A Review of Jobs for the Boys: The Politics of Public Sector Reform

by | Apr 15, 2012


Merilee Grindle, Jobs for the Boys: The Politics of Public Sector Reform  Harvard University Press, 2012.

“Party government isn’t organized for efficiency, nor to serve the people. It is organized to provide jobs for the boys.”  
Merilee Grindle begins her remarkable book with this lament from a 1913 edition of the Syracuse Herald. It’s a familiar refrain, especially to the international agencies pouring aid dollars into promoting civil service reform in developing countries. Patronage in the public sector—doling out positions, promotions and perquisites for personal or political purposes—corrupts government and tarnishes public sector performance. Do away with “jobs for the boys” and you’ll find the holy grail of good governance: probity, accountability and effectiveness, right?
Not exactly, writes Grindle in this sweeping, amazingly readable account of the varied uses of patronage and the efforts to curtail it over the centuries. The book traces the experience of six historical cases—France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States—to show the distinctive ways in which patronage has been employed by rulers to achieve political objectives. It then documents the ongoing struggle to reduce the role of patronage in public administration through the introduction of Weberian bureaucracies or, more recently, of market-friendly New Public Management. These developed-country reform narratives provide a backdrop for the analysis of four important Latin American cases—Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Each has waged its own war—with varying degrees of success—to promote merit-based civil services.
The work is an ambitious undertaking. But Grindle pulls it off masterfully. She persuades us that it’s only through this grand historical excursion that we can fully grasp both the drivers of patronage and the dynamics of reform and counter-reform that play out over much longer time frames than today’s “reform-mongers” and their international development financers would like to believe.
Without fanfare, Grindle’s painstaking review upends a catalog of received wisdom. She shows, for example, that patronage is not all bad. It’s been vital to stabilizing states in Japan, Prussia and France by rewarding local elites while consolidating centralized power at the national level. In Mexico, Chile and Argentina, patronage appointments allowed leaders to mount bold policy reforms by recruiting specialized technocratic competence into high-level reform teams. Nor is patronage an inevitable source of corruption. The U.S. founding fathers targeted patronage appointments on “gentlemanly” character traits of integrity and honor in an effort to cherry-pick the best and the brightest for government service.
Grindle also shows that reforms of patronage systems aren’t all good. For instance, patronage reduction hasn’t always leveled the playing field. In Britain, Japan and France, the introduction of recruitment linked to examination and credentials served to reinforce class privilege, as only elites had access to the educational institutions that prepared them to compete for public positions along newly meritocratic criteria.
The author is no mindless booster of patronage systems, though. Throughout the volume, she reminds us that the flexibility that patronage affords government to achieve its goals can also be viewed as capriciousness. As such, it’s an appropriate target of reform.
Jobs for the Boys scores perhaps its best points in discussing the “process” of reform. Experience suggests that reforms commonly originate in crisis. The revolution that spawned Japan’s Meiji restoration, the egalitarian impulse of the French revolution, Britain’s dismal performance in the Crimean War, the assassination of President William Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker, each triggered a reform “moment.” Just as Argentina’s early 1990s fiscal crisis spurred a cost containment policy that in turn incorporated merit-based civil service reforms.
But Grindle also underscores significant differences among reforms, some of which have not been well recognized. She argues that the role of the “demand” side of these reforms—public opinion and civic mobilization—may have been overestimated. Only in the United States were the combined voice of a vociferous press and an angry citizenry pivotal in advancing civil service reform. In contrast, Weberian civil services of Prussia, Japan and France were initiated by authoritarian regimes in the course of consolidating state authority. Even in the United Kingdom, reforms emanated from government insiders and were negotiated internally, with little uproar from the public. The Latin American experiences confirm the closed nature of reforms; most of the bargaining was among inside actors who stood to lose from broadening the basis of civil service recruitment and leadership.
Reforms don’t necessarily require a charismatic leader. French reforms lacked a galvanizing figure but progressed apace, Grindle shows. She also draws important lessons about reform time frames. Some reforms, such as the Cortes that Napoleonic rule brought to Spain, took root quickly and lasted for generations. Others, such as the U.S. Pendleton Act or the Brazilian Administrative Department of Public Service (DASP), took decades to be fully adopted. The rubber meets the road in implementation, Grindle finds. She renders a fascinating, case-by-case picture of the political pulling and hauling that characterizes reform construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, often over many years. These reforms are anything but monotonic, and unreformed patronage systems frequently cohabit with more modern meritocracies, sometimes stabilizing a fragile social pact. Pristine merit systems are elusive, even today. And then, the objectives of reform may themselves be transformed by new ideals, just as reformers in the United Kingdom, Chile or Brazil sought to replace Weberian bureaucracy with the New Public Management.
If Grindle is right, a good deal of what international development experts thought (and think) about current civil service reform programs is wrong: that you can achieve reform in bite-size timeframes of five to ten years; that merit reforms need to deliver a knock-out punch to old patronage practices in order to be deemed “successful;” that aid donors must identify a charismatic aid darling to shepherd through reforms; that there is a single window of opportunity for reform that can be identified in advance. 
Grindle’s methodology tilts towards historical institutionalism but embraces rational choice and democratic theory, where appropriate. She is about detecting patterns in a rich narrative tapestry, rather than testing theorems. This may leave those seeking the rigor of randomized trials or large-sample studies dissatisfied. For the rest of us, it provides a most welcome—indeed, way overdue—reality check on the not-well-understood history of public sector reform in comparative perspective. Scholars and practitioners seeking to improve the policy record on civil service reform will find this book both riveting and essential reading.

Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

Barbara Nunberg teaches public management and governance issues in development at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She previously served as head of the World Bank’s program on public sector reform and governance for the East Asia and Pacific Region. 

Related Articles

Savoring the Maya Past

Savoring the Maya Past

Every now and then, a book review request lands at just the right time to contemplate, even savor the work. I read and mused over Her Cup for Sweet Cacao as part of my journey from the United…

Modernity in Black and White

Modernity in Black and White

For years, one of my favorite pieces in the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) was the iconic Abaporu (1928), by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral: a canvas…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email