It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…. Technocratic Government!

The sky is falling! The Euro is collapsing! What can we do? Look, up in the sky: it’s a bird! it’s a plane, it’s….TECHNOCRATIC GOVERNMENT! Destined to save small and large European governments alike, the sudden appearance of technocratic government as a deus ex machnia is probably raising a similar thoughts in most (especially American) people’s head: just what is a technocratic government? Here at The Monkey Cage, that means it is time for another round of Q&A (although this time I’ll do both the Q and the A):

Q (me): Ok, so what’s a technocratic government?

A (me): Technically (no pun intended), a technocratic government is one in which the ministers (or what we call “Secretaries” in the United States) are not career politicians; in fact, in some cases they may not even be members of political parties at all. They are instead supposed to be “experts” in the fields of their respective ministries. So the classic example is that the Finance Minister (or Treasury Secretary in the US) would be someone with an academic background in economics who had worked for years at the IMF, but has not previously run for elective office or been heavily involved in election campaigns.

Q: Is the Prime Minister also a “technocrat”?

A: In some cases yes, but it doesn’t have to be the case. You could have a prime minister from a major party who heads a technocratic government (i.e., most of the ministers meet the definition laid out above), or you could have a technocratic prime minister as well. This will be one of the interesting development to watch as the composition of the new Greek government is revealed.

Q: Can you have a technocratic government in a Presidential System?

A: You could, but my sense is that technocratic governments are more common in parliamentary systems where governments are dependent on the support of parliament. (Anyone have any data on this?) In a Presidential System, by definition the head of the government – the president – will always be a politician (i.e., someone who won an election), while in a parliamentary system the parties in the parliament can actually agree to appoint a government composed of non-politicians.

Q: Why do countries appoint technocratic governments?

A: The practical reason is often because a government has lost the support of parliament but for various reasons (including legal, pragmatic, or political), it is not yet time to hold new elections. If the parties in the parliament can’t agree to form a normal government, then sometimes they can all agree to support a temporary technocratic government. Sometimes these governments are also referred to as “caretaker governments”.

Q: This is not quite the story in Greece and Italy, is it?

A: Well, we’ll see. Now what seems to be going on is that a “received wisdom” is developing that only technocratic governments can carry out the “painful reforms necessary” to save country X. The theory here is that no major party is going to want to pay the costs of instituting painful policies alone. If this is the case, then one way around this predicament is to appoint a technocratic government that is not “of” any party but is supported by all the parties. In this way, blame can essentially be shared, and government can do the right thing, whatever that may be.

Q: Does it work?

A: I really don’t know. If anyone has any research on this topic, please write in below and I can update the post to include your response. In the meantime, let me offer a couple reasons for skepticism. First, politicians are not particularly good at “sharing blame”, which will make the temptation for any of a number of major parties to undercut the technocratic government for political gain omnipresent. Second, even if mainstream parties get behind a technocratic government, that doesn’t mean extremist parties will as well. Indeed, a technocratic government supported by all of the mainstream parties seems to me a perfect recipe for the rise of non-mainstream parties. [As a closely related aside, this is exactly what Radoslaw Markowski and I found happened in Poland when all of the mainstream parties supported EU membership.]

Q: Ok, but even with those caveats, technocratic government still sounds pretty good! Why doesn’t everyone have one?

A: Well, there is this one minor problem, which is that in democracies people are supposed to elect their rulers. Since a technocratic government does not run for office by definition, it is sort of hard to call a country with permanent technocratic government a democracy. Instead, you’d end up with a system where the people only get to vote for people who then get to vote on who the real leaders of the government are. Which, if you stop to think about it, sounds quite a bit like the original set up of the Electoral College in the United States….

Q: Bottom line: will technocratic governments save Europe?

A: They may make it possible for certain policies to be implemented in the short-term. But Europe’s longer-term problems are going to need to be solved (or not be solved) by Europe’s elected officials. Democracy is about accountability. While it may be possible to duck accountability in the short run, long-term policies are going to have been enacted by elected officials. But I’m open to arguments suggesting otherwise…

10 Responses to It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…. Technocratic Government!

  1. Matt G. November 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    A number of quick points.

    1. If a technocratic government means one that includes non-partisan ministers, then we know that presidential cabinets have more non-partisan ministers. See Amorim Neto’s work on presidential and semi-presidential cabinets. This makes sense. In a parliamentary government, you need to build legislative support to enter and stay in government, which means you need to buy off parties. One way to buy off parties is to provide ministerial portfolios. In a presidential government, the cabinet does not need majority legislative support to form or stay in power, and so the president can give portfolios to non-partisans — which may be technocrats (or cronies). Either way, non-partisan ministers are more common in presidential systems.

    2. I think it makes sense to distinguish between caretaker and technocratic governments. These are not the same thing. A caretaker government exists when one government has resigned or been defeated in a vote of no confidence until the next duly-mandated government forms. A technocratic or non-partisan government is different — it is a duly-mandated government. Sometimes you see loose references to these non-partisan governments as being “caretaker” governments but they’re not. It is important to distinguish caretaker governments, which are generally expected to maintain the status quo until a duly-mandated government is chosen, and a technocratic or non-partisan government, which may actually be put in power specifically to change the status quo. See the 1997 Bulgarian government (Roberts 2008).

    3. Any government in a parliamentary or semi-presidential democracy must have a legislative majority. And so any technocratic government must have the support of more than 50% in the legislature. It is rare for so many parties to be willing to give up the possibility of being in power, and so technocratic governments are generally quite rare. Moreover, the technocratic government can only pass policy if a legislative majority support it. So, I don’t see how a technocratic government can be a solution to a legislative impasse – if the technocratic government can solve the impasse, so can a partisan government.

  2. Matt G. November 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    I suppose one advantage of a non-partisan government has to do with the fact that incumbents tend to be punished or lose vote share over time. If political parties know what policy to implement but don’t want to be seen to be the ones implementing it, they could have a non-partisan government implement it (and support it from the legislature). But this argument assumes that the voters can’t figure out which parties are supporting the non-partisan government in the legislature and hence which parties are really responsible for the policy.

  3. Andreas Moser November 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    The main difference to me seems to be that a “technocratic administration” is there for a limited time only and they promise not to seek re-election. This is supposed to make them a bit more independent from voters’ wishes.
    But as they still need parliamentary approval for laws, that doesn’t really change that much. After all, we still want to maintain democracy.

  4. Matt G. November 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    Andreas is right that technocratic governments are often put in place with the claim that they will only be there for a limited period of time, but there is nothing that distinguishes these governments from other duly mandated governments. They survive so long as they can keep a legislative majority and they fall if they can’t. There is no mechanism to keep them to the “limited period of time” or indeed to give them a “limited period of time.”

  5. Lorenzo from Oz November 8, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    The whole point of the EU structures are about evading accountability to voters. So, you could argue that they already have a sort of technocratic government. One might also be sceptical that a system based ultimately on evasion of accountability will be able to bear the strain.

  6. Jason S November 8, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Bawn & Rosenbluth (2006) find that caretaker governments are strongly associated with sharp declines in government spending. Of course, this may mean simply that parliaments like to kick the ball over to technocrats in situations that demand massive spending cuts, rather than to take the blame themselves, but either way the correlation supports the proposed mechanism.

  7. EmilyKennedy November 11, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    Great post! Thanks for putting it up.

  8. Arlequin November 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    Does it work?

    In the Italian political system, there are precedents of difficult reforms that materialized only under “technocratic” cabinets, after long myopic dithering by “political” cabinets. See the record of the early 1990s with the Ciampi Cabinet. In the words of Ciampi’s predecessor, Giuliano Amato: “As you can see, my dear Governor, in Italy it is only possible to take remedial measures once the roof over our heads has already fallen in” (quoted in Ginsborg, Italy and its discontents).

    Today, do they feel the rain over their heads already?

  9. arin December 13, 2011 at 4:39 am #
    technocratic government = puppy government
    I refuse to use capital letters for a gang of rogue traitors of the country.

  10. George DeMarse October 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    We have no choice but to go to technocratic government world wide.

    The reason?

    The electorates in major democracies cannot decide on a permanent ideological position to take their coutries. Elections are yo-yos between some form of state socialism and some form of libertarianism. To have governmnet swing like a yo yo in every election cycle, which we are now seeing, destabilizes government, its policies and its promised benefits.
    If people have no sense of direction about whether government will follow through on any of its promises for any period of time, that’s when government fails and subsequently democracy fails.

    I am often told that technocrats aren’t particularly well suited to running governments on a long term basis–based on the “care-taker” idea.

    But then I ask, but we have representational government now and it is dysfunctional–how can it be worse?

    To this I get no good answer.