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Democratic Professionalism in Public Services

Democratic Professionalism in Public Services

Lethbridge, Jane ORCID: 0000-0002-0094-9967 (2019) Democratic Professionalism in Public Services. Policy Press, Bristol. ISBN 978-1447342106

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This book provides a set of ideas which will aim to contribute to the creation of democratic public services which value service users and public service professionals so that they support and complement each and are not set against each other. It aims to challenge the concept of provider capture, principal agent theory and other concepts used to justify public sector reforms by exploring the use of democratic approaches to public service delivery. Public services are delivered to citizens and are funded by public expenditure through taxation. They are an essential part of democracy but the degree to which democratic processes shape the delivery of public services is often limited. Outsourcing and privatisation have made it even more limited. Public services need to be democratised in light of changes taking place in the way in which public services are delivered, for example, increased personalisation. Whereas the current emphasis in public sector reform is on how to involve service users as co-producers of services this book focuses on the public sector professionals who deliver public services and explores how public service professionalism within public services could operate in a more democratic way. The answers may vary according to the type of public service but there are some basic questions which all public service professionals would benefit from trying to answer.

In order to develop a strategy to make public services more democratic, chapter 2 draws on Hannah Arendt’s ‘vita activa’ as outlined in ‘The Human Condition’ (1958). There are two aspects of Hannah Arendt’s ‘vita activa’ which are relevant for identifying new ways of working towards democratic professionalism. The components of the ‘vita activa’ can be used as a way of analysing the work of public professionals and the means that Arendt identifies as necessary to take action - plurality, the public sphere and natality - provide a framework for democratic professionals taking action.

The concepts of labour, work and action in the ‘vita activa’ are applicable to the position of public service professionals because they help to reveal the nature of the relationship between how public services are delivered and how public professionals can start to identify future political action with service users. It acknowledges that the delivery of public services encompasses several activities, not just the mechanical delivery of a service, but contributes to a democratic process in which public professionals support and work in partnership with citizens as part of the process of designing, planning, delivering and evaluating public services.

Chapter 3 argues that the challenge that faces public professionals operating as democratic professionals is to respect other sources of expertise as well to understand how it is constituted and how to facilitate its use. The definition of expertise which will be used in this book is that the combination of knowledge and skills creates expertise. This is generated through practical experience combined with theoretical study and learning (Polanyi, 1958; Polanyi, 1966).

Crouch (2015) showed how the market over-simplifies the knowledge needed to run public services, undermines professional expertise and leads to short term ‘gaming’ of the system. The fragmentation of public services has damaged the quality and destroyed much institutional knowledge which is handed down and exchanged between public professionals (Whitty, 2000: Ball, 2008). The relationship of the democratic professional to the building up of expertise will have to change and the recognition of the value of diverse sources of expertise will necessarily change perceptions of what constitutes professional knowledge and expertise. At the same time as acknowledging the diverse sources of knowledge and expertise, the democratic professional will have to engage with the tensions and conflicts arising from a widespread distrust of experts and expert knowledge.

Chapter 4 explores how democratic professionals can both respect services users and act with professional and personal integrity. Arendt emphasized the importance of creating a public realm or sphere which has a long term perspective, a sense of permanence and the capacity to gather people together (Arendt, 1958: 55). This book argues that public services are delivered in such a public sphere and that a critical appreciation of how this public sphere is created and maintained must be at the heart of public service delivery. This requires greater respect and integrity. Before the democratic professional can start to take action to strengthen the public sphere, they will have to revisit the concept of the public interest. An inclusive understanding of the public interest underpins any form of respect shown to service users and will inform democratic professionals how to maintain their own integrity.

Chapter 5 explores the concept of responsibility within democratic professionalism, which involves accepting that there are dilemmas inherent in professional work and that relationships between professional-student, professional-client and professional-patient are increasingly difficult to resolve. Responsibility is part of the motivation to take action but will emerge from many of the processes discussed in relation to expertise, respect and integrity. The way in which a sense of responsibility is translated into identifying opportunities to work democratically will depend on recognising the existing limitations of professional practice. How democratic professionals address responsibility will depend on a combination of agency and voice, which will enable them to break out of their existing ways of working.

Chapter 6 concludes that the future of public services needs to be shaped by public professionals and services users working together, sharing knowledge, respecting each other and taking joint responsibility for addressing problems. The development of democratic professionalism is at an early stage. It will require a much greater awareness among trade unions and professional associations about how they can help to shape future professional practice. The creation of effective alliances will be at the centre of the transformation, by involving wider campaigns and social movements. It will also contribute to wider changes which are being discussed about how to form new political alliances to challenge the shift towards right wing populism and the failures of neo-liberalism. The promotion of democratic professionalism should be seen in this broader context of social and political change.

Item Type: Book
Additional Information: This is a post-peer-review, pre-copy edited version of a chapter published in Democratic Professionalism in Public Services. Details of the definitive published version and how to purchase it are available online at:" The book will remain under embargo for 24 months from the date of publication.
Uncontrolled Keywords: democratic professionalism, public services, citizens, professionals
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Business
Faculty of Business > Centre for Work and Employment Research (CREW)
Faculty of Business > Centre for Work and Employment Research (CREW) > Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU)
Faculty of Business > Department of International Business & Economics
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Last Modified: 06 Jun 2021 01:38

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