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Good administration in European countries

Citizens’ right to good administration is a cornerstone of the European understanding of rule of law, yet scientists have debated on what these rights actually entail. The purpose of this study is to examine how governments and state organisations across Europe work to promote basic values enshrined in good administration and, in turn, provide useful knowledge on this topic to practitioners in European states.

Common European principles guide the countries’ basic values

European sources of good administration can be found in Article 41 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Code of Good Administrative behaviour as well as a Council of Europe recommendation to Member States in which principles of good administration are listed. Academic discourse has shed light on the fact that the practical effect of the European guiding legal sources is inconsistent, with national variance on how the concept “good administration” is interpreted and applied in practice.

In our study, we show that the fundamental principles found in European guiding sources are also the most prominent when looking at the principles articulated in guiding documents for public administrations in European states. Most states value legality, proportionality, impartiality, high quality of service, non-discrimination and democratic legitimacy as fundamental principles that guide their public administrations. The states that were studied do, however, differ in their views on whether these principles should be applied mainly in internal practices of their public administrations or generally in their dealings with the public.

Our study also shows that basic values are often derived from law in European countries. In most of the countries studied, basic values are derived from provisions in the constitution, while a significant number derived basic values from other laws. In our study, only a minority of the countries stated that basic values were not derived from law, and were only stipulated in codes of conduct, codes of ethics or similar documents. Our study also showed that there is a level of common European influence regarding the origin of the basic values that guide public administrations in European countries. For several countries, membership of the European Union has guided the formation of basic values.

Institutions work together to promote basic values in most countries

Most of the countries in our study have institutions responsible for promoting basic values. Our study also shows that in most countries there is more than one institution and that these institutions cooperate on this matter. In a majority of the countries, a governmental ministry is involved in the work. This involvement is sometimes direct, for instance through the existence of a specific unit responsible for promoting basic values in the public administration. In cases where ministries are involved in the work indirectly, they mainly perform legislative activities. Half of the countries that we studied also have a government body other than the ministries entrusted with promoting ethics and basic values in their public administrations. Four of the countries also employ ethics commissioners in all state bodies; i.e. employees of state bodies specially tasked with promoting basic values in their organisations.

Countries apply a mix of rules-based and values-based tools to promote basic values

Countries can apply either rules-based or values-based tools in their values promotion activities. Rules-based tools emphasise compliance and tend to be top-down. Values-based tools encourage self-regulation and each person striving to tune his or her ethical compass. The countries featured in our study apply a mix of tools in their efforts to promote basic values in their public administrations. The most common tools are training and counselling, followed by workshops and publications. Other tools seek to emphasise the role of managers in values promotion. Some countries also have dedicated websites for this purpose while some gather public servants together in networks or for theme days. The material made available to us in this study did not provide enough information to enable values promotion tools to be categorised as rules-based or values based.

Our study did, however, find that the monitoring and enforcing mechanisms used by the countries are mainly rules-based. Several of the countries in our study do not employ any monitoring mechanisms to gain knowledge on civil servants’ adherence to basic values. Those countries that do monitor adherence to basic values point to various supervisory mechanisms. Only a minority of the countries mentioned softer forms of monitoring, such as dilemma exercises and self-assessment.

There are known obstacles to values promotion

Our study shows that a minority of the studied countries have evaluated their values promotion activities. Those countries that do have an insight into the effectiveness of their efforts to promote basic values point to the following challenges when it comes to values promotion in their public administrations.

  • Public administrations tend to work in silos, following a certain set of values linked to their own organisational missions. Such values can compete with a more universal set of values for the whole administration.
  • There is also the possibility of subjectivity when civil servants are to interpret and apply basic values in practice.
  • It can also be hard to reach all individuals who need to receive information on basic values, including contractual employees and recurring consultants.
  • Many organisations fail in giving values promotion priority, often due to a lack of time and resources.

The way forward is to combine structure and culture

Our study concludes with a discussion of the way forward. We argue that basic values promotion is at its most efficient when structure (laws, rules and guiding documents) is balanced with culture (how civil servants work together to uphold basic values). Governments in European countries can take concreate measures to promote a good administrative culture and ensure that basic values are institutionalised in all state bodies. The measures comprise the following insights:

  • Employees of an organisation, from managers to co-workers, must have a common understanding of their organisation’s mission.
  • The management of an organisation is ultimately responsible for the internal policy documents, to ensure that the operations are conducted efficiently, effectively and in accordance with applicable law.
  • A good administrative culture must be an integral part of the leadership, for instance by letting employees be involved in the development of their organisation.
  • Education and continuing training are key to ensure that all co-workers have an understanding of the statutory requirements of an organisation and the role of a government employee.

Responsibility rests at several levels when it comes to ensuring that public administrations are guided by a good administrative culture. We argue that political will is essential to signal the importance of basic values and adherence to them. State organisations serve as anchors for continuity and provide the setting for strategic documents and plans. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, civil servants at all levels have a responsibility to make basic values serve as a compass for every action taken in their everyday working lives.