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A Tale of Three CitiesOr the Glocalization of City Management$

Barbara Czarniawska

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780199252718

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199252718.001.0001

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Europeanization: Coercion or Mimesis?

Europeanization: Coercion or Mimesis?

(p.69) CHAPTER 4 Europeanization: Coercion or Mimesis?
A Tale of Three Cities


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The EU directive specified public tenders as the appropriate form of contracting suppliers of services and products within the public sector. While all three cities followed the directive, its encounter with local history and local problems resulted in three different processes and diverse consequences.

Keywords:   public sector, EU directive, public tenders

Our social life includes a thick network of [imitative] radiations … with countless mutual interferences.1

The concept of reframing is not limited to a cinematic metaphor. It is also used literally, signifying changes in the legal framework. Many processes initiated by the EU are of this kind. Apart from global and European tendencies that city managers adopt spontaneously or as the result of local political decisions, there exist obligatory (coercive) unifying tendencies in the form of EU directives. These general directives are subsequently translated into their local versions. Chapter 4 presents an example of the introduction of an EU directive and its consequences for Warsaw, Stockholm, and Rome. The directive concerned public tenders, specified by the EU as the appropriate form of contracting suppliers of services and products within the public sector. The concrete text of the law was to be decided by each individual country, but the recommendation was that all external contracts above a certain level of expenditure to the public purchaser should be announced publicly within the country and, whenever applicable, within the EU; and that the contractor must be selected from among the submitted tenders through certain transparent procedures. By 1994, Poland, Italy, and Sweden had an appropriate law, and the three capitals whose management I studied were obliged to follow it.

Public Tenders As Saving Grace: Warsaw

While actions such as privatization, marketing, and public tenders were provoking less-than-hidden ridicule in Stockholm and somewhat better-hidden skepticism in Rome, in Warsaw they were revered. In Warsaw, the ‘marketization’ of the (p.70) public sector was not just one managerial fashion among many; it was heralding the dramatic change of the political regime. There was no question of the market’s absolute superiority to all non-market mechanisms and actions; the question concerned only the correctness of its enactment. It often happened that some European organizations were teaching their Polish equivalents the art of becoming market-oriented. For example Company South, a construction company working on a new water treatment plant, learned the proper procedures from its sponsor, European Investment Bank.

The task of building a new plant was first alloted to a construction enterprise building a new water system in Warsaw. The enterprise announced a tender for the design and technology of the plant, which was subsequently won by a team consisting of a French company and a Polish civil engineering office.

The difficulty lay in financing the project. The French company had promised to raise 60 percent of the required capital, a promise that had won them the contract. It was based on a hope of ecoconversion, an idea launched by François Mitterand, the President of France at the time. Ecoconversion meant the transformation of foreign debt into ecological investment. The French company, Degremont, counted on 10 percent of the Polish debt in France being reduced, if that money were to be invested in an ecological project. Additionally, the Societe Generate promised advantageous credit conditions for all deliveries and services provided by French companies.

Reality soon soured those hopes. The rate of ecoconversion was established at 1 percent rather than 10 percent of the Polish debt. Additionally, the credit had to be insured at 11 percent, for Poland was then seen as a high-risk investment country. The impasse was not solved until 1993, when the French company named the European Investment Bank (EIB) as a potential partner. The same year a single proprietorship company was founded by the City of Warsaw, under the name of ‘Company South’, and it contracted a French company and a Polish engineering office to begin work connected with the building of the treatment plant. A year later, a credit agreement was signed.

There was frantic activity during the year between the creation of the company and the signing of the agreement. As one of the company directors said, Tt was really tough. This last year I worked very hard. The EIB is a very demanding institution. You have to do simulations, propose multivariant programs, do lots of homework, as usual in the West. But, if you do your homework properly, you see the results.’2

During the first visit of the EIB team, which was headed by a project manager, the cooperation schedule was established. It was to consist of three ‘evaluating missions’, each preceded by almost weekly visits from the five-person cross-examination team, which, apart from investigating the circumstances of this particular project, broadly monitored Warsaw’s budgeting practices. After the last session, a final report was sent to the Board of Governors, and the credit agreement was reached, as promised, in November 1993.

(p.71) During this time the Polish side collaborated closely with the bank’s team. ‘Homework’ was complemented by information, help, and advice delivered around the clock by the EIB personnel.

Both sides were pleased with the cooperation. The bank had had the good fortune of meeting Polish partners with fluent English and experience abroad; Company South had had the good luck of dealing with an international finance institution, which, unlike most commercial banks, had the patience and resources needed for a close cooperation. The EIB advanced the project to the rank of a pilot project for similar infrastructural investments in central Europe.

This ‘refraining under special supervision’ became especially visible when Company South prepared its own tenders:

Things did not work quite as well in the case of a tender for the metro ticket control machines:

(p.72) The competitors did not take the decision calmly. The tender became the center of attraction as the participants continued to disclose more and more spicy details about the tender.

(p.73) The aim of this article is somewhat ambiguous: did the journalist wish to convince the reader of the correctness of the decision? (Siemens, who lost the tender, was mocked more than was Monotel). Did he wish to expose the unethical practices of foreign contractors? There is no doubt that the game was rather rough here, unlike the fair play appreciated by the EIB. A school of life instead of a school of capitalism? This episode was not the end of the story, however. A Polish competitor entered the stage.

The issue at stake was not so much one of patriotic investment as of a ‘blackmailing bankrupt giant’, one of the gigantic state debtors. It seemed, however, that the matter had already been decided.

(p.74) Note the typical beginning of this account: ‘The Warsaw government will sign the contract’. The opinions and actions of the officials dominated the picture; the councilors’ function seemed to be advisory. In Stockholm, the officials’ proposals are anchored with the councilors and made public only with their consent. It often happens that the councilors refuse to accept the officials’ projects, and therefore it is the councilors who speak to the press about the future. When the officials meet the press to speak of future plans, they use careful formulations like: ‘One should hope that the councilors will accept the government’s proposal and that it will be possible to sign the agreement as early as in June …’. In Rome, the officials do not express their judgments and opinions to the press; this is entirely the privilege of the commissioners.

True to this picture rather than to that of the deputy mayor, the new Warsaw council was in no hurry to sign the contract. The council, preoccupied with vociferous public opinion, appointed a special councilors’ committee to study the problem.

One forms an impression that the autonomy of the local government vis-à-vis the central government was precarious and that TV talk shows, a novelty of recent years, were more important than were expert committees - a fact that might be interpreted both optimistically and pessimistically. The socialist vocabulary seemed to have returned - the minister ‘threatened to withdraw’. But it is also true that many of my interlocutors used the pronoun ‘I’ when speaking of the activities of the organization they represented: I will not pay’, ‘I will not give them’, and T will show them’. Perhaps the minister used the same rhetoric.


On April 14, 1995, the metro went into operation - without turnstiles and with bus tickets. Many people (and I was among them) expected the travelers to freeload. But that did not happen. When I tried to visit the newest metro station with its designer in 1998, we were stopped by one of two armed guards (equipped with all kinds of communication technology). They were suspicious when they learned that we did not intend to ride anywhere; they never took their eyes off us during our visit. These human turnstiles were very effective indeed, although they were probably costly. Eventually, it was Monotel who installed the turnstiles; they took the case to court and won, but it took them until 2001. A happy end seven years later…

The example of the ticket control machines gives food for thought. The underthe-table fights and below-the-belt blows are not unknown in tenders. But unless the issue concerns a major state contract, it is highly unusual for an unsuccessful bidder to write letters to presidents and prime ministers. It is symptomatic that it was the Polish representative of Siemens-Cubic who undertook this initiative.

In Sweden, at this time, many consulting companies employed Polish immigrants to help the Swedish entrepreneurs cope with ‘the Polish culture’. Although their help was no doubt valuable, if only in terms of language, it is also clear that they helped perpetuate the old order by resorting to the ‘ways things were done in Poland’. Paradoxically, the foreign partners unwittingly helped to reproduce the very system that annoyed them. Such phenomena were by no means limited to this particular case, as Janusz Beksiak pointed out in his article evaluating the introduction of capitalism in Poland:’… instead of competing on the market and making deals there,… the economic actors attempt to influence the state apparatus, using mostly political arguments and other means of political pressure’.3

One such action increases the probability of similar reactions. Once the tender was questioned and put under public scrutiny, and once the state authorities were involved, all parties concerned eagerly reenacted the old order. The managing director blackmailed, the minister threatened, and the socialist vocabulary (p.76) resurfaced. The new council, intimidated by this public critique, did not respect the decision of its predecessor.

It is obvious that the city’s decision was not properly anchored. It hung in the air, with no serious consequences, and could simply be revoked. One possible reason for the lack of anchoring is an exaggerated belief in the power of the tender as an institution. It becomes ritualized. Once a tender has been concluded, nothing can influence its results. The practice showed, however, that the situation could be altered. Tenders are, no doubt, rituals, but they do not involve magic. Once concluded, their results must be anchored and incorporated in subsequent organizing.

As these examples show, a purposeful reframing does not eliminate interference from the previous worldview. Frames cross. Sometimes the conflict is obvious, as when a new political team has different preferences. Usually, however, it is a hidden conflict, in that actors do not realize that their way of thinking, which seems natural to them, is the result of an applied frame. What prevents them from seeing their way of thinking as a frame is the strong modernist illusion that it is possible to see the world ‘as it really is’, completely and without delusions. The frame is, then, only a defect of perception suffered by others (in everyday language one talks about ‘blinders’, like those put on horses in order to limit their side vision). The following reasoning was typical of many actors who participated in the public discourse: ‘I am all in favor of changing the previous order, but surely effective organization requires a concentration, and patriotism requires favoring local investors.’

Public Tenders Against Bribecity: Rome

In Rome, the institution of tenders also caused problems for public transportation. But in Rome the integration of all Roman tickets into one, Metrebus, was a low-technology, high-politics operation; ‘supertrams’ rather than turnstiles became the issue. On March 25, 1998, a new line of rapid trams was inaugurated on the Casaletto-Largo Argentina line. The vehicles did not live up to the title of ‘rapid’, however, because they had been ‘borrowed’ from other lines at the last moment. The winning bid was FIAT’s, and it was to deliver 28 new trams in time for the opening of the line; in the meantime, however, the Regional Administrative Court invalidated the tender. One of the competitors questioned the correctness of the procedure and the appeal was recognized. I discussed the event with one of my interlocutors, a top manager in one of the municipal transport companies:

(p.77) This opinion was shared widely: transition has its costs, and things cannot change quickly.

Please keep in mind the issue of producing a flyer, because I shall return to it in the example of Stockholm. There were also more pessimistic voices in Rome, although there was a common recognition of the necessity for a law like the Taw Merloni’ on public contracting:

(p.78) The description of the process given by this interlocutor is well known from studies of private tenders, especially in the construction industry.5 What we witnessed is interesting indeed. The EU forces its members to adopt a certain procedure: a certain form of organizing. But it is only in the case of the Warsaw tender supervised by EIB that the coercion (already translated into an attractive ethos) extended to actual practice. The EIB people saw to it that Company South followed the prescription step by step. One could speak of isopraxism, if it was not doubtful that such a practice exists in anyplace, without such supervision.

In the case of the Warsaw metro turnstiles and the Roman streetcar producers, coercion ended with the law. The form had to be observed, but the contents, that is the practice itself, succumbed to local mimesis. In the case of Warsaw, a conflicting situation made everybody regress: when in doubt, fall into old routines. In Rome, mimesis occurred by proximity. The last quote describes tenders in construction projects; public sector contracts are copies of construction sector contracting, where such tenders have a long tradition - and a long list of problems.

(p.79) Stockholm, Or Being Pragmatic About It

Here is a conversation of the kind I have heard many times during my observation days at the Stockholm city administration offices and companies. In this case it concerned the production of a flyer representing the office’s work:

The two people did not seem to notice anything special in this conversation and neither did I. In fact, as mentioned earlier, I heard many similar conversations during my observation days. Then, I read with great interest an article in my local daily, Göteborgs-Posten (GP), in a series under the tide ‘Competition Put out of Game’. The article heading was: This Is How They Waste the Taxpayers’ Money: Municipal Companies and Administrations Don’t Give a Damn About the Law’. The article series and the investigation on which it was based could have been provoked by a letter sent to the GP by a lawyer, published on May 3, 1999, wherein the author claimed that Sweden could save SEK 20-25 billion a year ‘through effective and loyal purchasing’. According to the information gathered by the GP journalists, the actual contracting and purchase were neither effective nor loyal. The article contained a short presentation of the law on public purchasing, which was enacted in 1994.

(p.80) Alas, the practice was far from this ideal, and GP compiled a list of the most common arguments made by municipal politicians and officials to justify their disregard for the law:6

  • We had an old general contract with him and did not think we should seek new tenders again. Even if it were a matter of several millions.

  • We were thinking of doing it properly, but alas, time was extremely short.

  • We would not have chosen any other consultant. Our guy knew the question from its very inception.

  • We didn’t think it was a good idea to announce this within the EU, even if we know that we should do so when the contract is above the threshold sum. After all, nobody from abroad would apply for such a thing.

  • We have a general contract with two consultants whom we think are very good. We always use them. We do not see the point of getting more information. We have done it for many years now.

  • The first job the consultant did for us was not so expensive that we needed to seek tenders. After a while it became much more expensive, but we didn’t know that from the beginning. We sort of ended up in the hands of the consultant.

  • We took a former councilor/official whom we know very well, without seeking tenders, because we know that he knows this job.

Although GP claimed that this disregard for the law happened in such areas as planning, construction projects, maintenance of streets, roads and illumination, real estate, energy production, and IT, their examples concerned only consultants (and only male consultants at that). It is worth pointing out that the Italian law on public works did not extend to consulting: consultants were contracted without the procedure of public tenders.

The tone of the article is clear: the excuses are ridiculous; public tenders should be the only method of contracting; and municipal governors and managers are wasting money and disobeying the law by insisting on their old practices. The journalists, and the lawyers they quoted in their support, did not see any problem applying the institution of public tenders literally and, as they called it, ‘loyally’.

The practitioners did not share their ideas: in the cities under study they appreciated the letter of the law and considered it necessary, despite seeing the paradox of its applications. But then paralogisms are a form of knowledge and self-knowledge that are well-spread in public sector organizations.7 In the face of paradoxes, most practitioners do not try to ‘resolve’ them, but are able to appreciate the reasons for their emergence and the often positive and unexpected (p.81) consequences of their existence. As I mentioned earlier, the practitioners in Stockholm were well aware that the law was not observed to the letter, but, unlike the journalists, they did not see anything alarming about it. Indeed, Stockholm was spared any major contracting scandals, although there were some minor, local ones. They admitted the tendency to contract old, well-tried suppliers, but pointed out that the law permits them to renegotiate the prices. They advertised abroad when it seemed sensible to do so, and they were aware of the conflict between cost and the demand for quality.

Non-normative researchers would tend to be in accordance with the practitioners. Let me address one by one the excuses that the practitioners gave for not employing the procedure of public tender.

‘We had an old general contract with him and did not think we should seek new tenders again.’ Indeed, why should they seek new tenders unless they were dissatisfied with the consultant? My Institute is still smarting from a similar move our University made in this respect: they abandoned the travel office that we used for years, and contracted several others that were cheaper. They were cheaper, it transpired, because they did not have enough personnel and resources to deal with the job, and an endless procession of problems has ensued. This is a situation that is very well known in Italy.

‘We were thinking of doing it properly, but alas, time was extremely short’ This is a typical complaint against public tenders - especially because they can be invalidated, as we have seen before. The losses are usually very high.

‘We would not have chosen any other consultant. Our guy knew the question from its very inception.’ Here, it is important to return to the fact that all the GP examples concern contracting consultants, whereas my examples do not. Consultants, more than any other suppliers one could imagine, also supply a certain kind of relationship; indeed, their services are relational in nature.8

‘We didn’t think it was a good idea to announce this within the EU, even if we know that we should do so when the contract is above the threshold sum. After all, nobody from abroad would apply for such a thing.’ Announcing within the EU automatically raises the costs of the procedure itself. One would imagine that it is not very difficult to estimate if a certain specialty can be represented outside Sweden.

‘We have a general contract with two consultants whom we think are very good. We always use them. We do not see the point of getting more information. We have done it for many years now.’ Here, at least two important schools of thought are evident. The Uppsala network school shows convincingly, and for years, that markets are composed of nets built on trust.9 They may turn into ‘nasty networks’, run on nepotism, but not necessarily so. As to ‘more information’, in spite of Nobel-rewarded work by Herbert Simon on satisfying rather than optimizing criteria in decision-making, the faith in ‘complete information’ persists.10

(p.82) ‘The first job the consultant did for us was not so expensive that we needed to seek tenders. After a while it became much more expensive, but we didn’t know that from the beginning. We sort of ended up in the hands of the consultant! Again, investment involvement, while not laudable, is certainly a very well-known phenomenon.

‘We took a former councilor/official whom we know very well, without seeking tenders, because we know that he knows this job.’ During my study of Stockholm, I was told a great many stories about the failures of managers who were recruited into the city from private companies - managers whose brief appearances in the role of the saviors of the public sector were well documented by the press. Although the recruitment of new employers from another sector might be done in the name of renewal, recruiting a consultant who does not know a given type of activity seems rather risky.

In short, the practitioners seemed to be much more anchored in reality, and therefore much more pragmatic, than the journalists were (which is probably why they belong to two different professional groups). However, my reasoning is meant neither to defend the practitioners nor to criticize the journalists, as they both act from a profession-specific standpoint. It is to show the complications and the paradoxes of the procedure - that could also be called a ritual - of public tenders. The first question is, however, why were public tenders ever introduced into the European public administration? What was the nature of the remedy and against what malady was it applied?

Why Public Tenders, Or Cities On The Market

The politicians and administrators in most European cities, and especially European capitals, are of the opinion, strongly supported by the European Community offices, that city administrations, like the other units of public administration, must change their identity from that of tax-financed money-spenders to that of self-financed participants in the global city markets. Marketization is a slogan that is common to all of them, and it includes such things as proper privatization, company-ization, increasingly allowing private companies to participate in the running of cities, marketing (even ‘branding’), competing on the city markets, and imitating or incorporating all kinds of market rituals.

The postulate of marketization, formulated from outside as well as from inside the city, results in a great deal of enthusiasm and even more prescriptions as to the necessary and appropriate actions. As to the reasons for the enthusiasm, it may well be that the cities activate their collective memories and revive the times when cities were markets,11 and when cities competed with one another (p.83) on political arenas, free from the heavy hand of the state. Prescriptions and proscriptions are not only free advice (although there is much consulting work involved), but also in many cases legal directives, issued by the EU and implemented by local jurisdictions. But what are the consequences for action programs in the ‘marketization’ of these cities?

One major prescription resulting from the market orientation is the special cultivation of the institution of competition. The city authorities are indistinguishable from other public administration sinners in that they bear historical blame for an innate tendency toward monopoly. (This allegation is difficult to explain, as both monopoly and various kinds of oligopoly are the products of a free market -a market before the entrance of anti-trust laws and other regulations.) The public administrators are allegedly guilty of squandering taxpayers’ money, although this differs from one country to another depending on the right of the city to autonomous taxation. The cities, however, have a long tradition of taxation and of using the tax money for collective consumption. The cities, compared with other types of public administration units, also have a more distinct tradition of marketing themselves,12 a long tradition that needs only to be modernized.

But the sharpened demand for conscious competition unavoidably increases contacts among cities. They all want to know what the others are doing, and are engaged in variegated attempts at imitation. This paradoxical face of competition is, of course, well known to market analysts, who coined the expression ‘the competitive edge’13 just to capture this urge to distinguish oneself by following similar routes. When this urge is accompanied by formal institutions, the effects can be very visible.

This case of public tenders also illustrates the embeddedness of big cities in their regional and national context, the latter being especially obvious for capital cities. The big cities set examples, but they also collect experiences from their region or country and re-present it in other contexts. Thus, Stockholm has a duty to re-present ‘Swedishness’ to foreigners (the fulfillment of which is often questioned by small towns and by its main competitor, Gothenburg), but also attempts to launch innovations within the country. Warsaw is equally intent on re-presenting ‘Polishness’ and launching innovations. Rome, on the other hand, cannot represent Ttalianness’, for such a concept hardly exists in that strongly regional country. It can be said, however, that it represents all the sins of public administration and that it thereby focuses the attention of foreigners and Italians in the same direction, albeit for different reasons than the other two capital cities. Briefly, a reframing can either start in a capital or, initiated somewhere else, find its most extreme expression there.

The capital is a laboratory of fashion (to be condemned or admired in the provinces, but always imitated) and hosts most of the national representation work. It is, therefore, only natural that the duty of modernization resides in the (p.84) capital. An understanding of how this duty is fulfilled is a key to an understanding of the ritual of public tenders.

Modernization Proceeds By Rituals

Societies vary by factors of one hundred to one in resources, and enormously in their own traditions. But they adopt surprisingly similar forms of modernity.14

In many respects, the procedure of public tenders has the same value in all three cities: it is a ritual of the market that symbolizes modernization, staying ahead through the introduction of global novelties. Also, in all the three cities, it produces complications because times are prolonged, quality may easily suffer, and costs are high. This is, however, typical of rituals: they are usually ornamental and are therefore costly, they tend to demand a great deal of time, and they are hardly functional in the narrow sense of the word.

Edmund Leach defined ritual as a stereotyped behavior that is potent in terms of the cultural conventions of the actors, although not potent in a rational-technical sense, and which serves to communicate information about a culture’s most cherished values.15 In other words, functionality in rituals is subordinated to the symbolism of power. Steven Lukes defined a political ritual as a ‘rule-governed activity of a symbolic character that draws the attention of its participants to objects of thought and feeling, which they hold to be of special significance’.16 The market and competition are at present the cherished values of the common European culture as it tries to construct the objects of thought and feeling that are of special significance.

Nevertheless, this global or rather transnational culture is translated in accordance with the local context (where context is re-invented during the translation). In all the examples above, it has been obvious that, over and above the shared wish to appear modern and global, the procedures of public contracting were tied to local history. Indeed, as the proponents of the garbage-can theory would say, the solution found local problems to solve.17 Thus, in Warsaw, the public tenders were the means to bring about an increased effectiveness and efficiency in the public sector, previously burdened with the verdict of extreme inefficiency. In Rome, the most important problem addressed was transparency, or rather the infamous memory of Bribecity. In Stockholm, public tenders were applied as a Band-Aid on the Swedish sore, which was supposed to be the overspending of the welfare state. The major worry of the journalists was the wasteful spending and the savings that would result through the proper observance of the procedure. Hence, while the other problems were also being connected to the proposed solution, one of them - the local one - was given precedence.

In the same vein, these solutions produced new problems, or new versions of old problems, in terms of unexpected consequences. In Warsaw, the problems (p.85) were technical and operational: things did not work very well, even if procedures were applied correctly. The desired reframing has not been achieved. In Rome, the main worry was time, a problem that is traditionally attributed to bureaucracy: here, however, the red tape of the administration was easily replaced by the red tape of the market. And although bribes were no longer a problem, the lawyers’ growing fees were seen as a societal waste. In Stockholm, the efficiency problem was noted, but transparency was not a special benefit in the light of the traditional law on public transparency, which had been in place for a very long time. The problem was the quality of contracted goods and services and the imperative of proceeding pragmatically, often hampered by a demand for a literal application of the law. In a sense, the old problems - against which the solution was applied - were reproduced in a new, ‘modern’ form. This observation recalls the investigation by Joan Acker, who studied the modernization of Swedish banks from a gender perspective and discovered that the reform wiped out the old forms of gender discrimination and created new, ‘modern’ ones.18

The differences in the actual enacting of the ritual can also be attributed to the differing attitudes towards the value that it was supposed to represent.19 In Stockholm, the feeling was that modernity had been achieved long ago (see Chapter 5), and therefore the ritual’s technical rules need not be observed to the letter. The management in Warsaw and Rome, like its public - the media and the citizens - was not quite sure about it. Rituals of modernity were to ward off pre-modern vices of sin (corruption) and sloth (inefficiency). A faithful following of the ritual was therefore of importance.

These phenomena would be less startling if we paid greater heed to the work of the anthropologists who have registered them repeatedly. This has not happened because of the modernist wish to achieve a rupture with the past that would allow societies to be divided into ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’, and to study ‘modernization’ only in the context of ‘primitive’ societies. Now, however, we might be ready to admit, with Bruno Latour, that ‘we have never been modern’, and, with John Meyer, that modernization is a process that never ends.20 Thus, the pre-modern sediments are always present: the European Community is as much in need of common rituals as the Roman Empire, although the rituals differ.

‘Modernization’ proceeds in the same way at all times: an abstract, translocal solution is applied, in a local translation, to local problems, redefining them in a new, ‘modern’ way.

Mimesis As Copy And Contact

If this analogy is accepted, new ways of interpreting the strange fate of public tenders emerge. Michael Taussig, inspired by James G. Frazer’s distinction (p.86) between contact and imitation, distinguished between copy and contact.21 Although the two usually go together, the case of public tenders shows why it can be useful to separate them, in order to understand the events.

It can safely be said that the coercive element in the introduction of the procedure, although undoubtedly present, was of little importance: the wish to imitate can be described as normative as well as coercive.22 Although it is obvious that coercion produces obedience (and if so required, imitation), it is a condition that is rarely met in non-totalitarian societies. As Terry N. Clark has pointed out in his commentary on a Tarde-Durkheim debate, where Durkheim stood for constraints and external norms and Tarde stood for imitation:23

… certain social realities … once formed … impose themselves upon the individual, sometimes, though rarely, with constraint, oftener by persuasion or suggestion or the curious pleasure that we experience, from childhood up, in saturating ourselves with the examples of our myriad surrounding models …24

The unclear character of this ‘curious pleasure’, although well-known through introspection, seems too fickle to be included in serious social science reasoning. At any rate, the relative weight alloted to the coercive and normative isomorphism by, for example, Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, seems to stem from the continuation of a Durkheimian way of conceiving the social action.25 Although examples of such influence can no doubt be found, it might be more appropriate to treat them as residual categories, and to concentrate instead on the mimetic processes.

In the case under discussion it is, however, difficult to speak of contact with the EU, as there is no such thing: Brussels does not necessarily practice what it preaches. As the joke goes, if the EU applied for admission to the European Union, it would not be accepted.26 The city authorities were, therefore, to copy a certain procedure that is transferred in the form of abstract rules. These abstract rules needed to be translated into local practices, and the conditions for a complete mimesis were in place: the contact-with other fields of practice, or with one’s own past - was immediate and unavoidable. A translation that aims at copying abstract ideas is bound to be influenced by that with which it has a direct contact. This observation is further corroborated by the case of the South Company in Warsaw, where EIB ensured that copying was taking place through continuous contact.

(p.87) In sum, one could suggest that, if the aim is to imitate a practice (which it rarely is, as we shall see in Chapter 5), the way to enhance mimesis is to create possibilities for both contact with and copying of that practice. It is no accident that an important part of the traditional occupational training was a ‘practicuiri - literally, doing what was supposed to be learned in the context where a given practice was well developed. In times of mass education, mechanical reproduction, and electronic communication, this strategy is not considered to be feasible because of its cost. Shortcuts are introduced, and take such forms as embodying practices in people and machines, sending them from one place to another (which provides a limited contact, especially if the ‘imported’ practice is to compete with local practices), and relying completely on ‘mimetic machines’ to simulate a contact.

Another point can be made by introducing the literary meaning of mimesis as description, in contrast to narrative. From such a point of view, there is an excess of mimesis compared to narration in modern organizing. The descriptions of how things should be done go on forever; while the narratives - how we have done it this time around - are fewer, especially in formal education situations. Yet, narration can make up for a missing contact, aiding mimesis-as-copying, as it mimics social practice better than description - better, that is, in the sense of being able to provoke a reenactment via dramatization, via movement.

In an ideal world of organizing, a complete mimesis - a contact and a copy -would be stabilized and reinforced by repetitive narration. In the actual world of organizing, however, the picture becomes complicated, and not only because it is difficult and costly to strive for ideal conditions. Another phenomenon worth noticing is an ambiguous attitude to imitation among city managers, an issue which I discuss in Chapter 5.


(1) Tarde, 1899/1974: 101.

(2) Warsaw, interview 2:8.

(3) Beksiak, 1994: 27.

(4) Tangentopoli, a bribe scandal in the Italian public administration, was revealed in 1992 by Judge Antonio Di Pietro and other lawyers from the group Mani Pulite (Clean Hands). Their estimate of bribes paid to the state and municipal functionaries was $100 billion in 20 years.

(5) See Anna Kadefors, 1999, on mistrust between clients and contractors in the construction industry, and also a quote concerning tenders on public transportation vehicles in Chapter 3. Kadefors also notes an important difference between Swedish contractors on one hand, and Polish and Italian contractors on the other. In Sweden, an appeal against the results of a public tender is not comme il faut. Construction companies are afraid of acquiring a reputation of being quarrelsome and impossible to cooperate with (personal communication, March 2001). No such fears exist in Poland and Italy. This can be partly explained by the sheer size difference of the three countries: as of 2000, there were 8.9 million inhabitants in Sweden, 38.6 in Poland and 57.6 in Italy. It is difficult to hide in Sweden.

(6) The information could have come from the region around Gothenburg, but the Head Lawyer at the State Office for Public Contracting confirmed the commonality of such practices and such arguments.

(7) Paralogy is a form of knowledge that accepts contradictory statements about reality. Traditionally considered to be a logical fallacy, it has been suggested by Lyotard (1979) to be the source of innovation in language. On paralogy in public administration, see Czarniawska, 1997.

(8) Gergen, 1994.

(9) See, for instance, Brunsson and Hagg, 1993.

(10) See, e.g., March and Simon, 1958.

(11) Two alternative or complementary hypotheses concerning the origins of the city are those of ceremonial centers and military strongholds (Braunfels, 1988).

(12) See, e.g., Sahlin-Andersson, 1996, on the difficulties that, e.g., debt collectors have in introducing a market orientation into their activities.

(13) Porter, 1985.

(14) Meyer, 1999:15.

(15) Leach, 1968; Turner, 1982.

(16) Lukes, 1975: 291.

(17) Cohen et al., 1972.

(18) Acker, 1994.

(19) f am indebted for this insight to John W. Meyer (personal communication, 15 September 1999).

(20) Meyer, 1999.

(21) Taussig, 1993: 22. Taussig himself would probably not appreciate my poaching of his terms. In spite of his declared preference for a symmetric anthropology, he applies symmetry only to direct encounters between ‘the savages’ and ‘the Europeans’. The world of global economy, with its ‘Truth as Accountability’, is for him a disenchanted world where mimesis is dead (p. 97). Frankfurt School’s emancipatory reading dominates the picture, although now and then Taussig acknowledges that things have changed since Benjamin’s times.

(22) Bengt Jacobsson (1997) shows that Sweden introduced most of the EU regulations long before joining the union.

(23) Clark, 1969:17–18.

(24) Tarde, 1899/1974:184.

(25) DiMaggio and Powell, 1984; Powell and DiMaggio, 1991.

(26) Giddens, 1999.