An Attempt to Conceptualize the Modernization of the Public Sector in Culture

Vesna Čopič

Summary of a lecture held at the Open Institution conference

During the last 20 years, we have witnessed a proliferation of regulatory and strategic documents, which have proved to be paper tigers. At the same time, reality has shown a quite different picture. In the cultural public sector, no transition that would result in a shift from paternalistic institutions to open modern organizations has actually occurred. Instead, we have a frozen situation, with a radical gap between public cultural institutions and NGOs. While the institutions are perceived as a legal obligation of the state, NGOs remain outside the traditional cultural policy model as something optional. The result of such a system is that there have been no major shifts in the allocation of public funds and NGOs remain a foreign element.


The term “modernization” is an empty one and needs to be filled with meaning. There are three important aspects of modernization. Cultural policy as part of governmental policy depends on political preferences. However, political decisions require professional backing, therefore some theoretical concepts. And yet, to produce any results, the feasibility and acceptability of each decision is fundamental. Therefore, without taking into consideration the interests of those who are at the center of the modernization, i.e. of the cultural sector itself, the process cannot be successfully implemented.

There are different theoretical concepts dealing with public sector reform. The prevailing one is known by the label New Public Management, a model based on market philosophy where funding follows targets/outputs, relationships are regulated through contracts, customers are at the heart of the operation, there is a change of legal status towards greater autonomy, and the competition principle is applied through tendering and bidding. The introduction of such concepts must be taken with great caution. Namely, the withdrawal of the state potentially has many negative consequences in terms of equity, quality, and standards. Furthermore, the managerial paradigm threatens to become a tool to raise managers above all other professions and to subordinate core professional commitments to retrenchment in public spending. Therefore, we must identify two preconditions for making managerialism culturally sustainable: the reaffirmation of the public value of culture and a post-managerial paradigm.

If modernization is all about devaluing culture as a public good in order to reduce public funding, then it is an unacceptable move. It must be clarified in advance that the modernization of the public sector in culture is motivated by a cultural, not an economic, rationale. Modernization is acceptable if it is based on the reaffirmation of the public value of culture and if it means pursuing the better organization of culture as a public good.

If the cultural mission used to be threatened by subordination to political ideologies, now it is subordinated to managers. While managers aim for financial stability, artists and other professionals aim for artistic enrichment. Managerial techniques, skills, and methods should not be considered the substance but only in service of the substance. Modernization should therefore reflect a post-managerial paradigm.

Institutional paradigm

In the cultural sector there are four fundamental principles of institutional organization that, on one hand, suffocate managerial discretion and, on the other, enable the perception of public institutions as a legal obligation of the state in contrast to NGOs with no structural funding. First is the principle of hierarchy, where the public authorities are in the role of principal and the cultural institution in the role of agent. This is not a relationship between two equal contracting parties, because public authorities have founders’ rights and therefore power over the institution. The second is the rule of law. Discretion is reduced to a minimum, replaced by the paraphernalia of laws and instructions, budgetary appropriations, and regulations. The third is the principle of political neutrality. Bureaucratic ethics are based on the belief that public servants follow the public interest. There is a presumption that selfish opportunistic behavior or political partiality will be excluded and that the guarantee of political neutrality lies within a centralized system of public servants. Last one is the principle of accountability, within which a public institution is treated as a so-called indirect spending unit in the public budget. The essence of traditional budgeting, i.e. a line item budgeting that is input-oriented, is control if the funds are spent as planned, while the evaluation of accomplishments is neglected.

From institutional to post-institutional paradigm

The main question concerning reform of the cultural sector is how to increase managerial discretion and authority without losing sight of the cultural mission. Four fundamental measures should be introduced. First, instead of the existing universal mode of public organization (that is, the public institution), the mode of organization should adjust to the nature of the activities. The level of autonomy defines the organizational mode and vice versa. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but a case–by-case transformation. Therefore, organizational heterogeneity is unavoidable. Furthermore, instead of regulating cultural organizations’ internal affairs by law, that is by one-sided decrees, a negotiation process that defines objectives, deliverables, and incentives could bring a new dynamism to cultural services provision. For such a purpose, deregulation is necessary to create space for such interaction. As a third measure, instead of giving organizations’ workers the uniform status of public servants, a combination of public servants, privately-contracted employees and part time jobs could bring a flexibility that would allow the subordination of the workforce to the working process. It si not about spreading of precariat but opposite, bridging the current gap with long life employment on one hand and subcontracted personnel without any social rights on the other. Finally, without financial autonomy there is no autonomy in programming. The focus on formulating requests for proposals or competitive bids, the description and measurement of deliverables, and the development of incentives and functions confronts the public authority and the organization with completely new tasks. Funding by objectives could be a tool of policy analysis, could provide a means of improving government performance, and could secure a framework enabling government to plan ahead and set spending options.

Shift on all levels

To sum up, on the level of organizational processes, a shift from an institutional to a post-institutional paradigm requires (a) organizational heterogeneity instead of organizations having the universal status of public establishments, (b) negotiation instead regulation, (c) the diversification of working status instead of a centralized system of public servants, and (d) lump-sum funding instead of item line budgeting.

However, this shift would require serious and deep conceptual changes on the level of the political system, in order to provide capacities to negotiate. According to the modernist notion of culture, culture is an autonomous system. If only insiders have the legitimacy to make decisions about the system of which they are part, cultural policy becomes “a closed conversation among experts” (John Holden) and as such disappears from political focus. Today, culture is marginalized and it has lost its political relevance. Furthermore, it has become dislodged from the EU agenda (the only culture that matters to the EU agenda is agriculture). Finally, cultural policy is a para-political realm. It is autopoietic, self-referential, and emergetic. Therefore, culture and the relations within it must be re-politicized. In addition, cultural administration must be professionalized (instead of the existing division between administrative and professional tasks and instead of political voluntarism based on loyality instead of professional excellence), the capacity to negotiate about cultural operation must be developped and cultural policy-making must be deliberative, based on dialogue.

Finally, this shift must be made on the level of stakeholders. The state should take on a strategic role instead of directly intervening on a daily basis (formally or informally). Managerial freedom must be based on professional responsibility instead of bureaucratic rules. Professionals should be paid by results instead of at fixed rates. Instead of having the right to have representatives in the governing structure, users should be the prime concern of the governing structure. The process of restructuring should create adequate free space for alternative delivery models aiming at inclusion of NGOs in cultural services provision (moving independent production from the margin to the centre).

Possibility of changes in reality

Resistance towards change is always present and a risk-averse attitude is normal. Therefore, modernization requires financial injections and modernization driven by financial crisis is not the best option. As long as public management reform in the field of culture is accompanied by a governmental willingness to invest, there is still enough space for both managers aiming for financial stability and artists and other professionals aiming for artistic enrichment. The danger that private interests may squeeze out public benefit becomes more relevant in a time of financial crisis when substantial budget cuts are looming or in poorer places where culture is first to be restricted as a luxurious good.

Modernization formula

This culturally-sustainable modernization formula is based on three elements: (1) the duality of a strong state and a strong civil society, (2) the reaffirmation of the public value of arts and culture, and (3) a post-managerial paradigm that subordinates managers to the cultural mission instead of raising them above other professions. Its result should produce a hybrid between the cultural institution and the cultural NGO and consequently should incorporate NGOs into the regular cultural policy system.

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