Exploring governmentality and bureaucracy

Governmentality is a term coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to describe the way in which governance reproduces itself through rules, narratives, repetition of practice, institutional structures, management of land, laws and punishments. There is nothing wrong with this self-reproduction as such- in many ways one can think of it as the definition of being a State – provided it meets our democratic needs and is seen as just and inclusive.

Our present governmentality was described by Foucault as exercising a power over people by ordering society towards economic purpose. This is a probelm if the systemn is intended to deliover something other than economic growth and efficiency.

Foucault’s writings mirror German scholar Max Weber description of the functioning of the State and its bureaucracy at the turn of the 19th century in which ‘we had all become vocational men’. Weber saw bureaucracy as an essential part of this industrially-inspired and -focused system of government. His description of the role and function of bureaucracy still resonates today. He coined the term generally translated as ‘Iron Cage’ for describing the rule-bound and dispassionate function of the bureaucrat. He also saw the legitimacy of the bureaucrat as being in their technical grasp and their obedience to the government of the day. This technocratic role of bureaucracy in which it has no constitutional position beyond serving the government of the day is still with us.

I argue that bureaucracy is ordered and structured around an out-of-date governmentality which is designed to ignore the consequences of economic activity and to ensure its continuation in its current form. This can be traced in the siloed structures of departments and agencies, in the exercise of technocratic control through processes and rules, in the ways the use of land is determined, in the lack of a civic constitutional position for public servants, and in the way bureaucratic practice is focused on economic and financial testing of proposals. This is not the fault of the bureaucrat; this is the result of the drivers of the system in which they find themselves.

Designing bureaucracy for a new 21st century governmentality means addressing wider social and environmental challenges and strengthening democratic engagement. Such a bureaucracy would find its legitimacy in upholding wider ethical values, not narrow economic ones, and in its ability to work with and across communities, enabling them to flourish with locally-tailored support, developed through local civic dialogue. Its structural analogue would be ecology not industry. Its language would be values, not numbers. This would be neither big nor small government, it would be a visible, thoughtful and creative element in our democracies – a new civic bureaucracy designed to help us to live well – and justly – with one another and with the planet.