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

A Question of Culture – Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice and Equality


Frances Fitzgerald, on taking up office as minister, on June 3 2014, commissioned an ‘Independent Review Group’ to comprehensively review ‘the performance, management, and administration’ of the Department of Justice and Equality. The report of the group of 5 was published 27 July 2014. It contains little of interest to the student of our administrative system. It is the same old story, told of the Department of Health in the Travers report [2005] and of the Department of Finance in the Wright report [2011]. The department, it seems, operates as a conglomeration of ‘simple structures’ [Litton 2006].  Senior management (the MAC) do not combine to provide the strategic perspective and oversight that is supposed to be their role.

While the contents of the report are of little interest, the report itself merits attention as an instance of the administrative system reflecting on itself. It exemplifies the cultural frame in which that reflection is conducted. It is disheartening. The report gives a prominent place to culture as cause and cure: culture accounts for the department’s shortcomings that a new culture will remedy. In this note I draw on Margaret Archer’s work on the various ways that we reflect on what we do to examine this effort at ‘reflexivity’ and its understanding of culture.

The problem is culture

The report does not impress. It hardly could. The group of five had only five weeks. What else could they do but reach for the pile of clichés to throw at the department’s woes? Anyhow, the job is done. Now that Shatter (Minister) has gone (thank you, Mr Guerin) and Purcell (Secretary-general) has been dispatched, will the appetite for transparency, accountability and the stoning of sinners be sated, at least as far as the department is concerned? Would that some among our politicians and the media were interested in the condition of our democracy, especially as it is revealed in the complexities of balancing the exigencies of administration with political imperatives. I doubt that there is one such in our Sodom and Gomorrah. If there were, they would find little illumination in the report. But, I am unfair. This is true only in regard to what the report tells us directly. We can learn quite a bit, however, by studying the report as an emanation of the culture that directs civil service reform. This is a culture that has failed to attain any of its goals.

The report joins a long line of reports that stretches back 45 years to the Devlin report. In every case we find the same diagnosis and the same prescription. As the line extends, there is no evidence of concern that the ‘patient’ is incapable of digesting the medicine. If ever there was a ‘closed’, ‘traditional culture’ incapable of learning, it is the culture that frames attempts to modernize the public service.

The reports do differ. These differences do not indicate any change in diagnosis, still less any learning from previous efforts. They reflect the changing jargon of management in which the same diagnosis is repeated. This is, that despite the loyalty, commitment, diligence and hard work, of civil servants departments are poorly managed- coordination of activities is inadequate and their strategic perspective weak. As the years roll on, the terms accounting for this change. For Devlin, poor management was a consequence of badly designed structures. In recent reports, while structure remains on the agenda, its importance is displaced by ‘culture’ and ‘leadership’. This might count as an advance, except that neither of these terms are given substance. While structure – the division of labour in which tasks are assigned and coordinated – is readily intelligible, the term ‘culture’, at least as it is deployed in the reports, has no clear connotation. It is easy to see why organization ‘silos’ might be a bad thing and how they can be remedied by the redefinition of some tasks, the introduction of new ones and improved procedures (the report has sensible recommendations on these lines). It is more difficult to understand what is meant by a ‘silo culture’ and what steps might be taken to ‘de-silo’ it.

It is difficult, then, to make much sense of, or find substance in, the notion of culture that figures so prominently in the report. My best guess is that it is a ‘black box’ invoked to explain why desirable objectives may not be readily attained. They suppose that the changes that would improve coordination and support strategy will be resisted. Why? Culture, of course! The contents and mechanisms at work in the black box are never revealed, though labels are stuck on it: ‘silo culture’ ‘closed culture’ ‘traditional culture’ ‘cultural model’. These key sentences displays the tone of the report:

A “programme of change” should be supported and facilitated by management resources from other parts of the Civil Service or from outside to assist the Department to migrate to a new culture, leadership, management and operating model which delivers a high performance organization and one which provides strategic oversight and added value to its agencies. These resources should be appointed on a temporary or time bound basis, to provide both management and change management skills. The Department will require 4-6 management resources from other parts of the civil service or from outside to lead the cultural and structural change required to transform the Department.

They reveal a commendable, if pernickety, interest in fine distinctions. So, we have ‘supported’ and ‘facilitated’, ‘temporary’ and ‘time bound’ and ‘high performance’ ‘strategic oversight’ and ‘added value’. Yet is vague on an important point. I am hardly alone in being willing to trade the problem of identifying a management resource that was supportive but did not facilitate, or a temporary appointment that is not time bound or a high performance organization that has no strategy and does not add value, for even a rudimentary indication of what ‘migrating’ a culture entails. What are the required ‘management resources’ and why 4-6 of them rather than 1-2? Or 7-8? The term ‘appointed’ suggests ‘management resources’ are individuals, apart from their attributes and skill (which are not spelt out) are they expected to come equipped with other kinds of management resources – money, software/hardware, blueprints, sticks, carrots..?

The culture that supposes this is a useful contribution is, indeed, worth examination. Let us open the ‘black box’ and see how we can account for it.

Archer on reflexivity

The group’s reluctance to open the black box is understandable. As sociology tells us, culture is a devilishly complicated concept. How does it relate to structure? Which comes first – structure or culture? How can we give an account of it that gives due place to its power to direct behaviour while giving space to individuals and their power to shape their world? Margaret Archer, the British sociologist, is eminent among those who have worked to untangle these complexities. Her early work Culture and Agency investigated the dynamics at work shaping culture, [revised edition, Archer 1996], a resource for those management resources interested in cultural change. In her later work, Archer’s interest in culture, structure and agency turned to an examination of how we reflect on the decisions that we make. While her enquiries focused on the decisions individuals make in regard to their careers, her findings have a more general import. She talked [‘in depth interviews’] to a selection of individuals from different walks of life. She reports that as we decide, we ruminate. We ‘talk to ourselves’ about the pros and cons of proceeding in this way or that. And she discovered from her conversations that these ‘internal conversations’ can take one of three forms. [Archer 2003]. This finding was confirmed in further research including a questionnaire survey [Archer 2007, 2012].

Archer elaborates her findings in the context of social theory. In particular, she draws on Mead and American pragmatism to elucidate the notion of an ‘internal’ conversation.’ While a full account of her work would invoke this context, I think that we can still learn much of interest about the content of the ‘black box’ by abstracting some findings from it – Archer applied rather than expounded.

The three forms of internal conversation

You have been invited to party. You ask yourself ‘what should I wear? ‘What should I bring? Wine? Flowers? Chocolates? Two of them? All three?  Or something more original? Your conversation is about fitting in, meeting expectations, playing the ‘game’. Archer calls this first form of the internal conversation ‘communicative reflexive’. Rather than use this title that points back to the theoretical framework, I will term it ‘conversation 1’. You may have other concerns that are decisive. You ask yourself ‘who else is likely to be there?’ ‘Any contacts that might prove useful to my project? ‘Will my interests be advanced if I go? This second form, she terms ‘autonomous reflexive’, for my purposes this is conversation 2. In the third form, you stand back and ask yourself ‘Is it good for me to go?’ Will it aid or hinder my flourishing? ‘Is it worthwhile?’ This is Archer’s ‘meta reflexivity’ and my ‘conversation 3’.

A more apposite example would be a civil servant preparing for a meeting. ‘What is expected of me?’ ‘How can I conform?’ ‘What opportunities for advancement will there be?’ ‘How can I exploit these’ And, ‘what wider obligations do I have as public servant, citizen? ‘How do these bear on the purposes of the meeting?’

Archer reports that most of us engage in all three conversations. She also found that one or other tends to dominate. Some confine their reflections to conversation 1, others are less concerned with expectations than with advancing their interests and then there are those who are inclined to bring expectations and interests into question as they seek worthwhile aims. Importantly, she found a fourth possibility. This is not a form of conversation but an inability to successfully engage in any of the three conversations. This she names ‘fractured reflexivity’. How could this be possible? The answer is found in the relationship between the conversations and culture.

Opening the black box

Each of the conversations draws on the resources of culture (indeed, culture is, we could say, that which makes internal conversation possible). This is clear in the case of conversation 1 in which we are aligning our actions with tie expectations of our milieu. It also clearly the case with conversation 3; where else do we find our aims, our ideas of a worthwhile life, but in the conversations of our culture? It is less obviously the case in conversation 2 where our attention is on our interests. Yet the rewards and punishments that inform the calculation of our interests are fixed in culture.

Cultural Segments

We can think of each conversation as drawing on a different segment of culture. While the segments form a whole cloth, the cloth is not tightly woven. The segments can fray and tear away from each other. In other words, the cloth is not a given but a work-in-progress. Circumstance change, obstacles appear, opportunities arise and new understandings of the good life challenge expectations and push us to question our interests. This process is readily see in the narrative of family life. There are few, I suspect, who have exactly the same expectations of their children as their parents had of them. There are few husbands and fewer wives who identify their interests exactly as their parents did. Ideas of what a good marriage is have changed. The conflicts it contains in the interest of social order, of keeping the show on the road, the unsolved problems it throws up, means that culture is always in tension.

Fractured reflexivity signals disengagement. The fractured reflexive cannot ‘get into gear’; he is lost unable to find his bearings, he cannot bring the expectations, interests, aims that the culture supplies into harmony. Blame him or criticise the culture?

The report’s black box

The culture locked in the report’s black box is culture 1, the segment that supports conversation 1. This sets norms, assigns role, supplies the genre in which business is done. Thanks to it, behaviour can be both predictable and comprehensible. It is culture as a social orders ‘immune system’ [Sloterdijk 2013] protecting it from uncertainties that would damage trust and undermine cooperation. It is, of necessity, closed. No sustained social interaction is possible without it. When the report describes the culture of the department as a ‘silo culture’ ‘and ‘secretive’ they are telling us that a senior civil servant preparing for a meeting in the department will recognise that a discussion of the wider ramifications of a problem should be conducted with the greatest tact, or better still, avoided all together. It is best to stick to work-in-progress without regard to the direction of that progress. The business of others is their concern, not yours. Expansive discussion in which information is shared should be avoided; it is too risky. There is I suppose far more to the department’s culture than this. It is only one portion of one segment. Nonetheless it is important and it does have negative consequences. The report is reasonable in recommending that it should change. The notion that 4-6 ‘management resources’ [the A Team?] can be parachuted into the organization to ‘migrate’ it to a better place owes more to fantasy than to reason.

We cannot understand how culture changes so long as we remain in culture 1. To understand the dynamics, we have to attend to the whole cloth. Culture 1- the routines, the roles, the genre – is a source of stability not change. Change happens when the demands of the routine clash with either interests or aims. The report tells us nothing of these segments of culture. It does, however, provide clues. It tells us of a strong commitment to ‘public sector values’, a vacuous phrase that we are probably safe in assuming means that civil servants accept the obligations of a civil servant in the ‘Westminster model’ of democracy. We can suppose that civil servants find the present modus operandi congruent with their interests.

This is likely. It is a democracy. The minister is the senior civil servants’ most important customer. The cost of displeasing him is far greater than any reward that might come from serving the departments corporate purpose – if that could be defined in any useful way given the complexities and uncertainties of policy-making. The secretary general is not a CEO reporting to the minister as chairman of the board. Her obligation ‘to advise, assist, and sometimes influence those set in authority over her’ gives her an important but not decisive voice on what operations demand or strategy dictates. Should the minister seek to chair regular meetings to coordinate business in a strategic perspective, well and good. If not, not. The report does not mention the decisive role the minister plays in in the conduct of business; not surprising in a report aimed at civil servants to please a minister.

Fractured reflexivity

The report exemplifies fractured reflexivity. The poor English, the proliferation of adjectives, the lists in place of argument, the reliance on an unexamined notion of culture indicate a striving for authority by those who have lost their bearings and know it. There are problems: policy-making could, should, must be improved. The modernizers do not have a clue. Unable to engage with reality, they wave flags: ‘culture must change’ ‘performance management’ ‘leadership’ ‘down with silos’. While the politicians may be satisfied and the media convinced, those on the front line must be demoralised by the bullshit [Frankfurt 1988].

Why the fracture? The fault lies not with individuals so much as the culture with which they must work. The debilitating weakness of that culture is its inability to engage with the aims of our civil service. It provides no resources for conversation 3, an essential contributor to cultural change. Certainly, there is talk of ‘public sector values’. This, however, is another ‘black box’ labelled ‘important’ ‘vital’ ‘core’ that is never opened for examination and discussion. Why?

In their engaging Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up David Colander and Ronald Kupers [2014] criticize the framework that dominates discussion of public policy and comes to us courtesy of economics. While they recognize its contribution, they point out that the gap between its analyses and the complexity of the world becomes more, and more, evident. They give examples of failures that follow from its simplifications and show how a new framework, informed by more advanced mathematical modelling, can remedy such failures. The standard framework is the framework of our modernisers. Their failure finds a ready place among the book’s examples. One weakness of the standard framework is its inability to give an adequate account of norms [aims] and the interests that follow from them. These figure in the analysis as ‘values’ that provide the goals that the actors seek to pursue ‘rationally’. While values thus play a crucial role in the analysis, they are, nonetheless outside it. They enter it as givens or a black box. As a consequence, the analysis is static and distant from the dynamics we find in reality as individuals question their interests, reinterpret their aims and revise their norms as they solve problems, exploit opportunities, in networks of interdependence. No analysis, however well-informed by new modelling of complexity, can direct this process. It can, however, assist the learning: ‘policy follows from dialogue, not lecture’ (p192).

What would the report have said, what would the discourse of modernisation be like, if the modernisers advanced into the 21st Century, abandoning their outmoded model and taking on board the lessons of Colander and Kupers and their ilk?

It would open the black box labelled ‘important core public service values’ and examine the aims of the civil service tracing their origins back to our design for democracy and their evolution to its tribulations. It would discuss the difficulties of balancing the different aims and enquire, whether or not these had increased to the point where some reformulation was now necessary. It would go further and ask what were the institutional implications of the reformulation?

Why can we not have this conversation?


Archer, M [1996] Culture and agency. Revised edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Archer, M [2003] Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Archer, M [2007] Making our way through the world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Archer, M [2012] The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Colander, D and Kuper, R [2014] Complexity and the art of public policy. Solving society’s problems from the bottom up. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frankfurt, H.G [1988] ‘Chapter 10 On Bullshit’ in The importance of what we care about. Philosophical essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Litton, F [2006] Chapter 8 ‘The civil service and a new design for democracy’ in Litton, F. Farmar, A, Scott-Lennon, F Ideas at work Dublin: A&A Farmar.

Sloterdijk, P [2013] ‘Introduction’ You must change your life. Oxford: Polity.

Report on the report on certain issues of management and administration in the department of health and children associated with the practice of charges for persons in long-stay care in health board institutions and related matters [‘Travers Report] [2005]. Ireland: Houses of the Oireachtas, Joint Committee on Health and Children

Strengthening the capacity of the department of finance. Report of the independent review panel [‘Wright Report’] [2011] Ireland; Department of Finance   

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  • Muiris

    Hi Frank – I found the report succinct if a little taciturn, and slightly unconventional insofar as the detailed recommendations formed by far the largest portion, and the findings and evidence on which they are formulated are in contrast quite brief – a consequence of the short time-scale the authors might justifiably argue – but it nonetheless raised a lot of questions in my mind about how the conclusions were distilled from the evidence. And as you say some of the ideas that informed the recommendations are worthy of further exploration – particularly ‘silo culture’ (where have I heard that before…) and I assume the belief that top-down systems were inhibiting more cross-departmental work. The arguments for reform of ‘culture, leadership and management’ at least depart from the standard recommendations to address ‘governance’ and ‘accountability’, but as you point out, suggesting that the Department is somehow remiss in achieving what is perceived to be best management practice does not do justice (no pun intended) to wider changes to the context in which the department operates. It occurred to me that there must be some disappointment amongst the committed reformers of the 1990s who sought to have much more strategic thinking in government departments only to find that some twenty years after the launch of the much vaunted Strategic Management Initiative, it has been determined to be curiously absent in one of the key departments of state.

    Of particular interest was the agencies issue. That its relationship with its agencies somehow ceased to function productively was arguably not a problem uniquely faced by the Justice Department – this research report from a decade ago suggested a government wide issue and found that the Justice Department had the largest number of ‘non duplicate function’ agencies when compared to others, as well as the greatest variety in agency types (and one must also presume internal governance arrangements). This was outwardly reflected in the shifting names of the Department from the early 1990s – having been simply the Department for Justice from 1924-1993, it became the subject of considerable bureau-shuffling as equality, law reform, human rights and even childcare issues have come and in some cases disappeared from under its aegis, one might assume leaving their own organisational legacies. All the while, what has long seemed to be the most likely candidate for a separate agency (remember the 1985 Whitaker Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System which made a strong case for ‘a separate executive agency or board’ to manage the Prison Service?) has curiously remained firmly within the Department structure. The suggestion that a more uniform and
    command-like structure for the department’s agencies might sound appealing, but
    the overwhelming evidence is that trying to shoehorn agencies into – dare I say – silo-like reporting and accountability structures has not been successful anywhere. In the UK, this is formally recognised and agency management or ‘sponsorship’ is now regarded as a specialist skill for civil servants to develop.

    Seeking a means to best align incentives, structures and cultures of authority in order to achieve critical tasks, especially those that cross organisational boundaries, cannot rest within the administrative system or individual departments. The Irish civil service has routinely proved itself very capable of achieving cross-organisational objectives once a political priority has been set. This report should prompt some more detailed consideration about how best the achievement of such objectives can be motivated without the need for crisis-inspired reviews.