The Symbolic Economy of Civil Service Reform in Uruguay, 1995-96

A Reform Without Losers: The Symbolic Economy of Civil Service Reform in Uruguay, 1995-96

Panizza, Francisco


This article analyzes the relationship between ideas, interests, and institutions in the 1996 reform of the civil service in Uruguay. Beneath the appearance of a process led by technocratic principles, the reform’s agenda and content were shaped by legitimating principles, strongly institutionalized interests, and the political legacy of earlier failed reform attempts. Reformers sought a strategy of a reform “without losers,” which, instead of gathering support for adoption and implementation, sought to minimize opposition. This deliberately low-profile strategy left people unaware of the reform’s achievements and thereby reinforced a political culture that has made resistance to change both a political virtue and an inescapable condition.

More than two decades of state reforms in Latin America have produced a rich academic literature on the topic (Przeworski 1991; Haggard and Kaufman 1992; Williamson 1994; Geddes 1994; Acuna and Smith 1994). Overall, this literature has sought to address two closely interrelated questions: Why the reforms, and how were they carried out? To answer the first question, most studies have taken as their starting point the crisis of the state-centered matrix of economic development (Cavarozzi 1992). But while the crisis of the old model opened the opportunity for reform, it did not determine the content, nor did it ensure that reforms would be approved and implemented. Thus the reach and content of the reforms have been the subject of a number of complementary hypotheses. Among these are fiscal crises and constraints, institutional arrangements, the strategic choices of state reformers, the incentives and disincentives for external and domestic actors, and the role of international agencies (Haggard and Kaufman 1997; Bates and Krueger 1993; Heredia and Schneider 2003).

Among the factors that have shaped the reforms, a number of scholars have highlighted ideas involved in processes of policy transfers, political learning, and socialization (Hira 1998; Haggard and Kaufman 1992). Sources of ideational influence, such as the technical expertise and the ideological drive that originated in the “knowledge banks” of institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), have been considered at least as significant as conditionality and emergency lending in shaping the policymaking process (Kahler 1992). As Haggard and Kaufman (1992, 23) point out, however, in most instances it is difficult to pin down precise processes of learning and socialization that determine how certain ideas are incorporated into specific policy contexts. The relation between ideas, interests, and institutions reveals how different ideas interact with institutional constraints and opportunities and the interests of strategic actors to forge the reform agenda.

This paper combines historical institutionalism with a “thin version” of discourse theory (Townshend 2003) to analyze the relation between ideas, interests, and institutions in reforming Uruguay’s civil service system during the year 1995-90. The reform sought to address long-term institutional dislocations in the country’s public administration, which arose from the relationship between formal and informal institutions in that bureaucracy and between the public administration and the party system. The agenda and content of the reform were shaped by the legitimating principles underlying the reform project, strongly institutionalized interests embedded in the country’s political institutions, and the political legacy of past failed attempts at state reform. The reform was based on a strategy of a reform without losers, which, instead of gathering support for the reform’s adoption and implementation, sought to minimize opposition to it.

This study argues that scholars’ emphasis on the importance of ideas at times of systemic crisis and radical change disregards the cumulative effects of gradual, long-term institutional dislocations and their influence on strategies of institutional change. The institutional dislocations in Uruguay’s public administration were the consequence of the gap between formal and informal rules in that bureaucracy; meanwhile, the party system, the constraints imposed by public opinion, and the political legacy from failed reform attempts constituted the institutional and cultural obstacles to reform. This analysis also examines the articulation between the legitimating ideas underlying the official discourse on state reform and the legal-technical discourse on civil service reform. It further looks at the strategy that led to the approval of the reform and the means by which key political actors sought to protect their interests in the process. Beneath the appearance of a process led by technocratic principles, the nature and content of the reform were determined by political considerations, including issues of legitimation and political culture, and by the embedded interests that needed to be overcome for the reform to be approved.


As part of the symbolic dimension of politics, ideas give form to power relations. As Lynn Hunt, writing about the French Revolution, put it, “political symbols and rituals were not metaphors of power; they were the means and ends of power itself” (1984, 54). At their most fundamental, ideas are symbolic-cognitive frames that define the universe of possibilities for action (Rein and Schön 1993; Goldstein and Keohane 1993). Ideas, however, are not the transparent, unmecliatecl product of thought processes that convey meaning in isolation from each other. They are signifiers that cannot be understood in separation from the language games (Wittgenstein 1953) that articulate them in chains of signification in which they acquire their meaning; that is, they are formulated, conveyed, and received as discourses (Torfing 1999).1 As such, they are part of texts that take the form of political speeches, academic papers, journalists’ reports, legal statutes, and constitutions. These texts are in turn part of broader categories we tend to classify as political discourse, legal discourse, administrative discourse, academic discourse.

Like any political activity, public policy deliberation takes place within a system of arguments, rituals, and practices that constitute the discursive framework of meaning that actors use for ordering the world, shaping agendas, and influencing outcomes (Goldstein and Keohane 1993, 12). Political discourse, however, does not speak by itself; it is the creation of people with certain interests engaged in institutions with varied resources and agendas (Kazin 1995, 292). Defending the role of ideas does not challenge the premise that people behave in accordance with their perceived interests in a broadly rational way (Goldstein and Keohane 1993, 5) but implies that ideas and interests are not phenomenologically separable. This is because interests involve processes of identification; and therefore perceptions about who we are condition what we want. In other words, interests are never simply derived from the agent’s structural position in society; they are historical and contingent discursive constructions specific to a particular time and place (Griggs and Howarth 2001).2

To perpetuate themselves through time, ideas and interests need an “institutional home”; they need to become embedded in institutions. The study of institutions is therefore crucial for understanding how ideas, articulated in discourses, reproduce themselves through time. If, as the historical institutionalists claim, institutions act as cultural filters that crystalize powerful interests, the depth of an institutional crisis would determine the degree to which institutions retain their structural ability to limit possible options for the existing order and to influence political strategies. At these moments, political options widen, entrenched interests lose their institutional shelter, and actors and ideas acquire their maximum relevance (Sikkink 1991; Hall 1993).

For the historical institutionalists, political learning, perceptions about the failure of the existing policy, and preliminary indications about the success of new ideas play an important role in the adoption of new political paradigms or changes of the third order (Hall 1992). But concepts such as “paradigmatic change” are problematic. As Mark Blyth points out, “institutions understood this way are seen to structure choices to the point that only the intervention of exogenous factors, which typically rearrange (or punctuate) previously immutable structures, can bring about change. . . . Wars and depressions are often cited as examples” (1997, 230). In short, while the historical institutionalist model of change may be useful for understanding policy change at times of radical crisis, it appears less helpful in analyzing processes of gradual change arising from the accumulation of dislocations and conflicts in institutional settings that have considerable continuity through time.

It is easy to perceive why radical changes in the guiding principles of a social order occur at times of political or economic crisis, leading to new ways of understanding the problems to be addressed and the constitution of new relations of power. But institutional dislocations are not only the consequence of a sudden or terminal crisis of the institutional order. Changes may also be the product of the disruptive interplay of the politicosymbolic practices that make institutions operative and help them survive through time. As Christopher Hood (1994, 16) puts it, far from making for stability and policy direction, institutions create a self-exciting or self-destroying system by steadily undermining the values that originally led to their creation, and, in the process, setting off a policy dynamic of reaction and reversal.

In the already classic definition of Douglas North (1990), institutions are the rules of the game in a society, humanly devised constraints that shape human interactions. According to North, institutions could be formal or informal, the latter being extensions, elaborations, or modifications of the formal ones. However, the implications for policy analysis of these extensions, elaborations, or modifications have not yet been fully developed by the institutionalist school, perhaps because of the assumption that once adequate formal procedures are set up, the informal institutions will comply with them. But this assumption is not always warranted. Informal rules become subordinated to formal ones only under certain conditions or at such a high level of abstraction that it bears little value for the analysis of specific cases.

We can argue that the gap between formal and informal institutions allows us to understand why dislocations are always already an element of the interpretative practices that make institutions operative. To the extent that the rules of the game are human devices, they are subjective and necessarily contested forms of structuring social relations. Because formal institutions are operative only when their rules are interpreted and made operational, interpretations are essential for their validity. But the articulation between the formal rules of the game and their interpretation is contingent on and open to political interventions that question the distinction between formal and informal rules.

Interpretation thus becomes a political struggle in which different actors compete to attribute meaning to a norm in order to control its implementation and thereby favor their perceived interests. As Oscar Ozslak (1972, 213) notes in his study of Uruguay’s public administration, negotiations unavoidably lead to compromises and to the subsequent modification of the norm. This trend is more evident in systems in which a plurality of actors with conflicting interests have a balanced relation of forces. In other words, every norm originating at the political level that requires administrative implementation will find its correlates at different levels of the state apparatus according to the nature of the norm, its degree of abstraction, and the complexity of the administrative process required for its implementation.

That every norm needs to be interpreted to be implemented does not mean, however, that interpretation is a totally arbitrary practice. Institutions consolidate certain interpretations and deem them authoritative within a given social order, thereby structuring a hierarchy of power within institutions. In public administrations that operate according to a Weberian model, interpretative strategies ensure a high degree of formalization of the rules of the game in accordance with their formal institutions. But if a significant set of norms is not subject to judicial intervention, if there is no coherent normative structure for the whole administration, if the interpretative communities are weakly structured, and if there are no adequate mechanisms for solving conflicts of interpretation, then the formalization of the rules of the game is highly problematic. In these circumstances, a considerable gap will exist between formal and informal institutions, leading to cumulative dislocations in the administrative structure, manifested in processes of “aging” and “wearing out” through “capture” and value degradation.

The failure of the formal rules of the game to fix the actors’ identities and structure their interests opens the possibility for new forms of identification and redefinition of interests that erode existing institutional arrangements. Thus interpretation and implementation form part of the processes that both reproduce and disrupt institutions through time. Far from ensuring continuity and policy direction, institutions can also create a self-destroying stability by steadily undermining the norms and principles that originally led to their creation, and thereby can open up the possibilities for reform (Hood 1994, 15-16).


The officially denominated Administrative Reform of the State (La Reforma Administrativa del Estado) was part of the 1995 budget law passed by the Uruguayan parliament in December 1995 and enacted by the executive on January 5, 1996. The reform comprised a number of discrete but interrelated initiatives aimed at restructuring the central administration (Ja administration central) and increasing the productivity and competitiveness of the public sector. It included the streamlining of administrative structures, the contracting out of nonessential and ancillary tasks, new forms of auditing and control of public spending, the creation of a new category of senior managers (alta gerencia), new forms of evaluation and promotion of personnel, and financial incentives for the resignation of public employees. Although the civil service reform and the more general administrative reform cannot be strictly dissociated from each other, this article addresses only the politics of the reform of the civil service.3

No reform process succeeds in creating a completely new set of rules; it also overhauls a number of old rules and grafts new procedures onto them. The nature of Uruguay’s public sector made it particularly difficult for the new rules to work; it is an environment where old practices still hold considerable influence.

Uruguay’s public administration has historically been characterized by the porosity of its separation from politics, and also by its organizational complexity, its internal fragmentation, and the heterogeneity of its personnel. In the most comprehensive study to date of that bureaucracy, Oszlak describes it as “a highly heterogeneous entity to which it is difficult to attribute generic characteristics. It is constituted by organisms with different degrees of autonomy, different functions, size, clienteles, jurisdiction, resources, etc.” (1972, 13).4

In the first study of Uruguay’s modern public administration, published in 1954, international consultant John Hall noted how the gap between the formal and informal institutions led to the dislocation of the legal order and the setting up of paralegal procedures.5 He observed that faced with the lack of delegated power to perform their duties adequately, Uruguay’s public workers often followed a rule of their own: “When a regulation is impractical its violation is justified”(1954, 26). More than 45 years later, a similar principle still characterizes the working of the public administration. As a high-ranking adviser to the National Civil Service Office (Oficina National de Servicio Civil, ONSC) put it, “hyperregulation makes it impossible to follow the rules” (Nazarenko 2001).

Institutional dislocations in Uruguay’s public administration arise not just from noncompliance with regulations and procedures but also from thie very nature of the system’s legal statues. Apart from some broad constitutional principles (Articles 58-66), few legal norms cover the entire public sector. Contrary to what its name may suggest, the regulations of the so-called Statute of the Public Functionary (Estatuto del Funcionario Publico) reach only about half of those working in the central public administration and a far lower proportion of all public sector workers. The employment status of those working in the public administration is so heterogeneous that it is difficult to paint a firm dividing line between “public functionaries” and other categories of employees working in the public sector. Only tenured civil servants (funcionarios presupuestados) have the right to an administrative career as regulated by the statute and to enjoy other rights, such as job security and promotion. Workers under temporary or permanent contract (contratados and contratados permanentes) cannot apply for promotion, although they are promoted in practice through the award of a new contract at a higher level. This practice leads to an informal career structure parallel to that of the civil servants. Contract workers, moreover, are often appointed with a temporary status to higher positions over the heads of civil servants, which, practically speaking, helps to devalue the administrative career (Narbondo and Ramos 2000, 55).

Even among civil servants, the right to an administrative career is limited in practice. Personnel records, on which promotion decisions should be based, are often several years out of date (Nazarenko, 2001). Before 1996, no meaningful evaluation and promotion procedures existed for civil servants. The lack of job descriptions and job specifications for the vast majority of civil service posts made it extremely difficult to use objective criteria for evaluation and qualification. As a result, when evaluations were carried out, they usually resulted in the awarding of the same qualification to most of the employees being evaluated (Rodríguez 2001).

It would be wrong, however, to regard Uruguay’s public administration as functioning with no regard for legal procedures. But the existence within the public administration of agencies with different degrees of formal and informal autonomy is an obstacle to a uniform and hierarchical normative system. Norms and regulations are enforced within the public administration, and a specialized court, the Tribunal de Io Contencioso Administrativo, has jurisdiction over legal disputes. The tribunal is an important source of jurisprudence on administrative matters, and its verdicts are binding. Many of the norms that regulate the function of the public administration are not subject to judicial review, however, and legal sanctions are sometimes ineffectual or difficult to enforce, particularly over employment matters, because the rigid and cumbersome tenure system makes it difficult to dismiss employees for breaching work regulations. Moreover, the bureaucracy’s vulnerability to political interference, the patronage system still operating at different levels of the administration, and the system’s permeability to the influence of internal and external interest groups produces a mixed system of legal and paralegal norms, which goes against the Weberian principles of uniformity and predictability.

To summarize: conditions of employment in Uruguay’s public sector before the 1996 reform operated under a set of formal rules that were permanently bypassed, reinterpreted, and renegotiated by different state and nonstate actors, leading to the development of a parallel set of informal rules. The net outcome of these practices reflected the balance of power between different actors within the public administration and between administrative and political influences, as well as the institutionalization of differential power relations among its agencies. Negotiations led to compromises and to alterations in the rules of the game, all the more so when the power structure was more pluralist and the power resources of the different actors were more balanced. As Oszlak notes,

facing the need to adapt to this situation and simultaneously to overcome ambiguity, the bureaucracy appeals to different corrective mechanisms which tend to widen the gap between norms and concrete actions. . . . In other words, the need to adapt to conditions of normative incoherence expresses itself through the systematic elusion of formal channels of authority and interdependency. . . . (1972, 213)

The consolidation of formal rules depends on the institution’s ability to fix, through a process of identification, the identity of those working in the public administration as “public functionaries.” But the gap between the formal and informal rules in Uruguay’s public administration reveals the failure of the formal rules to crystalize the identity of public sector workers. This gap effectively led to the coexistence within the public sector of a plurality of subject positions that defined their interests from their standing as other than that of public functionaries, such as “political appointees,” “clients,” “private sector employees who had a complementary job in the public sector,” and so on. To determine how extensively the 1995-96 reforms addressed these dislocations, it is necessary first to analyze the institutional filters through which the reforms needed to pass.


The budget law that included the Administrative Reform of the State was passed during the first year of the administration that took office on March 1, 1995, with the presidency of the Colorado Party leader Julio María Sanguinetti. The reform was one of only a limited number of structural reforms passed since the country’s return to democracy in March 1985. The parsimony of the reform process in Uruguay stood in contrast with the much swifter and more radical processes of neoliberal economic reform undertaken by other Latin American countries, such as Chile, Argentina, and Peru, during the same period (Blake 1998). Institutional, political, and cultural elements made the reform process in Uruguay more difficult than in other countries of the region (Filgueira and Papadopulos 1997; Finch 1999). Among these factors were the relationship between the executive and the parliament, the party system, the mechanisms of direct democracy, the relationships between politicians and technocrats in the public administration, the informal rules of the political game, and the weight of public opinion.

Like most Latin American countries, Uruguay has a presidential system based on the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state. In contrast to some other countries of the region in which the executive effectively controls the political system, however, in Uruguay, checks and balances effectively limit the executive’s power, and Parliament has a strong political and institutional presence. The executive, moreover, lacks the constitutional power to issue decrees with the force of law, such as the so-called decretos de necesidad y urgencia in Argentina (Llanos 2001) and the provisional measures (medidas provisorias) in Brazil, which allow the president to bypass the parliament in certain circumstances. Thus, in Uruguay, reforms are subject to the normal lawmaking process, requiring agreement between the executive and Parliament and achievement of the necessary parliamentary majorities, the sizes of which vary according to the type of law being considered.

Also contrary to other countries of the region, Uruguay has a highly institutionalized party system. Historically, this system was dominated by the country’s two traditional parties, the Blancos and the Colorados, two catchall parties set up in the first half of the nineteenth century that have shared power for most of the country’s history. Parties are made up of internal factions that are strongly institutionalized by the electoral system and sanctioned by the country’s political culture. Although the extent to which party factionalism affects the parties’ internal discipline and the country’s governability is a matter for debate (Buquet et al. 1998), the mere existence of highly institutionalized party factions adds another layer of political negotiation to the reform process and increases the number of veto points in the system.

The composition of Parliament in the 1990s meant that the governments of the period lacked majorities of their own. Since 1971, a new left-of-center political force, the so-called Broad Front (Frente Amplio), has made inroads into the traditional parties’ parliamentary majorities. Given that Parliament is elected by proportional representation, the electoral results meant that in 1995 the ruling Colorados controlled less than one-third of the parliamentary seats. The government was therefore forced to set up a coalition with the Blancos to ensure a majority.

If coalition presidentialism (see Lanzaro 2001) minimized the opposition’s ability to obstruct the passage of legislation in Parliament, the Broad Front had at its disposal a powerful institutional veto in the constitutionally sanctioned instrument of the plebiscite. According to Article 79, within a year after a law is passed, 25 percent of the registered voters can demand that a plebiscite be called to repeal it. With its ability to mobilize its members, together with its control of the trade union movement and other social organizations, the left has a relatively easy task in gathering the required number of signatures to call for a plebiscite against a law it does not like. Even if the required number of signatures is not gathered or if the plebiscite eventually ratifies the law anyway, the mere threat to campaign for a plebiscite signifies that a cloud of uncertainty could hang over the law for more than a year, making its implementation difficult.

This threat materialized when a bill passed by Parliament in 1991, aimed at privatizing some core state enterprises, including the flagship telecommunications company ANTEL, was heavily rejected in a plebiscite conducted in December 1992, effectively ending any prospect of privatizing core public utilities for the foreseeable future. The legacy of the plebiscite would weigh heavily in both the government and the opposition’s strategies in future attempts at state reform. It meant that the government needed to consider not only a reform’s chance of being passed by Parliament but also the risk that the opposition would campaign for a plebiscite against it. The power of the opposition was strengthened not just by its capacity to call for a plebiscite on reforms it did not agree with, but by its ability to narrow the limits of the reform agenda. Certain policies, such as public utility privatization, effectively disappeared from the political agenda, while other reforms could be legitimated only by asserting their ideological distance from so-called neoliberal reforms.

Another institutional limit to reform was the relationship between technocrats and politicians in the state. The literature on structural reform has stressed the role of technocrats in processes of reform (Williamson 1994). But the influence of technocrats depends not so much on their expertise as on the power that derives from their autonomy within the public administration and their insulation from political pressures. In Uruguay, technocratic expertise has developed over the years in state institutions such as the Central and Republic banks, the Office of Budgeting and Planning, and some state enterprises. Technocrats, however, do not have an autonomous role within the Uruguayan state, and their decisions are not insulated from political considerations. Criteria for the selection of technical personnel are mediated by political and corporatist considerations, and the technocrats have no political influence independent from the political parties that control the government (Filgueira and Papadópulos 1997, 380; Garcé 2002).

The outcome of the 1992 plebiscite against privatization also illustrates how the country’s public opinion was largely hostile to neoliberal-style reform. Public opinion surveys consistently have shown a high level of support for state intervention in various aspects of social life. A survey conducted in October 2000 showed support for public enterprises’ remaining state-owned at between 57 percent and 82 percent (Factum 200Ob). Questioned on the working of the economy in 1995, 72 percent of interviewees said that they were in favor of either a mixed economy or one almost totally based on state ownership, as opposed to just 21 percent in favor of an economy predominantly based on private property (Cifra 1993). Surveys about customer satisfaction with state enterprises have usually indicated that between 75 percent and 85 percent were happy with those services, confirming the high degree of legitimacy enjoyed by the state-owned utilities (Factum 2000a).

Against this institutional and cultural background, the government developed its discursive strategy to legitimate the administrative state reform.


The administrative reform project broadly followed the legal and technical ideas of New Public Management (NPM), an approach then in vogue in Latin America and elsewhere.6 At the core of NPM is a movement toward market-tested public management. It advocates the end of the classic Weberian, uniform, centralized, highly regulated, hierarchical administrative system and the adoption of executive agencies, performance-based management, and market-type mechanisms, with responsibility devolving from the central civil service to agency managers. Recruitment, pay, and work conditions become flexible and follow as closely as possible employment rules for the private sector. Individualized work and performance contracts replace the traditional rule- and process-based systems of work (Kettl 1999, 60-62). Our concern here, however, is not a detailed analysis of the principles of NPM nor the extent to which these principles were implemented by the administrative reform in Uruguay. Instead, it is how the technical, legal, and ideological principles that inspired the reform were legitimated by their articulation to broader ideas about the role of the state and the nature of the reform process.

The official discourse on the reform, as stated in the government’s publication La reforma administrativa del estado (Presidencia 1998), advocates a radical shift in the role of the state, including reducing its size and adopting in the public sector some of the managerial principles of the private sector. As the government puts it, the aim of the reform is to modernize the state so it will become “smaller, more managerial, more intelligent and more efficient” (más pequeño, más gerencial, más inteligente y efficiente) (Presidencia 1988, 10). The official discourse appeals to key principles of New Public Management to present two contrasting models of the state.

Since the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, a gradual and permanent change can be perceived in the role of the State. This process has led to an evolution from directly to indirectly regulated state provision, from vertical structures based on the principle of centralized authority to deconcentrated and decentralized operations based on delegation of competence and decisions, from privileging a culture based on procedures and the measuring of inputs to account for the success or failure of a given state activity to one centered on outcomes and customers’ satisfaction. (Presidencia 1998, 10, author’s translation)

While some of the principles of state reform, such as reducing its size or introducing private sector managerial techniques, may be perceived as having an elective affinity with neoliberal ideas, the legal and technical principles that inspired the reform did not have a predetermined ideological essence. Instead, they acquired their political meaning by their articulation to broader political and ideological discourses. In Eastern Europe, administrative reforms were linked to democratization and the fight against corruption. In Argentina and Brazil, reforms were associated with popular anti-inflationary packages (the Real Plan in Brazil, paridad [parity] in Argentina), which allowed governments to present them as essential initiatives to ensure the viability of the stabilization plans (Heredia and Schneider 2003).

In Uruguay, however, such linkages were not an option. In a country where the dominant political culture was either suspicious or openly hostile to the neoliberal reforms that were being implemented throughout Latin America, the official discourse contained a legitimating narrative that incorporated some of the principles associated with the new political and managerial orthodoxy about the role of the state while taking ideological distance from its neoliberal roots.

As Peter Hall (1986, 280) suggests, the chances of new ideas’ being accepted are magnified when those ideas are taken up by a powerful political organization. The likelihood of this happening, in turn, may depend partly on the congruence between the new set of ideas and other facets of the longstanding ideology of an organization.

In a political system in which parties have historically played a dominant role, the congruence of the new ideas with the ideological tradition of the ruling Colorado Party, the party that had dominated Uruguayan politics for most of the twentieth century, was particularly important for the legitimation of the reform.

The reform’s narrative, as outlined in the official publication, closely matched the ideological principles of the ruling Colorados, as represented by the party’s largest faction, Foro Batllista (PC-FB), headed by then-president Sanguinetti. The PC-FB promoted the reform as part of the Colorado Party’s role as modernizer of the Uruguayan state, a mission the party had historically undertaken by virtue of its control of the state for most of the twentieth century (Panizza 1990). The Colorados’ identification with the state had been at the heart of the party’s political identity for more than a century, and is evident in a large corpus of party speeches and documents throughout the years. This vision is neatly synthesized in the following statement from Luis Batlle Berres, another former president of Uruguay and PC leader of the 1950s.

The Colorado Party has been in power for one hundred years. . . . This country has been made by Batllismo [the PC’s main faction]. . . . This is undoubtedly the party that is tutoring the institutions and constructing the future. (Quoted in Panizza 1990, 81-82, emphasis added)

The identification of the party as the guardian of the state reappears 40 years later in the PC-FB’s political manifesto, El Uruguay entre todos. One passage links past Colorado presidents to different processes of state building from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century.

The Colorado Party, whose achievements in government for over a century and a half have shaped the historical stages of national development, once again assumes the main responsibility [for a new process of state modernization]. Last century it held it at several junctures: with [Fructoso] Rivera at the birth of the State. . .; with Venancio Flores, who consolidated the State and initiated the process of economic modernization; with Julio Herrera y Obes, who reconstituted the democratic institutions. In this century already José Batlle y Ordóñez simultaneously built a prosperous and safe country and its welfare state and Luis Batlle Berres successfully promoted national industrialization. . . .

Now a new modernization process is imposed on us by a world that has left behind ideological bipolarization. A world that is dominated by the mass media and the control of scientific knowledge at the service of a true commercial war. (Foro Batllista n.d., 13)

At the core of the Sanguinetti PC-FB administration’s approach to state reform was the belief that the extended Uruguayan state retained a much higher degree of popular support than the politically and economically bankrupt states of other Latin American countries and that this higher degree of legitimacy constrained any attempt at reforming it. Sanguinetti distanced himself from what he characterized as the ideologically driven neoliberal “scorched earth reforms” undertaken elsewhere in Latin America by leaders such as Carlos Menem in Argentina and Alberto Fujimori in Peru and from what he claimed was the Uruguayan left’s conservative defense of the status quo ante (Sanguinetti 2001). The PC-FB-led government, however, was aware of the pressures for reform emanating from both domestic and international actors, such as domestic business organizations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the political and ideological limits imposed on any radical reform project by public opinion and the existing balance of political forces (Hägerström 2001). Against these contending pressures, the PC-FB’s manifesto places state reform firmly on a middle ground between “those who advocate a minimum [minimalist] state and those of us who believe that the State, even if changing its roles, cannot abandon its condition of guarantor of social equilibrium” (Foro Batllista n.d., 13).

The reform’s official narrative parallels the PC-FB’s ideas on state reform. It argues that change was unavoidable but vindicates the Uruguayan gradualist path, cambio a Ia Uruguaya (Garce and Yaffé 1999). Uruguay did not undertake, or did only to a limited extent, the socalled first-generation reforms, particularly the privatization of state enterprises, which had prompted the country’s economic liberals to fear that Uruguay would be left behind by the reforming wave that was sweeping Latin America at the time.7 Contrary to that view, the official narrative presents the “Uruguayan path” as part of an ongoing, broader, more gradual process of reforms. This process, the official text claims, was not prompted by external impositions but represents “the logical development of a set of discrete domestic initiatives in areas such as social security, education, public security, etc. that were being implemented over the past few years” and were now discursively brought together under the signifier “the reform of the state” (Presidencia 1998, 5).

While it accepts the need to reduce the size of the state and advocates a new role for the state that incorporates a number of NPM’s principles, the official text sets these changes in a different ideological context from that of neoliberal-inspired reforms. In a parallel to the PC-FB’s political program, the narrative denounces the “state or the market” alternatives or, in its own words, the choice between an “omnipotent state” and an “anorexic state” as a false dichotomy. Instead, it argues, “over the past few years the idea has gained acceptance that states and markets are both . . . central and strategic institutions that coordinate social and economic agents” (Presidencia 1998, 9).

By denouncing as simplistic the choice between the state and the market, the official text presents the reform as a flexible and pragmatic undertaking rather than an ideologically driven project. Thus the official discourse distances itself from supposedly extreme views about the role of the state (anorexic versus omnipotent), which, in effect, few people espouse. Its symbolic effect, however, is to weaken the notion that the reform entails a paradigmatic change in the role of the state (as the historical institutionalists would have put it). Instead, the changes are discursively placed on a commonsensical middle ground, equidistant from extreme statist and promarket ideologies.

Although the discourse acknowledges common features between the administrative reform of the state in Uruguay and similar processes taking place elsewhere in Latin America, it carefully distances itself from three key contentious issues common to neoliberal-inspired processes of state reform: externally imposed policies of structural adjustment, privatization of state agencies, and neopopulist-style “big bang” reforms quickly issued and enacted by executive decree.

After noting that Uruguay has the most equitable pattern of income distribution in the region and that it is the only country in which citizens at the base of the income distribution pyramid have increased their share of national income since the mid-1980s, the official text highlights the different economic context in which reform has taken place in Uruguay compared with other countries of the region. It argues that the administrative reform of the state is not part of an economic adjustment and stabilization process, as in other countries. Instead, it claims, the purpose of the reform is to improve economic productivity and social well-being so as to face the challenges of trade liberalization and regional economic integration. While it acknowledges that global trends made the reform unavoidable, it stresses that the reform was formulated taking into account the country’s own needs and reality (Presidencia 1998, 16). If joining a global process of modernization requires Uruguay “to do as the others do,” the reform legitimates itself by claiming to be “doing it its own way.” This explains the emphasis on the reform’s not being related to structural adjustment or economic stabilization, in which external conditionality weighs heavily in the decisionmaking process. Hence also the insistence that the reform did not automatically follow global trends but was the product of the country’s own strategy of integration into the regional and world economy (Presidencia 1998, 5).

Privatization was a key feature of the so-called first-generation reforms, but it faced strong political resistance in Uruguay. Now, instead, the official text emphasizes the institution-building aspects of the reform, an undertaking more in accord with the country’s ideological common ground than the divisive issue of privatization.

Different countries have reviewed the role of the state. This has led, on the one hand, to processes of privatization (Great Britain, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile) and, on the other, to the implementation of changes in the Administration and in the working of the state aiming at a more efficient state delivering better services at a lower cost. . . . Processes of this kind have taken place, for instance, in Canada and Uruguay. (Presidencia 1998, 11)

The legitimating discourse also emphasizes differences in reform strategies. In most countries of the region, the reform had followed a “big bang” approach, by which sweeping reforms were enacted by the executive, often by decree and bypassing parliaments. Uruguay’s path to reform was different:

The Administrative Reform of the Uruguayan State fits entirely within the country’s global strategy, and is defined as a gradual and persistent process of change, with predetermined stages and set deadlines. … Its fundamental goal… is … to strengthen the role of the state as a strategic element to improve competitiveness and achieve the country’s priorities. (Presidencia 1998, 18)

The official text, in short, articulates different types of ideas, cultural assumptions, values, and world views in order to legitimate the reform in terms compatible with the country’s hegemonic ideology and dominant political culture. Legitimacy is an important factor in two senses: in respect to what is permissible within the range of standard technicopolitical knowledge of the time and in respect to what is deemed legitimate in terms of public interests and values (Jacobsen 1995, 294).


Thus the official narrative sought to legitimate the reform by presenting it as a pragmatic undertaking. But ideology, culture, and ideas do not operate in a political vacuum; they constitute the discursive context in which political actors define and advance their strategic interests. To win approval, the reform needed a strategy for gathering political support and neutralizing its opponents. A brief comparison with the cases of Argentina and Brazil will help to clarify the distinctive elements of the Uruguayan government’s political strategy.

In Argentina, civil service reform was part of a much broader process of state reform. Initiatives intended to rationalize the federal administration, professionalize the civil service, and create an elite corps of public administrators (the so-called cuerpo de administradores gubernamentales, AGs) started in the 1980s during the presidency of Raul Alfonsin and continued in the 1990s under Carlos Menem. These initiatives cannot be analyzed separately from the overall policy of privatization, decentralization, and downsizing of the state, conducted against the background of the late-1980s hyperinflationary crisis and the early-1990s successful stabilization plan. In this context, the legitimating ideas behind civil service and administrative reforms were articulated to the discourse on economic stability that successfully legitimated Menem’s radical reform program during his first administration. Strategically, the civil service and administrative reforms were conducted according to the same centralization and cooptation principles that characterized other reforms, by which Menem centralized power in the executive, coopted certain sectors of the trade union movement, isolated those politicians who were hostile to reform, and gained strong support from business organizations (Ghio 1999).

In Brazil, civil service reform was also part of a high-profile constitutional reform agenda closely linked to the success of the Piano Real during president Fernando Enrique Cardoso’s first administration (1995-98). Originally sent to the Brazilian congress in 1995, the reform took more than two years to pass. The campaign was headed by the well-known minister for federal administration and state reform, Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira, who became its public face. According to Bresser Pereira’s own account (1999), during that two-year period, the reform was subjected to an intense public debate that turned public opinion, politicians, and high-ranking civil servants from opponents into supporters. Bresser managed to build up a reforming coalition that secured congressional support for the reform and isolated its opponents, the “patrimonalist right” and the “corporatist left,” as he labeled them.

To persuade public opinion was essential. So, in the two-and-a-half years the amendment was discussed in Congress, I became the national advocate of the reform. I waved the Piano Diretor and the amendment everywhere, in all forums, debating, arguing. In this debate I worked to have a simple and clear message, where the positive aspects of the reform were also present. (Bresser Pereira 1999, 5)

In Uruguay, by contrast, the process of approving the reform was substantially more limited and lower-key. The reform saw little debate inside or outside Parliament. In contrast to Bresser’s strategy of creating a broad-based reforming coalition, its passage was secured with a strategy that did not so much seek to maximize political support as to minimize opposition. For this purpose, the reform was centralized in its elaboration, depoliticized in its legislative passage, and flexible in its implementation.

To develop and implement the reform, a new agency, the Executive Committee for the Reform of the State (.Comité Ejecutivo para la Reforma del Estado, CEPRE), was set up. CEPRE was placed under the jurisdiction of the Planning and Budget Office (Oficina de Planeamiento y Presupuesto, OPP), an agency with ministerial rank, directly accountable to the presidency (Constitution, Article 230; Law 16,736, Article 4). CEPRE’s board included the director of the OPP, the minister of economy and finance, and the director of the ONSC. Its close institutional links with the presidency secured CEPRE strong political backing at the highest level of the state, while the economy minister’s participation ensured a strong relationship with the two state bodies in charge of allocating public funds. Thus, the political, institutional, and financial aspects of the reform project were concentrated in an agency located near the top of the state’s political and financial structure. An executive secretariat, composed mainly of technocrats, was set up within CEPRE. The technocrats, some of whom had worked on administrative reform projects elsewhere in Latin America, were the intellectual architects of the reform, and later would oversee its implementation. The reform project had the financial and technical support of the IADB, and a number of domestic and international consultancy firms were hired as advisers on various particular aspects.

The participation of actors from civil society in the reform process was strictly limited. In 1995 at the initial stages of the project, a consultative body, the Sectorial Commission for the Reform of the State (Comisión Sectorial para la Reforma del Estado), was set up in the OPP; it included delegates from all ministries and other state agencies plus representatives of the public sector union, the Confederation of State Functionaries (Confederation de Funcionarios del Estado, COFE) and of the umbrella organization representing the country’s business groups, the Consejo Superior Empresarial, COSUPE (Decree 140/95). The local representatives of an international consultancy firm also attended the meetings.

The commission met several times to discuss the broad guidelines of the reform; but after the first few meetings, both the union and the business delegates withdrew. Regarding the authorities’ claim that the reform’s main goal was to make the public administration more efficient and more responsive to citizens’ demands, the union delegate alleged that the reform’s main purpose was to shrink the state and that the committee, controlled by the representative from CEPRE, was not open to considering the union’s proposals. As for the claim that the reform was part of a government-driven process of state modernization in accordance with the country’s interests and traditions, moreover, the union alleged that it was an imposition of the international financial institutions (Moraes 2001).

The business representatives declared that they were disillusioned by the timidity of the reform’s objectives and the slow pace of the proposed changes (Benavente 2001). For them, the reform’s main goal should have been to promote cuts in public spending. To this purpose, they suggested a number of measures, including ending the tenure system (inamovilidad) for civil servants, extending working hours, and studying the impact of making about one hundred thousand public sector workers redundant. Yet these private sector representatives charged that these and other issues of interest to them were not even discussed in the meetings. They pointed out that although it was generally agreed that a surplus of public sector workers existed, when specific measures to cut numbers were suggested, delegates from the ministries and other state institutions asserted that their offices were understaffed and underresourced and demanded more personnel, better wages, and more resources (Benavente 1995).

Parliamentary passage of the reform project had a deliberately low political profile. The executive sent the project to Parliament as part of the 1995 five-year budget law, an omnibus law composed of several hundred articles that set up the administration’s tax and expenditure allocations for its whole five-year mandate. The reform was sent to Parliament during the first year of the second Sanguinetti administration, a period in which governments usually enjoy the highest levels of political support. The articles on the reform project were scattered among different sections of the draft law. The project was emptied of any politicoideological content and presented as being of a fundamentally technical nature.

Parliament gave scant attention to the reform. Instead, political confrontations centered on other aspects of the budget law, such as increasing funding for education and setting up new taxes. Analysis of parliamentary records shows that the reform was not subject to any detailed debate at either the committee or plenary levels in either chamber. Majorities enjoyed by the parties of the government coalition secured political support for the budgetary law, including the administrative reform project. Discrepancies that emerged during the law’s parliamentary passage were ironed out at the top, between President Sanguinetti and the Blanco Party leader Alberto Volonté, and by the coalition’s main political operators in the Senate (Posacla 2001; Guardini 2001; Astori 2001). The left opposition addressed issues raised by the reform in only a limited fashion. It did not make a detailed study of the project, and preferred to concentrate its parliamentary fire on aspects of the budget law it considered politically more relevant, such as the education budget (Astori 2001). The reform received limited press coverage during its progress through Parliament.

If the reform was centralized in its conception and clepoliticizecl in its parliamentary passage, it was decentralized and flexible in its implementation. Once Parliament approved it, CEPRE became responsible for overseeing its implementation. CEPRE produced a significant body of guidelines and instructions and set up procedures to monitor the reform’s progress. CEPRE, however, had no statutory powers to force the different agencies in the central administration to implement the reform. Implementation was not mandatory, but instead was left to the discretion of the heads of the administrative units, typically the ministers. The reform set up financial incentives to encourage ministers to follow through: ministers were allowed to use up to 70 percent of the savings from contracting out nonessential services and the resignation of civil servants to finance new programs, such as a senior management program (Programa de Alia Gerencia) and the new personnel evaluation system. Each minister decided how and to what extent to implement the reform, however, which produced considerable differences between “reforming” and “nonreforming” ministers. This state of affairs exacerbated internal fragmentation in the central administration and created serious problems for the sustainability of the reform (Martínez 2001).

The application of the reform was limited to permanent workers (funcionarios de carrera) in the central administration. This left out the majority of public sector workers, including those in the judicial branch, the legislature, and local government; the police; the army; and primary, secondary, and tertiary state education agencies. The reasons for this limited reach were both legal and political. Legally, by choosing the budget law as the instrument for passing the reform, the executive branch excluded from its modifications a significant number of state entities, such as local governments and other bodies that pass their own budgets. Furthermore, the Constitution establishes that municipal governments and state enterprises should set up their own workers’ statutes, which probably would have rendered unconstitutional any attempt to apply the reform to public sector workers in the municipalities and the state enterprises (Constitution, Articles 62, 63, 220).

Politically, the reform also had clear constraints. In the 1990s, the municipalities of the interior gained substantial political importance for the Blancos and Colorados, the two traditional parties that constituted the governing coalition. While the left opposition consolidated its electoral ascendancy in the capital, Montevideo, the Blancos and Colorados controlled all the other 18 departmental (municipal) governments. While the number of public employees in the central administration, the state enterprises, and the municipal government of Montevideo fell during the 1990s, it rose in the departmental administrations of the interior. Public spending by the local governments rose by 50 percent in real terms over the decade, which suggests that most, if not all, of these administrations were still using public employment to draw political support (Mosca 2001).

Among the state enterprises, the main mode of politicization during the 1990s was not mass public employment but the appointment of political nominees to boards of directors, a practice left unaltered by the reform. Likewise, the system of political appointments (cargos de particular confianza) at the top of the central administration was untouched. Thus the two main mechanisms that give key political and technocratic personnel close to the governing parties access to the state and control over key areas of the state were not altered by the reform, preserving the parties’ access to important state resources.

The reforming agenda was also constrained by the awareness that the country’s political culture did not favor initiatives that could be construed as “dismantling the state,” as shown by the 1992 repeal by plebiscite of the law authorizing the privatization of the national telecommunications company, ANTEL. The second Sanguinetti administration (1995-2000) shifted the emphasis of the reform agenda away from privatization to reforms that could not be construed as diminishing the size or importance of the state. A number of different administrative reform projects were tested for public reaction through opinion polls and focus groups composed of members of the general public and public sector workers. Those aspects of the projects that were shown to be controversial, such as ending the tenure system for civil servants, were eliminated from the final project to minimize the chances of opposition or even of a referendum (Cobas 2001).

Resistance to the reform among public sector workers was minimized because the approved project created new financial incentive mechanisms but not new penalties for underperforming civil servants. The reform thus set up generous payments to encourage resignations and early retirements but not compulsory redundancies. The evaluation system introduced bonus payments for workers graded in the two highest performance categories but, significantly, the proposal that those in the bottom 10 percent performance category should be financially punished or even forced to leave the public sector was blocked by Parliament (Cedrola 2001).

The main formal and informal benefits enjoyed by public sector workers were not affected by the reforms. The reform left untouched the rigid job security system, probably the most important advantage of public sector workers compared to those in the private sector, although one that, in the opinion of most experts, seriously hinders the proper enforcement of the formal rules of the game in the public administration. Working hours also did not change; this allows public sector workers, particularly professionals, to hold a second job in the private sector, often to the detriment of their public job. Noncompliance with working hours is one of the less hidden of the informal rules. Nor did the reform alter the payment system, which allows selective payments to be made to certain groups of public sector workers from extra revenue sources raised by public agency services or other discretionary funds. The reality that state enterprises abuse their monopoly position to pay their workers wages above the market rate was also not addressed by the reform. Last, the working conditions of nonpermanent public sector workers (workers under contract, grant holders, contratos de obra, pasantes) were not affected by the reform, which helped to perpetuate a quasi-parallel paralegal administrative regime that grants a considerable degree of discretion to its political patrons.


While more comparative work is needed to generalize from the Uruguayan experience, it can be suggested here that, while contingent factors are certainly important in each country’s path to reform, change works better if it flows with the current of the country’s political culture and existing institutional structures rather than according to some general ideological principles about the role of the state in globalized capitalism. This conclusion, in turn, suggests that reform is likely to emerge incrementally, in some directions rather than others, according to each country’s constellation of political culture, institutions, and political actors’ strategic interests. This provisional conclusion tallies with Peter Spink’s argument (1999, 105) that although “the Reform of the State” as a comprehensive undertaking of epic dimensions may be “the” version that circulates in the reform community, it is only one among various possible narratives that compete for space and resources; and that the dominant view of the reforms as visible, coordinated, and planned actions that can be described as having an overall purpose downplays, if not ignores, the effects of partial and incremental processes.

We should not look at ideas as the “cause” of political change. Ideas as such do not cause change. Instead, by changing the terms of the debate, they make possible certain political practices and eliminate others, provide the conceptual armory for political debate, redefine the identities of social agents, and reshape the agents’ perceptions of their own interests and the courses of action open for their advancement.

Under the guise of a technical and nonideological initiative, the shape and content of the state administrative reforms in Uruguay were strongly influenced by political considerations linked to the reforms’ ideological and institutional dimensions. The discourse of the reform legitimated the changes by presenting them as part of a wider political narrative about the role of the Uruguayan state. For this purpose, the discourse set up a complex system of identification with and ideological distancing from projects of structural economic reform carried out in the region in the 1980s and 1990s. In a country that had rejected the most openly neoliberal elements of the international economic reform agenda, as well as the shock strategies for its implementation that were used in some Latin American countries, the reform was presented as part of a gradualist process of political and economic modernization. According to this discourse, while the project shared some common principles with reform initiatives undertaken in other countries, its content was solely determined by the country’s own priorities, without the conditionality characteristic of processes of economic adjustment. In the same vein, the reconstitution of the state’s institutions was highlighted more than the retrenchment of the state. In this way, the reform was presented as being in tune with the country’s political culture, as expressed by public opinion, and with the political discourse of the party that had been traditionally identified with the state.

The reform project was drafted by a group of technocrats identified with the principles of New Public Management. But these technocrats never enjoyed the power required to define the reach and content of the project with autonomy from their political masters. Indeed, CEPRE’s technocrats were aware that the changes sought by the reform should arouse as little social opposition as possible, or “change without dead bodies” (Cobas 2001). There was also a clear awareness of the dangers of a shock strategy for enacting and implementing the reform. Within the constraints outlined in this article, a strategy was sought that avoided open opposition to the reform through the implementation of a “reform without losers.” In accordance with this goal, the reform took into consideration the interests of all the main political actors. The political parties preserved their traditional forms of patronage in the municipalities of the interior, as well as the spaces for their cadres in the state apparatus, including the boards of the state enterprises and political appointments (puestos de particular confianza) in the central administration. Public sector workers kept their job security system, along with the informal rules on working hours and payment, while the reform offered generous financial incentives to those who resigned from their posts. Even the holders of jobs that were declared superfluous were guaranteed full pay until they reached retirement age. It was difficult under these circumstances for the labor union effectively to fight the reform, despite its vocal but ultimately token opposition.

The flexible and largely voluntary implementation of the reform allowed for the preservation of pockets of privilege and influence within the public administration. At the same time that old privileges were maintained, the setting up of the new senior management system and the maintenance of special employment regimes (contratos de obra, consultorias, pases en comisión) opened up new spaces for a new public technocracy to emerge. But this new technocratic class would still have significant links with the political parties. While the limited nature of the reform was criticized by some business sector representatives, at least the reform met business demands for mechanisms to cut clown the number of public employees, albeit through the inefficient mechanism of monetary incentives for voluntary resignations. The reform allowed the government to vindicate its reforming credentials before international financial institutions, which had often noted that the country lagged behind in the so-called “first-generation” reforms (Hägerström 2001). Moreover, the international financial institutions were happy to back a reform without open social costs that was in tune with their second-generation reform agenda and the principles of good governance.

The analysis of whether the reform achieved its goal of setting up a more efficient system for the civil service is beyond the scope of this article. Gradualist strategies, moreover, are particularly difficult to evaluate as failures or successes. But the history of reforms shows that there is no such thing as a true reform without losers, and that gradualist and shock strategies have different balances of costs and benefits. A partial and gradual reform such as the one implemented in Uruguay favors the continued existence within the public administration of a number of conflicting modes of public sector management (patrimonial, Weberian, New Public Management), which tend to produce institutional dislocations. As a consequence, the chances of imposing the reform’s preferred mode of management will be hampered by old and new “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990) that have the potential to neutralize those elements of the reform that may not be to the liking of those who control the different agencies of the state.8

While the reform was fairly cautious in its goals, some significant changes were implemented, particularly with regard to the broader administrative reforms. Yet the deliberately low-profile strategy chosen for passing and implementing the reform leaves people unaware of its achievements, and thereby reinforces a political culture that has made resistance to change both a political virtue and an inescapable condition. In the final analysis, there is no reform without costs; and, in the administrative reform of the Uruguayan state, the inefficiency costs incurred by the reform’s self-imposed limitations will be borne by society at large and by future generations.


This paper is part of a wider research project on “Transferring ‘Good Governance’ to Emergent Democracies: Ideas and Institutional Change” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council research program on Future Governance. As part of this research the author conducted more than 40 interviews with senior civil servants, politicians, trade union and business leaders, national and international consultants on public administration, lawyers, academics, and experts in public opinion. The interviews took place in Montevideo, Uruguay, between January and March 2001. I am grateful to all the interviewees for the generosity of their time and the frankness of their opinions. I am particularly grateful to Pedro Narbondo, Jorge Lanzaro, Aclolfo Garcés, Fernando Filgueira, María del Huerto Amarillo, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Juan Manuel Rodríguez, Pablo Mieres, Alberto Sayagués Areco, Eduardo Cobas, Nora Berreta, Oscar Oszlak, Natalia Nazarenko, Ramón Firme, Conrado Hugues, Oscar Bottinelli, César Aguiar, and Luis Eduardo González for their useful insights into the complexities of state reform in Uruguay. My thanks also to George Philip, George Jones, Benjamín Arditi, and Alejandro Groppo for their comments and to Lynda Dexheimer for her assistance in editing this paper.

1. Even the simplest idea is articulated into highly complex discursive chains. Thus, for instance, the idea “managerial reform of the public administration” acquires its meaning within a vast discursive corpus about methods of management, business culture, and the differences between the public and private sector, which, in turn, are related to different political, legal, and technical narratives.

2. “An adequate explanation must then grapple with the problem of how interests came to be defined by actors at a critical historical juncture, which in turn requires an understanding of the way in which evolving political ideas influence actors’ conception of their interests” (Ikenberry 1993, 58).

3. For a comprehensive analysis of the content and results of the reform, see Narbondo and Ramos 2000.

4. Organizationally, each of the powers that constitute the Uruguayan state is a complex entity with its own statutory norms, recruitment procedures, and remuneration scales. There is also a vast, decentralized administration composed of local governments (departamentos), the state commercial and industrial enterprises (entes autónomos), and highly autonomous agencies, such as the national university and other educational institutions. For a comprehensive analysis of Uruguay’s public administration, see Sayagués Lasso 1998.

5. Paralegal is understood here as permissible illegality. The term is borrowed from Zac 1989.

6. Between 1990 and 1995, the IADB alone approved about one hundred programs to strengthen and reform the state in various countries (Spink 1999).

7. For a taste of the economic liberals’ pessimism about the country’s lack of economic modernization, see the editorials of the weekly Busqueda (Montivideo) between 1990 and 1995.

8. A case in point is the classification of all employees of certain administrative units in the two top categories of Uruguay’s new personnel evaluation system on a rotation to avoid the system’s “divisive effects” (Rodríguez 2001).


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