It is that time of the year again: Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has descended upon the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Despite being a Christian, I always thought I knew what Ramadan was about. I could readily recount that Ramadan constituted Sawm, the fourth pillar of Islam, where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking between dawn and dusk for a whole lunar month. I even fancied myself culturally astute enough to appreciate Ramadan as a time for spiritual cleansing, in which Muslims reflect on their behaviour towards others more closely in order to promote compassion, harmony and peace in society.
But as I was to realize, understanding the concept of Ramadan is not the same as understanding the meaning it has for those whose lives are shaped by it, and who shape their lives around it. The subjective significance of Ramadan only became clear to me when I spent three years living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and worked for the government on implementing western public management practices to improve public services.
I learnt that Ramadan comes with a wonderfully festive spirit, which captured even us non-Muslims in inexplicable ways. I also found out that the pace of life changes dramatically, and, especially in the first weeks of Ramadan, my bosses and colleagues were too hungry, tired and short-tempered to work productively or make important decisions.
Most surprisingly, I realized that Ramadan rescued from its imminent demise our very first public consultation project. For months, we had been unable to get local people to share their personal experiences of public services. Ramadan, however, made it culturally appropriate to have these conversations with service users because traditionally, it is a time when the Sheikhs have always sat down and listened to the woes of their people.
Harnessing the power of the public for service improvement became only one example in a series of western public management concepts that hinged on mobilizing the opportunities and constraints offered by the local culture. But what exactly is culture, other than an umbrella term to describe everything in general, yet denote nothing in particular?
If we accept, as the sociologist Max Weber put it so eloquently, that human beings are creatures suspended in a web of meaning that they themselves have spun, then culture is this subjective web of meaning. We speak of a ‘culture’ when people assign similar meaning to an object or event as a result of their shared, similar life experiences. A group of people can have shared life experiences across time and place: they might belong to the same nationality, or work in the same project team, have similar social standing, believe in the same religion, be alumni of the same college, or have migrated along the same routes…the list goes on. This makes any one person share webs of meaning with different groups of people, and therefore belong to a variety of cultures ranging from a particular local culture to a global generational culture.
Of course, people’s interpretation of an event, such as a western public management reform initiative, and their motivation to respond to it, are arguably momentary states. However, these momentary states are the result of the interaction of two types of relatively stable structures: the mental structures, or understandings, people hold internally, and the world structures that are external to people. The relative stability of the world and personal understanding means that in a group of people who share similar life experiences, the same meanings arise time and time again.
Scholars and practitioners of public management agree increasingly that we are all homo subjectivo (I discuss this in more detail in my conference paper).
Accordingly, cultural construction matters in transferring policy concepts and adapting public management reform successfully and durably. The neglect of existing organizational, professional, social, economic, political and traditional cultures have already ended in disappointing results for reform-eager governments despite following best practice. Evaluations have pointed to cultural barriers to explain ineffective government reform initiatives in Switzerland, South-Africa, Korea or Brazil, to name just a few.
Therefore, western public management ideas will only work for Middle Eastern governments, and for any other government for that matter, if policy-makers can access, and manipulate, the subjective world of public administrators and service users. Doubtlessly, this is no easy feat for two reasons: Firstly, cultures come in plurals and potpourris, which means that looking at only the organizational culture or only the social culture will not suffice. Secondly, operationalizing the analysis and effective manipulation of cultures to implement reform is an area that is, as of now, still developing.
Abena Dadze-Arthur is a researcher and public policy adviser with ten years experience of developing user-centric public policy for Western and non-Western governments across a wide range of public service areas. Abena is currently pursuing her doctoral research on social practices and cultural schemas that shape public management reform in Abu Dhabi Government.