chapter  2
Political culture and public administration
Pages 48

Citizens do not interpret the behavior of their governments and their public servants in a vacuum. Rather, they are equipped by their society with an image of what constitutes good government and proper administration. This mental “picture” of good government is composed of a set of complex cognitive and evaluative structures that tend to be (relatively) common among all members of the society, although certainly many countries do have significant differences among segments of society with very different ideas about politics and public administration. We refer to these generally shared psychological orientations as political culture (Pye and Verba, 1966; Gibbins, 1989). Although at times this common culture is directly imparted to children through civics courses and patriotic exercises, the acquisition of a political culture is usually part of the more general process of learning about living as part of the society. Thus, just as the child learns the prevailing norms concerning economic behavior, social interaction, and table manners, he or she also learns how to understand and evaluate politics and government. This process of learning political values and political culture is referred to as political socialization (Eckstein, 1988). We have already seen that the social and economic systems of a country place boundaries on the actions of government, and more specifically on public administration. Political culture is equally important in setting boundaries, although the boundaries are less tangible than those determined by economic conditions. By defining what is good and bad in government the culture may mandate some actions and prohibit others. One component of this set of prescriptions is the content of policy; governments must do certain things in order to be considered a proper government, and they are also prohibited from engaging in certain other activities. Another component of the constraints on action is style; governments must perform their requisite duties in certain ways. For example, although citizens now expect governments to exercise some control over the economy, there are some means of doing this (regulation) that have become more acceptable than others (public ownership). For public administration the manner in which members of the public service meet the public and enforce their decisions is extremely important; one of the most common reforms of the public sector has been to attempt to create a more client-centered approach to governing (see Denhardt and Denhardt, 2000). Style issues may be especially important for public administration; both components are crucial for the success of government. Despite the seemingly abstract and vague nature of these cultural boundaries on behavior, governments and individual civil servants can violate prevailing political norms only at their risk. This restriction on behavior is true no matter how antiquated and vestigial an element of the political culture may be. This is not to say that society’s cultural values are immutable. Culture is subject to change, and there is a constant interaction of culture and actual politics that redefines the role of government (Wildavsky, 1987). For example, the latitude of action allowed to governments at present would have been unthinkable before two world wars, one major economic depression, and a Cold War fundamentally altered popular perceptions of the role of government, and that latitude has also been enhanced by the relative success of the programs adopted to cope with economic and military crises.