The Sedimentation of Public Values: How a Variety of Governance Perspectives Guide the Practical Actions of Civil Servants

AuthorDaphne Bressers,Mark J. W. van Twist,Martijn van der Steen
Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18059IvvDHEBJp/input 671369ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X16671369Review of Public Personnel Administrationvan der Steen et al.
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2018, Vol. 38(4) 387 –414
The Sedimentation of Public
© The Author(s) 2016
Article reuse guidelines:
Values: How a Variety of
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X16671369
Governance Perspectives
Guide the Practical Actions
of Civil Servants
Martijn van der Steen1, Mark J. W. van Twist1,
and Daphne Bressers1
What defines a good civil servant is not self-evident. In fact, when you ask civil
servants what it means “to be a good civil servant” and “to do a good job,” you
receive differing responses based on the various values that guide the way each
individual approaches their job. The differing values can be traced to well-established
perspectives in the literatures of public administration, governance, and political
science. Each perspective defines “good government” and “being a good civil servant”
in different ways, elevating differing values in the process. These perspectives are
institutionalized and internalized in the present-day reality of public administration.
Therefore, a present-day civil servant works amid a variety of competing perspectives
about what “good government” and “being a good civil servant” mean. It is interesting
how various perspectives on “good governance” and “being a good civil servant” play
out in the working-practice of civil servants: How do values from the various governance
perspectives guide the practical actions of civil servants?
To answer this question, we
conducted a research project to look for patterns in the values that guide the work
of civil servants. We distinguished four governance perspectives from literature on
governance. We translated these four governance perspectives into typical value
that guide practical action, and used Q-methodology to survey civil servants
with these perspectives as options. We found four distinct profiles of combined values
that apparently guide the practical actions of civil servants. The profiles help us better
understand the variety of values that guide practical actions of civil servants.
1Netherlands School for Public Administration, The Hague, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Daphne Bressers, Netherlands School for Public Administration, Lang Voorhout 17, 2514 EB Den Haag,
The Netherlands.

Review of Public Personnel Administration 38(4)
public values, sedimentation of values, Q-sort methodology, government perspectives
Introduction: The Inherent Ambiguity of Being a Good
Civil Servant
Civil servants want to do a good job. The same is true of organizational managers,
human resource (HR) managers, and executives responsible for the performance of
public organizations. The essence of the idea of public service motivation (Brewer,
Selden, & Facer, 2000; Campbell & Im, 2015; Gould-Williams, 2004; Perry, 1996;
Tummers & Knies, 2013; Vandenabeele, 2008; Wright & Grant, 2010) is that civil
servants are strongly inclined and intrinsically motivated to do a good job, provide
good public services, and thus improve societal quality.
However, what it means to be a good civil servant and what good governance actu-
ally means is ambiguous. Definitions of good governance constantly shift, changing in
response to and along with the trends and circumstances of their time; the dominance
of certain ideas and perspectives fade and evolve, and so do ideas concerning good
governance along with them. A review of public administration literature reveals four
distinct governance perspectives that each highlights unique values: “Old” Public
Administration, “New” Public Management, Network Governance, and Societal Self-
organization. These perspectives guide civil servants’ perception of government’s role
in society and of their role more specifically as civil servants. It influences their per-
ception of politicians’ responsibilities, and the value, place, and interplay of citizens
with government at large (Bozeman, 2007; Mosher, 1982).
Although perspectives are related to particular periods of time, they are not “time-
less” entities (Howlett, 2014). For instance, New Public Management (NPM) was a
product of a particular time-period, and was designed to address some of the recurring
and pressing problems of that time, including waste, slack, inefficiency, and an over-
emphasis on the organizing principles of the market. However, most public organiza-
tions still use NPM as an approach for tackling these same recurrent issues. Or, as
Bourgon (2009) argues, “Some values and preferences remain constant; while others
change as societies confront new situations and evolve. Periodically, new values sur-
face whose energy transforms the role of government and the practices of public
administration” (p. 309). Over time, values change in their prominence, and perspec-
tives are added to the spectrum. The discourse and debate concerning “good gover-
nance” is a continuous, living debate (Bourgon, 2009; Mosher, 1971; Stoker, 2006;
van der Steen, Scherpenisse, Hajer, Van Gerwen, & Kruitwagen, 2015; van der Steen,
van Twist, Chin-A-Fat, & Kwakkelstein, 2013).
Perspectives do not simply combine into a coherent set of values to guide actions.
Civil servants have to be selective in the perspectives they follow. That begs the ques-
tion which values they subscribe to in consideration of their work. Note that this is a
distinctly different question from “how do they cope with the variety of perspectives?”
We are interested in discovering how civil servants apparently combine values into

van der Steen et al.
clusters, which then guide their practical actions. This is important, because it helps us
understand why civil servants act the way they do. These insights can inform strategic
personnel management, strategic organizational management, conflict resolution, col-
laboration between different organizations, and the design of a more effective gover-
nance repertoire.
The layering of different perspectives is highly relevant now because of the recent
momentum of the perspective of societal self-organization (Bourgon, 2011; Bovaird,
2007; Nederhand, Bekkers, & Voorberg, 2016; Pestoff, 2009; Sørensen & Torfing,
2016; van der Steen et al., 2014; van der Steen et al., 2015). What do legitimacy and
equal treatment mean in the case of active citizens who organize their own library or
“manage” their own children’s playground in a public park? These are practical ques-
tions that are prevalent in the work of civil servants in many different policy fields. It
is interesting to learn how they deal with these issues and how that fits values from the
other three governance perspectives.
Therefore, the research question of this article is as follows:
Research Question 1: How do civil servants mix the values celebrated by different
governance perspectives, and how do those combinations guide their practical
The answer to this question is interesting for employees of public organizations, as
well as for those who collaborate with them. This research has the potential to contribute
to our understanding of what motivates civil servants. It also helps us better understand
how civil servants relate to the fourth perspective and how they mix that perspective
with others. This is important, because the fourth perspective is (re-)gaining momentum
in practice within the public sector, and calls for more deliberate and strategic responses
from civil servants, public organizations, and governance arrangements.
Outline of the Article
We start with a description of the research on public sector values, followed by a
description of the four theoretical perspectives on government steering, and the values
that comprise those perspectives. After that, we outline our research methods, before
discussing the results of the survey we conducted and the qualitative data we gathered.
In our conclusion, we analyze our findings, discuss some of their limitations, and pres-
ent a possible direction for future research.
Research on Public Sector Values
The study of public values is a recurring topic in the study of public administration,
and it is characterized by two central problems: a problem of definition and issues of
measurement (Bright, 2005; Goodsell, 1989; Inglehart, 2015; Perry et al., 2006;
Jorgensen, 2006; Jorgensen & Bozeman, 2007; Thompson, 2017; van der Wal, 2010;
Van Dyke, 1962; Van Wart, 1998).

Review of Public Personnel Administration 38(4)
The first problem is that there is no uniform definition of public values (van der
Wal, de Graaf, & Lasthuizen, 2008; Van Wart, 1998). Public value is an essentially
contested concept (de Graaf, 2003). Nonetheless, Bozeman (2007) identifies the cen-
tral aspects of public value, which we will use as conceptualization for “value” in this
public values are those providing normative consensus about (a) the rights, benefits, and
prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; (b) the obligations of
citizens to society, the state, and one other; and (c) the principles on which government
and policies should be based. (p. 132)
This definition balances the different elements of the value-concept in a way that
allows empirical research in the manifestation of values in the everyday practice of

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