Populists in power: the impact on public administration

Academics are studying the impact of populists in power. Colin Talbot looks at the research and whether it can provide a perspective of Whitehall’s churn of top jobs

By Colin Talbot

30 Nov 2020

What do populists do when elected to government in countries with robust democratic and public administration institutions? The choice, some recent scholarship suggests, is simple: reform or sabotage.

Populism is, by definition, anti-pluralist by claiming to represent a singular “will of the people”. And it is by tendency autocratic, because any divergence from this “will of the people” is obviously oppositional and thus has to be suppressed. They are “enemies of the people”.

So robust, pluralistic, democratic, public administration presents it with a huge problem if, and when, populist parties or individuals come to power.

Populist governing strategies in power

Two German scholars, Michael Bauer and Stefan Becker, have been looking at this issue and suggest an analytical framework for understanding populists in power and public administration.

They argue that it is useful to make two distinctions in analysing how populists in power approach public administration.

The first is the general attitude of populist politicians to the state: is it positive or negative? Do they want bigger, more interventionist and stronger government or do they want to “roll back the frontiers of the state” (in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase)? This is not a left/right issue – some populists on the right want a bigger state.

The second dimension is about context: is public administration fragile or robust? This is essentially about how old and well embedded democratic public administration systems are. Well established systems – like those in the United States, Canada and much of western Europe – are much more difficult to remake in a populist direction than those in more fragile states.

Public administrations in many countries have had limited experience of democratic, pluralistic, government. In much of Latin America and eastern Europe, for example, democracy has only recently been established. And in places like Russia, Hungary and Turkey it has proved very fragile indeed.

Combining these two dimensions (see below ) suggests four populist strategies for dealing with public administration: Capture; Dismantle; Reform and Sabotage.

Populist Administration Goals


Administrative Order




Populist view of the state
















Source: adapted from Bauer & Becker, 2020. Including the four exemplary cases they discuss.

Studies of ‘democratic backsliding’ by populist regimes usually look at a wide range of factors:

  1. strengthening the political executive;
  2. weakening legislatures;
  3. and the courts;
  4. delegitimising opposition parties and homogenising the ruling party;
  5. bending the electoral system;
  6. extending executive control of the media;
  7. neutering civil society organisations;
  8. and finally controlling and politicising the civil service.

Bauer & Becker however adopt a fairly narrow definition of ‘public administration’ which relates mainly to the last two items (1 & 8) on this list. (Other public administration scholars would probably include items 2 and 3 as well).

The changes Bauer & Becker look for from populist regimes to the executive arm of government therefore include:

  1. Centralisation of governmental structures;
  2. Centralisation of budgetary controls;
  3. Politicisation of civil service personnel;
  4. Politicisation of civil service norms; and
  5. Reduction in accountability.

Trump and US federal administration

Reporting on the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential election the Financial Times noted that: “Mr Trump seems so hell-bent on destroying faith in American governmental institutions — the courts, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that the US could cease being a functional state, let alone a model for the world.

Steve Bannon, who still remains the closest thing to an intellectual touchstone for Trumpism, never made a secret that his true goal in backing Trump was the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. (Peter Spiegel, FT, 23 Nov 2020)

While politicisation of the upper levels of the federal “administrative state” is common in the US, with thousands of direct Presidential appointments, Trump took this to a whole new level.

Trump systematically filled senior positions with either people who were openly hostile to the missions of the federal agency concerned, or deeply ignorant of what it actually did, or simply left posts vacant to stall decision making. Much of this was recorded in the best-selling The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.

But Trump also used resources and other administrative devices to try to sabotage the federal bureaucracy, as Bauer and Becker record in their case study.

Johnson and Whitehall

The context of the populist “Get Brexit Done” government of Boris Johnson is of course different in many respects to the US federal administration. But the strategy has many similarities. The overall approach was summed up in The Economist magazine recently:

“The plan, which has the support of the Tory party and was outlined in the 2019 manifesto, is to weaken the judicial, political and administrative limits that have been placed on the power of the executive. Brexit is only the beginning. By the time of the next election, ministers will have control over more policies, enjoy more discretion and face fewer restraints than they have for decades.....[this is] conservative counter-revolution against checks and balances to executive power built up over half a century.” (The Economist, 19 Nov 2020)

For the British ‘administrative state’ this has already had a dramatic impact.

An unprecedented number of leading civil servants – including the cabinet secretary, permanent secretaries and the government’s chief lawyer – have either quit or been forced to resign.

Most recently Alex Allan, the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code was also forced out over the Priti Patel bullying affair.

A sort of parallel, semi-privatised, apparatus has been constructed alongside the Department for Health and Social Care and the English NHS.

NHS Test & Trace, run by Dido Harding, now controls £22bn of public spending. If it was a government ministry, it would now be the fourth largest in spending terms. It has tens of thousands of staff, but employed by private sector contractors.

Similarly the Vaccine Task Force, run by Kate Bingham, is spending billions on vaccine contracts.

Neither Harding nor Bingham is a minister or civil servant and their powers, status, codes of conduct, and accountability remains opaque at best.

These are just a few examples of how the Johnson government is subverting norms, politicising appointments and side-steeping traditional structures of the UK’s administrative state.

The American ‘administrative state’ is robust. Bauer and Becker argue this makes it very hard to dismantle – suggesting this may be the grain of truth behind Trump and Bannon’s complaints about the so-called “deep state”. It is indeed a state with deep roots and seems to have survived, if weakened, the Trump era.

In the UK we have four more years of a Johnson government. Whilst the PM's equivalent of Steve Bannon – Dominic Cummings – has now departed, his similar agenda to Bannon’s of ‘blowing up’ the administrative state clearly remains. It will need careful monitoring.

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