Public values in Western Europe: a temporal perspective

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Charles, MB, De Jong, WM & Ryan, NF 2011, 'Public values in Western Europe: a temporal perspective', American Review of Public Administration, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 75-91.

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Public values are still considered by some authors to be universal, that is, applicable to all settings and constant through time. Despite this, a growing number of publications have appeared indicating that they are in fact quite context dependent, highly mutable over time, subject to modification, and thus far from universal. This article focuses on the latter temporal aspect and demonstrates how technological competency, political structures, and availability of economic resources affect the institutionalization of public values by molding citizen/consumer preferences and expectations. The salience and indeed the existence of public values pertaining to infrastructure have varied quite considerably over the past 2,000 years in Western Europe, although commonalities emerge in cognate institutional settings. This article develops a line of thought as to how public values and the systems through which these are delivered are institutionalized following societal demand, which in turn is based on specific technological, political, and economic contexts. To demonstrate this argument, we have selected two policy areas in which public values can be recognized (transport infrastructure and access to foodstuffs) in four different Western European historical settings (the Roman Empire, Medieval England, 18th-century France, and Industrial England). We do not make any claim to completeness or representativeness, but aim to demonstrate how different public values have been conceptualized and institutionalized in different eras, and how wider societal forces color this institutionalization process. The article concludes with lessons for the present day.