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7C310F9Dd01 - Abstract Charters are ofcial commitments to...

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A TALE OF TWO CHARTERS Political crisis, political realignment and administrative reform in Belgium Steven Van de Walle, Nick Thijs and Geert Bouckaert Steven Van de Walle, Nick Thijs and Geert Bouckaert Public Management Institute K. U. Leuven Van Evenstraat 2A 3000 Leuven Belgium, E-mail: [email protected] Abstract Charters are official commitments to quality and reform. Belgium introduced its Charter of the User of Public Services in 1993. The federal administration’s Copernicus reform began in 1999 and had a strong external outlook. It therefore may be considered as a second User Charter. In this article we focus on the administrative and political contingen- cies of the introduction of the two charters in Belgium. We show that actual administrative reform and political attention for adminis- trative reform are distinct phenomena. Variations in political attention for reform depend on crises and on political realign- ment. Both charters were introduced in a period of disturbed relations between citizens and politics. The introduction of a User Charter and the launch of the Copernicus reform were definitely political events, and not merely administrative ones. A charter was needed to restore citizen – government rela- tions. The charters, as pledges for reform, served as lightning rods for political dis- content. Key words Administrative reform, political crisis, reform rhetoric, trust in government, user charter Vol. 7 Issue 3 2005 367 – 390 Public Management Review ISSN 1471-9037 print/ISSN 1471-9045 online ª 2005 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/14719030500180930
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In January 1993, the Belgian federal government introduced its Charter of the User of Public Services. The User Charter was a culmination in a trend of gradual administrative reform in the late 1980s, and a common occurrence in many western countries in those days (McGuire 2002). A number of events and crises in Belgium led to profound discontent among citizens and required symbolic action to reassure the population: a citizen’s charter between citizen and government was needed. Instead, the crises were discursively dismissed as merely a public administration-related problem, and were responded to by launching new pledges for reform. One of these reforms was formally wrapped as a user charter. As a Potemkinesque distraction the User Charter was launched as a lightning rod for public discontent, hiding the failure of political reform and redefining a political crisis as an administrative one. This redefinition of the problem, however, was only possible on a fertile soil, a soil that had been irrigated by some policy entrepreneurs that had administrative reform as part of their own political agenda. Belgium, however, also has a second user charter , though one that is not generally referred to as a charter . We define a charter as a pledge for quality improvement , rather than a listing of service quality standards. The large-scale Copernicus reform project of the federal public service that started in 1999 was different from most administrative
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