Constructions of Public Office (HN)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: History


This project starts from the understanding that public office is not a single thing, but is understood in different ways, comes with different expectations and responsibilities, and is seen as serving different purposes, in different contexts.

In Britain between the 16th and 19th centuries a distinctive conception of public office emerged which involved stripping away a number of features that had previously been central features of office - in relation to how they were appointed, the duties they carried out, the boundaries between the interests of the occupant and the interests of the office, the criteria by which they were evaluated, how they were held accountable, and what purposes they were seen as fulfilling within the state. The British conception of public office is still evolving (the Law Commission is currently in the middle of an inquiry into malfeasance), and it is far from universal, differing markedly in certain respects from both US and European models. One major area of variation is how the line between public and political office is drawn, if at all. Yet the idea that we can use a standard model to identify and eliminate dereliction of public office in the less developed world is a widespread mantra of the anti-corruption and development movement. Moreover, the suggestion seems to be that derilictions are essentially similar, and that standards can be made the same. That view has driven a multi-billion anti-corruption movement over the last 20 years, although this has not been notable for its successes.

This project seeks to take seriously the different national and local contexts that have shaped how office has evolved and is regarded today. It takes three countries, Britain, Mexico and Kenya, with different traditions and practices and seeks to create a dialogue between them, not only so that British development policy might better address issues of governance and better understand the issues affecting office in these countries, but also, through discussion of the British experience, to examine how improved forms of governance and administration that have purchase on local mentalities and habits of mind and practice can be facilitated.

Comparative research on different constructions of public office - how they have emerged, how they are understood, how they are legitimated and when office holders are seen as falling short - is rare. There is a tendency to assume both a universal standard, and to assume that there will be a single understanding of office in any particular context, whereas it is likely to be the case that a number of competing constructions operate in many contexts, perhaps especially in ex-colonial contexts. It is, then, a necessary step to understand the expectations and norms that operate and to appreciate the way that particular conceptions of office might be more or less dysfunctional in certain contexts. What now seem to us to be obvious norms of office in fact developed over a long period, in quite specific local contexts, and often in response to pressing local exigencies. We should not expect the emergence of conceptions of office in other contexts to short-circuit such processes in their entirety, or to end up in the same place. But we might hope that bringing these different experiences into dialogue with each other will have beneficial outcomes for all concerned, creating an approach that seeks less to castigate developing countries for failing to conform within a very short space of time to British or Western norms and does more in the way of encouraging a productive and practical process of thinking how, in the light of certain ideals and restraints, public office can best be configured in relation to local contexts. The project seeks to move discussion away from a focus purely on corruption (which can often be used as a politicized stick) to maximizing good governance in context, and from bribery to the proper benefits of public office.

Planned Impact

Public engagement in the UK and Western developed states will take the form of the website, a policy paper, a public meeting on the project (working with the IfG and CSPL), and on-going discussions with public ethics agencies and government departments.

Members of the team already have good relationships with major British institutions such as TI (Knights); DfID (Anderson and Brangh), CSPL and Council of Europe (Philp).

In Mexico and Kenya the project will include a range of participants, including those with responsibilities for training those in pubic office, and will generate materials for trainers relating to the understandings of public office and the costs of certain understandings for the achievement of wider policy goals. We aim to embed the findings of the project in local institutions and especially in their training programmes for staff, while using the website to provide continuing contributions to these institutions, by updating and expanding materials and adding to the site case studies from other states as the project develops further (after this pilot).

Partner: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
Participating Institutions:
Supreme Court: José Fernando Franco González Salas - the SC has played a major part in anti-corruption laws.
Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores (SRE): Maria Celia Toro, former head of training at SRE (the best trained staff in public service)and Colegio de México professor.
Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) Sergio Aguayo (former member) This institution was designed to give Mexican elections civil oversight, but mired in accusations of corruption and racism.
Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indigenas: Nuvia Mayorga Delgado (Head) The national indigenous commission
Judicial Police; Alejandro Lerch
Oaxaca State Government. Michael and Efrain Morales Sanchez. State governments are a space in which training would be welcomed.
Members of Congress: Hectór Larios of the Partido Acción Nacional; The governing party PRI is currently holding up reform legislation in Congress.
Members of Nueva Alianza; access through Duncan Tucker, journalist.
Nueva Alianza is a new political party set up to counter corruption.
Mexico Evaluates: Marco Fernández. Relatively centrist, transparency and politics think tank.

Partner: Strathmore Governance Centre, Strathmore University
Participating institutions:
Supreme Court:ex-CJ Willy Mutunga; PA to CJ, Lucy Odhiambo. The Chief Justice is leading reform of the
courts, involving external advisors and public consultation over judicial appointment and dismissal.
Office of the Inspector General of Police: Dennis Ondere, PA to IG/Doug Brand, Adv to IG. The Police are in the midst of a
highly controversial but stalled process of reform.
Treasury or Central Bank of Kenya: Michael Chege, senior officer in Treasury. The Central Bank is currently involved in a major overhaul of regulations governing Kenya's financial sector. The treasury is at the centre of debates over the functioning of Kenya's Public Accounts Committee.
The Electoral & Boundaries Commission: Through Commonwealth Office & Anil Seal at Cambridge. The EBC has been in the firing line of criticism about favouritism from opposition parties.
The Civil Service Commission: contact via family of Ben Kipkorir, ex-trustee Admin School; This body gives access to senior and junior government staff at
professional levels. Kenya Administration School, trains senior civil servants.
Kenya Human Rights Commission: Director of Commission. The Commission is one of the largest and most active HR organizations in Africa. Has highlighted abuses by government officers. Instrumental in securing the annulment of the notorious Impunity Act (1971) in 2012.
The Inuka Kenya Trust: John Gothingo and Inuka - an NGO that focuses on cultivating leadership through dignity and probity.


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Description Although our work is not yet complete, the meetings we have held confirm our original hypothesis that constructions of public office vary considerably across different national contexts, and indeed, within countries across different offices. This then poses a considerable challenge to accounts of governance and corruption that fail to recognize the iremmediably local character of peopl's understandings, and the difficulties this arises for various programmes of institutional reform.
Exploitation Route We are currently exploring the development of training materials which local organizations would be assisted in developing. This should be operational by the end of the grant, at least in relation to Kenya.

Some of these materials are now available on our web-site. The further Kenyan visit in July 2019, funded separately by the university, aims both to test these resources more widely; to develop further scenarios and case studies; and the further evaluate the value of trainers developing their own scenarios.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description At an intensive workshop in London in July 2018 we developed a number of scenarios for use in training with a number of our Kenyan collaborators from a range of areas in the public service. They were enthusiastic about the possibility of continuing this kind of work in their own organization. This has encouraged us to arrange a further visit to Kenya in July 2019 to work more closely with training institutions. We undertook these further workshops using a scenario development technique with a cross section of academics and public officials in July 2019 at Strathmore University in Nairobi - in a series of workshops that drew the attention of the Office of the President and the Director of Public Prosecutions. This confirmed the value of the method and the practicality of training local providers. We applied for a further award to extend this work to the County Administrations but were turned down for follow-on funding. We are currently exploring ways to finance a further visit to engage County administrations and consolidate the course materials for the University. This further funding fell prey to the Covid-19 outbreak, and then a period of PI illness. We are currently following up with our contacts with a view to developing some virtual materials. I remain chair of the Research Advisory Board to the UK Committee on Standards in Public Life and this project has informed some of the discussions we have had about creating and sustaining ethical standards on government.
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Workshop for public service providers in Nairobi (February 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The workshop sought to develop materials that might be used in the training of members of the public service by developing scenarios tailored both to the particular structures and practices of the Kenyan political service and to the values enshrined in c.6 of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution. The constitution is very clear on the abstract values that apply to those in public office, but there is a major problem in cashing out these values in particular contexts, in a political order that remains dominated by powerful leaders and political parties and in which there is is a strong cultural tendency to see conduct as a matter of conformity to rules, thereby underplaying the importance of the development of judgment and collective deliberative capacity. The sessions sparked considerable interest from the participants and has, we believe, laid a basis for the on-going development of materials that can be fed into the training offered in different parts of the public service.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description scenario design 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We ran a day-long workshop with Kenyan academics, and members of the Kenyan Public Service, to develop a range of scenarios to use for training purposes, and to explore the value of encouraging them to develop their own scenarios. This was very successful and we are repeating the exercise in Nairobi in July 2019 aiming to embed the practice more widely in those training public service personael.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018