, we have never come close to the role of autonomous citizens embodied in the republican ideal. Certainly, there were pure minded secular republicans. But their terrorism only won widespread support when it was diluted with romantic nationalism and polluted by Catholic dogma.

This lament for past wrongs and paths not taken provides no way forward to the ideal culture that it implies. On the contrary, it explains why this cannot be achieved: where could such a benighted people find the motivation to move forward?  We are left with the forlorn hope that somewhere out there, fabricators of visions are hard at work for the leaders that will herd us on to a better world.

Of course, accounts of political culture are themselves part of that culture.  This standard version is a major defect of our political culture. It prevents a proper understanding of our predicament and what we might do about it. It points to another defect – insularity or the refusal to look beyond our own shores to and learn from the experience of other countries. Whether this ‘Sinn Fein’ approach to matters intellectual reflects a sturdy independence of thought, or as I suspect, an anti-intellectual disdain for ideas, it is a pity. Comparison is an excellent teacher. Indeed what is particular, or distinctive about Irish circumstances can only be learnt from comparison. There is a lively conversation elsewhere in the western world about the condition of democracy and the challenges that it faces. We could learn much from this conversation. The contribution of Rosanvallon, a foremost theorist of democracy, is the subject of this post.

The pragmatic approach discussed in previous posts provides a way into the discussion. Our political routines that once, more or less successfully, did the business falter before new obstacles. So the question is ‘what accommodations, adaptations or adjustments are required to get us back on course?’  Politicians are interested only in accommodations. The problems are not that serious – it was Fianna Fail’s fault – and abolishing the Seanad and rejigging Dail committees should do the trick. Others are more inclined to look to purposes and ask how they might be adapted. Is the electoral system supporting the kind of political competition that we need? Should the balance between the Dail and the Executive be redrawn to give more power to the former? Few, if any, reformers (in Ireland) propose adjustments. We have seen no examination of the aims of the political system asking how they might be reformulated and new purposes found to achieve them. Rosanvallon does discuss the aims of democracy and the problems of adjusting our design for democracy to more effectively reach them. His account fits well with the pragmatic approach. Democracy, he reminds us is not simply the rules of the political game. It is a project in which we concoct institutions (purposes) in pursuit in pursuit of competing, and sometimes conflicting aims. The institutional arrangements, or design for democracy, are always provisional. Change is unavoidable. External circumstances interact with the internal dynamics of democracy putting the design under stress.

The democratic project

We may, or may not be, authoritarian, anti-intellectual and insular, but we are most certainly democratic. The story of the 19th century is the story of the dismantling of the aristocratic order. This was no mere change in the form of government that left everything else intact. As De Tocqueville noted, it is a change in the ‘condition of human existence’. A new set of presumptions about individuals and their relationships one to another came into play. Individuals were equal. Inequalities persisted but these were contingent; while perhaps unavoidable, they were not natural and could not justify a hierarchical order as a legitimate form of government. The complexities of democracy can be reduced to a single slogan: no one has more right to rule than anybody else.

The problems of replacing the social bonds constructed by hierarchies of privileges and corresponding duties were severe. As European history shows the road to democracy was often uphill and strewn with obstacles. The democratic project was not guaranteed success. The United Kingdom was one of the more successful stories. We were a part of the UK in the crucial period and contributed to this success. After independence, we held onto the democratic legacy it bequeathed. Placed in the context of the history of European democracies, the post-independent story of Irish democracy is a remarkable success.

The question was: how to give effect to the principle that no one has more right to rule than anybody else. The answer recognised the sovereignty of the people with universal suffrage and regular elections that allow the majority appoint the government. While this hits the target it is hardly a bull’s eye. It is a fudge. A necessary fudge, given the practical difficulties (impossibility?) of achieving the unanimity implicit the principle. But is it sufficient? Rousseau instructs us that we are free only so long as we obey laws that we have written for ourselves. That is to say laws that articulate the general will. While majority rule may more or less succeed in ensuring that, in the last analysis, the people are in charge, the voice of the majority is always a particular voice, and its will, a particular will.

The electoral representative system, the central element in the design for democracy, requires other elements to improve its aim- the general will. For instance, political parties and the civil service. The appearance of mass political parties in the 19th century was seen as a threat to democracy. Party oligarchs displaced the voice of the people with their demagoguery. (Our electoral system – PR-STV – is a legacy of that mistrust.) Subsequently, they were viewed as valuable, perhaps indispensable, mediators between society and the state. They ordered the diversity of the people, aggregating interests into coherent, competing accounts of the general interest.

The size and importance of the state’s administrative apparatus grew as the will of the people impelled the expansion of its activities. This, too could be seen as a threat to democracy giving, too much power to unelected officials. Nonetheless, the positive, perhaps indispensable role of the civil service in the design for democracy was recognised. The exigencies of electoral competition drive governments to a short term perspective. Civil servants engaged in policy implementation and advice, have a longer term perspective. Because they were recruited on merit and promoted on merit, this perspective is also disinterested, providing a counter-weight to the pull of the hustings.

The Constitution gives us our design for democracy. It is the general will’s account of how the general will should be identified. It puts in place safeguards protecting the general will from dangers that can arise as the majority pursues it. There will always be a minority whose composition, of course, varies from issue to issue. The Constitution assures the minority that its economic, human, legal and political rights cannot be frustrated by the majority. Judges, placed at a distance from the electoral representative system, are independent adjudicators of clashes between the Constitution’s representations of the general will and those emerging from the electoral-representative system

Aims of the democratic project

How do citizens assess how successful the democratic project is in achieving its end – the identification and implementation of the general will? Most of us, most of the time, are preoccupied by the daily round and when we do turn to consider politics we are unlikely to assess in such abstract terms. We are frequently annoyed by politicians and dismayed by the government. Our complaints are particular, rooted in the frustration of expectations given by our democratic culture. More often these remain unspoken, elements in the tacit knowledge of democratic citizens. In Democracy, Impartiality, Reflexivity and Proximity Rosanvallon makes these expectations explicit. We have good reason to complain when we believe that governments disadvantage our interests to the benefit of others. Rosanvallon gathers complaints of this sort under the heading ‘impartiality’.  We have good cause for complaint when we believe that the debates and enquiries surrounding the formulation and implementation of policy are inadequate. Democratic legitimacy demands ‘reflexivity’. As already noted, democracy is a much a form of society as a regime. In it all are equal, all entitled to the same recognition and respect. We have good cause for complaint when our dignity as an individual equal to all other individuals is not respected. Complaints of this character come under ‘proximity’.

It is very unlikely that there ever was a design for democracy that did not give ample grounds for complaint under all these headings. Is the volume of complaints increasing? Perhaps. What Rosanvallon makes clear is that the character of complaints under each heading is changing. The demands for impartiality, reflexivity and proximity take new forms.

Why? One factor may be the deepening of our democratic culture. The emphasis on human rights points in this direction as does the growing importance of proximity. Our awareness of the norms implicit in a democratic society grows stronger and more vocal. Whereas, we once were content to judge governments against the norms of democratic governance, now we also expect them to respect the standards of a democratic society. This is seen, for example, in the attention politicians are expected to pay to victims, or groups, on the periphery. A meeting with the Taoiseach, a respectful hearing of their case, and the media attention this attracts draws them into the centre. This recognition has a value over and apart from any policy outcome. It consoles all citizens, for as communal bonds loosen, we are all on the periphery. While the extent to which government dealings with the Magdalene asylums breached norms of democratic governance may be disputed, the scandal they cause to a democratic society cannot. We expect the Government to acknowledge this, as indeed, the Taoiseach eventually did.

It can be difficult to separate the internal dynamic of democracy from the external factors that are also at work. For instance, the role of political parties has been transformed. From the 1980s onwards it became clear that they were no longer mediators between society and the state. The numbers joining political parties decline, the numbers supporting a political party decline, the numbers voting consistently, election after election for the same party decline. We find the same trend in all western democracies. Is this a consequence of a growing democratic mistrust of any organization standing between the citizens and the state purporting to represent them? Certainly, a dynamic of democracy is towards individualism. The more thoroughly democratic they are, the more citizens may worry that the particulars of their case have been overlooked in any effort to aggregate interests. Or can it be explained by wider cultural changes that have undermined the resources (e.g. nationalism, ethnicity, religion, class consciousness) available to political parties as they translate the particular into a version of the general. No doubt the two trends act together. Whatever is the case, as political parties switch from linking society to the state, to linking the state to society, it is increasingly difficult to satisfy the citizens’ demands for impartiality and reflexivity.

Rosanvallon is, refreshingly, quite clear that the civil service was an integral part of the design for democracy. His account of the various ways in which its contribution was understood is based largely on the French experience. Although the Irish tradition, emerging from the British, is different, the general point remains the same: the civil service supported the reflexive aim of democracy, supplementing the arguments and enquiries of the electoral/representative system with its own expertise. This is no longer the case. Once again, we find Ireland fitting the pattern. Examine any of the proposals for reforming the civil service and it quickly becomes obvious that neither politician nor civil servant believe that the civil service is part of the architecture of our democracy. The same ethos that imbues organizations in the private sector should imbue the civil service, just as it should deploy the same bureaucratic structures. (The banks, one supposes, should be their model). The reforms made to the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC) are just one example.

The distinction between a ‘public’ and a ‘private’ sector had been central to our understanding of public administration. The public sector was concerned with public service in the public interest, the private sector with profitable enterprise. The public sector’s need to identify the public interest, it was supposed , was quite different from the private sector’s search for how individuals can be given what they want at a price that they can afford. The decision that a majority of the members of the TLAC should be from outside the public sector shows that this distinction no longer holds.  What at first sight might seem a technical adjustment to the mechanism for promoting civil servants to senior positions is much more than that; it is a step towards a new understanding of the civil service. The presumption is clear: expertise gained in the private sector, or from the mastery of theories developed to inform the management of private sector businesses, is the most important expertise in judging the suitability of candidates for high office in the civil service.


When communal bonds were stronger and political parties were more effective mediators between the social and the political, citizens were less concerned with impartiality. This is not to say that they were more trusting of politics then we are. In Rosanvallon’s terms they favoured ‘positive generality’. They trusted the political party that spoke for their bit of the social. They believed that its version of the general interest was the best on offer. As corollary, they distrusted, sometimes vehemently, its competitors and the influence they could exert on policy, in or out of government.  When governments failed to live up to their expectations, they criticised their own political party for incompetence and its rivals for pursuing particular interests under the cover of their versions of the general interest. They were more or less satisfied that the electoral-representative system could keep the general interest in prospect however much it stumbled in its pursuit.

Since the 1980s there has been a switch towards ‘negative generality’. Citizens are less inclined to believe in the electoral-representative system’s capacities. With a new, or rather renewed awareness, for it was always part of democracy, of the occasion of sin in which politicians operate, citizens demand new barriers against the misuse of political power. Legislation that improves transparency, increases accountability, monitors ethics and circumscribes lobby groups has been implemented. We rely less and less on the electoral representative system to protect us from favouritism to particular interests and more and more on what Rosanvallon calls functional representation. Courts are the prime example of functional representation. The Constitution and the laws generally are embodiments of what is (was) judged to be in the general interest. Judges have the expertise necessary to adjudicate on what is, in this or that instance, in the general interest. I have noted how the Constitution is an account of the general interest that can act as a corrective to the voice of the majority articulated by electoral representative system. Regard for and recourse to, the Constitution grows as trust in elected politicians declines. Rosanvallon cites evidence from France; the same trend is found here. The Courts are not the only functionally representative bodies. We have seen in recent years an increase in the number of bodies whose experts are charged with determining the general interest just as have the French. Regulation of telecommunications, energy, airports, taxis, the oversight of physical planning, broadcasting, the monitoring of human rights and equality have all been entrusted to experts put at a distance from politicians. Politicians who cross the gap, for example, by appointing party associates to the board of a body are heavily criticised. The aims of these bodies, and their performance in achieving them, are seldom discussed or debated. While these are a matter of legitimate political concern, we do not trust politicians to treat them in anything but a partisan manner.


Rosanvallon’s discussion of ‘proximity’ is, I think, his most novel contribution to the understanding our political culture. As collective movements with their broadly shared aims and purposes dissolve, politics becomes a matter of interests, their conflicts and compromises. Compromise may sometimes be difficult but agreement on collective aims and purposes is impossible. From time to time, we hear calls for a ‘new vision of what it means to be Irish’ or the rewriting of the national narrative in ’a more nuanced, multi-layered way’. Such calls usually come at the end of a lament for a lost sense of public service or community spirit. The fact that those who make the call are the very people we might expect to articulate the vision or rewrite the narrative, suggests that we will be waiting a long time for a response. The academic disciplines — philosophy, history, sociology — who account for collective visions, have all but disappeared from public view while economists, whose territory is the play of interests, are prominent.

There is more to the story than the retreat of aims and purposes and the advance of interests. Citizens expect the state, its politicians and agents to acknowledge their particular situation. They are prepared to accept policies that hinder their interests as long as they believe that they have been fairly treated; that they have received the recognition that is their due. Aristotle reminds us of the merits of the ‘lesbian ruler’ that contributed to the excellence of the craft workers of Lesbos. The ruler was made of lead, and so could conform to the shape of unevenly curved surfaces, giving more accurate measurements than a rigid ruler. We expect our rulers to conform to our particular situation in their policy measures.

Bringing proximity into the picture cast a new light on that old topic, the ‘localism’ of Irish politics. Generations of TDs have been criticised for spending far too much time as messengers between their constituents and the bureaucrats. Citizens have been blamed for their ‘personalism’ that insists of face-to-face dealings with known individuals. While this might have been understandable among peasants living within the constricted horizons of a pre-modern world, how can its prevalence, indeed its growth, in well-educated, urban 21st Century, Ireland be explained? Two factors are advanced: the electoral system that encourages intra-party competition and a lack of civic culture.

Rosanvallon’s discussion prompts the question: when citizens queue at the TD’s clinic, are they expecting a favour or the assurance that their particular circumstances will be given their due? Of course, they will be pleased with a favourable outcome to their case. Will the fact that their elected representative has treated them with all the attention and respect, a citizen of a democracy deserves, reconcile them, should it fail?


Does anyone read Dail debate to inform themselves on public issues? The newspaper coverage supposes that its readers are not interested in learning of the complexities of matching uncertain means to conflicting ends. The central reportage is the colour piece. The writer has made up her mind on the matters under discussion. She supposes that the readers have too. Her interest is in character and performance, not argument. If she is keen to point out the foibles and missteps of the opponents of her view, she does not champion the like-minded. She views all politicians with cynical sentimentality. Of course, they are insincere, devious bullshitters, intent only on holding on to power and getting re-elected. Ah, but they are human after all. When all is said and done they are (most) of then great craic.

RTE has decided that its public service remit, for which the citizens pay handsomely, is best served by going ‘tabloid’. It supposes that its listeners/viewers are interested only in a row. The reflective teasing out of views would frighten viewers away. To hold audience, give them a vociferous exchange of contradictory views. The presenters do not seek to elucidate, clarify, identify points of agreement and disagreement, they keep the temperature up by aggressive challenges. The assumption is that the audience has already made up their minds. They are not interested in changing them; they are interested in how well their ‘team’ stand up to the opposition.

This state of affairs would seem a weakness, perhaps even a dangerous one, in our democracy. For as Rosanvallon reminds us, reflexivity, or the ability to bring into question the mean and end of policy is an important aim of policy. Democracy is more than a balancing of interests; it is also an education in what interests we should have given the interdependencies that bind us together.

We need to broaden the picture. One of the merits of Rosanvvallon’s analysis is his insistence that democracy is a mosaic. While the electoral representative system is an important piece, it is not the only piece. And if political parties, the civil service and the media no longer contribute to reflexivity as they once did, we should look to the contribution of other elements. As we have the piece, functional representation, has grown in importance. In making their judgements, the various bodies educate us in the public interest.

The growing importance of proximity, surely a democratic advance, complicates reflexivity. Things were simpler in the old days when ministers confident of the loyalty of their supporters could work with technocratic civil servants to devise general solutions implemented in standardised procedures. How many particular problems were ignored in the process? How many exacerbated by the mismatch between bureaucratic procedures and the realities on the ground? The demands of proximity impel the policy-makers back to the rough ground where problems first make themselves felt. Policies should be made ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’. Pragmatic learning should replace the unrealisable ambitions of technical rationality.

This suggests that any appraisal of the quality and reflexivity in our politics and our policy-making should look beyond the electoral-representative system to the diverse sites in which citizens discuss shared problems and debate their solutions. Of course, political parties remain important and general elections, indispensable. Somehow the debates in which public opinion is formed must be brought to a conclusion. Problems must be prioritised and the overall shape of acceptable solutions agreed. Policies made ‘bottom up’ still have to reach the ‘top’. The question that Rosanvallon’s analysis poses but does not answer is ‘what sort of reflexivity supported by what sort of institutions is needed to bring the diversity found in proximity to the ‘top?’.

Reflexivity — an example

It is very difficult to gauge the extent and quality of reflexivity on the ground. In the case of the public service there is, however, some heartening evidence. Last October (2013) NESC published Achieving Quality in Ireland’s Human Services. For those of us who believe in policy-making as pragmatic learning, it brings good news.

The report draws lessons from efforts to improve quality in five sectors: policing, schools, nursing and home care for the elderly, disability services, and standards for end-of-life care. In each case, the policy narrative had badly stumbled. The Morris Tribunal told of serious deficiencies in policing in Donegal that cast doubt on the competence of Garda Management. International comparisons revealed falling standards of literacy. Exposure of appalling care in some nursing homes raised anxieties about standards in the home and nursing home care of the elderly. Providers of disability services, recognising their sector was unregulated, were concerned that their services did not follow best practice. Relatives mobilised to improve how patients were treated in public hospitals as their lives drew to a close.

In each case, better regulation and improved inspection was judged the best route to improved quality. No grand theory or overarching architecture guided their efforts; each sector followed its own path. NESC researchers set to discover what lessons could be learnt from the experience of each sector. As a result we have a far better understanding of how regulation and inspection, properly deployed, can improve the quality of public services. The report exemplifies the value of pragmatic learning and how links among groups can advance it. That is the good news. The bad news is that there is little hope that the centre can learn and apply these and other such lessons. Plans to modernise the public sector continue to focus on performance and accountability. The construction of networks for pragmatic learning are not even on the horizon.

What is evident from the NESC study is surely true of the wider picture. Our political culture is not deformed; we do not need sermons, visions, or leaders. We need new forms of linkages that bring us together to meet the demands of impartiality, reflexivity and proximity as they manifest themselves in 21st Century.

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  • MCD1


    Thank you for this fascinating piece. I would agree that Rosanvallon’s insights are particularly useful to any discussion of our own political culture. I think we rely too much on anglo-american literature for analysis and the perspectives on offer from European theoretical sources are neglected.

    What is of particular interest here is the idea of the civil service as an intrinsic part of the democratic project. In particular the process which you illustrate above, tellingly, of how the public service dimension of what civil servants do, and thus their role as intermediaries between the state and the citizen as part of a larger democratic project, has latterly become commoditised into a contractual relationship of ‘services provided’ under the market model.

    You raise Rosanvallon’s question of how policies devised from the ‘bottom-up’ can still reach the ‘top’? The problem, as I read it, is that the mechanism whereby that should be made possible has been damaged, possibly irretrievably, and almost hopelessly fragmented by the new role in society which has been assigned to civil and public services as ‘contractors’ to the individual citizen, rather than as an arm of the state charged with ensuring the delivery of public services as public goods to all citizens. How can the traditional public service ‘ethos’ be revived? What are the implications if the remnants of that ethos cannot be retrieved, both for the citizen and the state, and reintegrated in the current model of so-called public service reform?

    Incidentally, my favourite observation of Rosanvallon is on the subject of transparency as the new democratic ideal, replacing the notion of “the exercise of responsibility as the end of politics” (Rosanvallon, 2008 p.259)

  • Frank

    Thanks Veronica
    I agree that the public service has been, is being damaged, probably beyond repair.Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again? What broke him apart?
    Some senior civil servants sought a space, independent of politics, that would allow them improve the civil service. They looked to management theory and when ‘New Public Management’ arrived they thought they had found it. Elsewhere, NPM was championed by politicians suspicious of civil servants, in Ireland it was promoted by civil servants suspicious of politicians. NPM recognized a real problem which it badly misdiagnosed. The problem had its origins in the travails of the democratic project and NPM did not realize the impossibility of modernizing the civil service without attention to its place in the design for democracy Why? It is hard not to blame the deplorable so-called ‘political science’ with its obsession with elections and electoral systems, its presumption that the electoral-representative system is the whole of democracy, its indifference to history, to political philosophy.
    Do not despair. NPM has failed and the limitations of the contribution of political science in face of the need for reform becomes more and more obvious.. The euro will drop , even here, and the better understandings of democracy and organization now available will have their day even in Ireland, however belatedly.