Public Administration Under Trump: An Age of Institutional Decline? By Don Moynihan

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The unexpected victory of Donald Trump has upended all manner of enterprise, but is especially salient for those of us who study the workings of government. Public administration can be seen as the study of people, organizations, and institutions. The institutions part of that formulation has become a good deal more important since the election. Much of our work as public administration scholars has focused on individual-level outcomes or organizational variables, but in a context where we could take for granted a stable institutional background. No more.

The rise of Trump will, whether we admit or not, alter the relevance of certain streams of research. In political science, such a pattern seems already apparent. A clear demarcation between the field of American domestic politics and comparative politics becomes less tenable when the best explanations for how someone like Trump can arise and take power—and what he might do with that power—come from non-U.S. settings.

So, what are the implications of Trump for our collective research agenda, but also for an agenda of active scholarship? For if we are unable to establish a broader relevance to the study of government now, it is hard to know if we ever well. This means deploying expertise—not partisan opinion—to cast light on basic problems of governance.  It means using your voice. Such use of voice may create concerns of a political public administration that were leveled against the New Public Administration. But public administration is inevitably a site of politics. To ignore this fact is itself a political act; an act of consent to some set of values proposed by a set of political actors.

Here are what seem to me to be a list of pressing issues that we can tackle. It is preliminary, incomplete, and an invitation of others to add their own items. Most glaringly, I do not speculate about the effects of a Trump administration for women, religious minorities, or persons of color. I also welcome commentary from those who disagree with my underlying assumption that Trump’s challenge to the status quo of administration is largely problematic.

Institutional Structures and Norms

The U.S. prides itself on a reverence to the constitution, and on being “a government of laws, not of men,” in the words of John Adams. The checks and balances of the U.S. system seem designed to constrain elected officials who do not respect them. But the Presidential campaign also told us much about the degree to which institutions depend greatly on informal norms. Some were explicit, such as the widely accepted norm that Presidents credibly divest their business interests to avoid potential conflicts. Others are implicit, such as the notion that someone with the stature of the President does not pick fights with individual citizens or public servants, such as when Trump attacked a federal court judge overseeing a suit against Trump University. In some cases, these norms were assumed to hold because it would be politically impossible not to observe them. Since Nixon, no candidate has gotten close to the Presidency without releasing their tax returns. But Trump has excused himself from such norms with little penalty thus far. He has proposed a Cabinet of billionaires that seem to have an array of conflicts that would have been disqualifying in previous eras but pale next to Mr. Trump’s open interweaving of his business interests and new-found political influence.

The federal bureaucracy is an institution. How will its values be challenged in the coming years? Norms of rationality, transparency, ethical standards and due process—what Barry Bozeman has referred to as public values—may be sorely tested. Empirically documenting the erosion of these norms, and educating students and the public on the value they provide to a functioning democracy is the job of public administration scholarship. In particular, the Trump administration may serve to test of how much one can erode governmental capacity and expertise. Many of the new appointees are not, in the traditional sense of the word, qualified for their jobs. Many, like the candidate they represent, have held neither public office nor have any public experience, and hold records that would have been disqualifying in previous administrations. The chief strategist in the White House ran a website that he designed to serve as a “platform for the alt-right” movement that heavily featured white supremacists. The likely head of the Council for Economic Advisers, normally reserved for some of the most distinguished economists in the U.S., will instead be headed by a TV commentator who is distinguished by his enthusiasm for free-market policies and his denial that the Great Recession was coming. In other small ways—for example, federal data not collected, or even removed—the basis of governmental expertise could be eroded.

Leadership and Motivation

Public administration scholarship has offered increasingly persuasive evidence that a model of transformational leadership fits with a public setting. This approach, which emphasizes appealing to motives beyond self-interest, works well in a context where leaders can appeal to public values but may have limited extrinsic tools at their disposal. Trump’s early appointments offer limited hope that such a model of leadership will be a staple of his administration. For every General Matthis, an inspiring figure for DoD uniformed personnel, there are multiple appointments where the candidate seems to have little expressed interest in the Department (such as Ben Carson at HUD), or appears actively antagonistic to the basic mission of the organization. In a country where the vast majority of children go to public schools, we will have a Secretary of Education that has not attended, worked in, or sent her children to such schools, but instead has devoted a fortune to promoting private alternatives. In the Environmental Protection Agency, the nominee is a climate-change denier who has been a key architect, as a state Attorney General, to hobble the EPA’s own rulings. Governor Rick Perry, the proposed Secretary of the Department Energy, famously struggled to remember the name of the Department even as he outlined his plans to eliminate it. The proposed Director of the Office of Management and Budget, charged with keeping the governments financial house in order, is best known for championing government shutdowns and defaulting on debt payments in order to pursue social issues such as defunding Planned Parenthood. What are the motivational implications for staff who believe government can improve educational outcomes, or protect the environment? How can a leader lead when they do not believe in the mission of the agency?

Bureaucratic Resistance and Ethical Challenges

What happens when the beliefs of political principals are at odds with the bureaucrats that work for them? This condition is most visible when conservative Presidents face liberal agencies, though there are also tensions between liberal Presidents and conservative agencies. David Lewis’s work suggests that principals use more ideological appointees to establish control over agencies they distrust. As such, employee’s might worry that those not seen as ideologically attuned will be subject to punishment. A Nixon appointee drew up a manual for harassing civil servants into quitting. During the George W. Bush era, appointees in the Justice Department broke the law when they used ideological screens for career positions. There is also already some reason to be concerned that the Trump administration will pursue a similar approach. The Trump transition team has asked for the names of career employees who have worked on climate change, counter-terrorism, and gender policy, raising the prospect of ideological targeting.

For some employees, this may seem like a very good time to leave the federal government. They must weigh the ethical imperatives of working for a political principal they may disagree with alongside the possibility that their ongoing presence in the bureaucracy can offer some benefit. They face a version Hirschman’s choices between exit, voice, or loyalty. The exit option may be tempting, but by staying within government, bureaucrats can exercise different forms of voice, whether it be sage advice to political novices who don’t know what they don’t know, internal dissent, or leaking publicly embarrassing actions. The last form of voice overlaps with another option, which has been variously described as sabotage, resistance, or guerrilla government. This option is not new—it is reflected in Harry Truman’s rueful observation about what would happen when Eisenhower took his desk at the White House: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Bureaucrats can use their discretion to, within the bounds of the law, prioritize actions that protect the mission of the agency from those that are preferred by their political principal. They might slow the implementation process. Such an approach is ethically troublesome, since political appointees carry with them a measure of sovereign legitimacy that the career official does not. However, Rosemary O’Leary’s study of guerrilla government notes that some of these acts of resistance slowed or stopped actions that were unlawful during the Reagan administration.

Government Reform

Each administration typically gives rises to some sort of governmental reform agenda, e.g., the Civil Service Reform Act under Carter, the Grace Commission under Reagan, or the Reinventing Government initiative under Clinton. Studies of these are perhaps less prominent in scholarship than they were in the past because they are not implemented in ways that allow for satisfying causal design. But they are meaningful, in that they signal the stated ambitions of the executive.

Within the federal government, pay and hiring freezes are likely. We can also expect efforts to make it easier to fire executives and other employees modeled on recent changes in Veterans Affairs. But there is also the possibility of the most serious full-frontal assault on the civil service system since its creation. Significant changes to the civil service system have been stymied by public sector unions rather than broad public support. The civil service is therefore more vulnerable to unified Republican control than other aspects of the policy status quo that feature broad public support, such as Social Security. Trump may take a leaf from Wisconsin and other states, and pass laws that would make it difficult for such unions to operate. From a political perspective, this would have the advantage of weakening a political enemy. From a practical perspective, it would weaken a system of governing that has worked quite well for the U.S. given the political antagonism it faces. We may witness a vast experiment about whether a highly politicized state that rapidly loses institutional capacity can still function.

One lesson from the study of government reform agendas is that the formal agenda is only a partial picture of the actual agenda. For example, the George W. Bush administration’s President’s Management Agenda outlined a series of good government reforms, but the lasting management change was arguably the enormous growth of a largely private homeland security apparatus, the blueprint for which was never presented as a formal management reform. Public administration scholars will have to closely monitor the shape of actual governmental changes that take place during the Trump years. One area to watch will be contracting.

Contracting and Accountability

Privatization and public-private partnerships will expand, with particular relevance for some sectors. For example, the stock of private prison companies that were out of favor with Obama shot up as Trump’s election became more likely. What is crucial in these areas, both for scholarship and citizens, is that public accountability accompany public dollars. Betsey DeVos is acclaimed among conservatives for her championing private schools in Michigan. But the record in Michigan is viewed among fair-minded researchers on school choice as a disaster, because those given public resources were not held accountable for failure

In an administration where the President has a business empire, and is in the habit of opining about the fairness of particular contracts, there is a potential for a connection between political criticism, money, and federal contracts. Shortly after representatives of Boeing criticized Trump’s trade policy, Trump tweeted falsely about the costs for a federal contract awarded to Boeing. Soon after, Boeing announced a $1 million contribution to the costs of Trump’s inauguration. Soon after that, Mr. Trump tweeted that he would consider Boeing to replace Lockheed Martin’s expensive F-35 program.

Public administration scholars have largely not attended to the political contexts that give rise to contracts and the possibility that such contracts are dependent on contractors offering political or financial support for the incumbent. But it will be increasingly difficult to ignore this context in the coming years.

From Organizational Theory to Policy

If there is to be a deep restructuring of the U.S. state, our ability to understand it demands policy specialization. This is, by and large, too much of a rarity in our field. We define ourselves as specialists by the theory or variable we study (“I study networks” or “performance”) but at the cost of developing expertise in the nuts and bolts of policy specifics. For example, if we are to study the implications of changes to the Affordable Care Act, this could mean understanding how different states will make use of Medicaid block grant dollars. Theories still matter—I will be investing more energy into using administrative burdens as a framework to understand how citizens manage a more marketized health system—but they can best demonstrate their relevance in the context of actual policy changes.

The State and Its Citizens

What does the public make of all of this? Trump appealed to an unhappy public by promising to clean up government and #DrainTheSwamp. But this promise is not new. Since Nixon all successful candidates for President have run on some (milder) version of Trump’s outrage, presenting themselves as government outsiders who would shake up Washington—the exception was George H.W. Bush, whose long honorable career of public service made such a claim unpersuasive, a political problem that Hillary Clinton could sympathize with. The promise of the outsider has reached a nadir with Trump, but two generations of outsider Presidents have done nothing either to quell public dissatisfaction with government or to make outsider status any less attractive. But what happens when the swamp remains undrained? Can public trust in government sink even lower? Surely this is possible if indeed organizations starved or resources and leadership start to perform worse; it becomes probable if the incoming President, his family, and inner circle have obvious conflicts of interest that fuel stories of corruption. But Trump as a candidate has shown himself to be immune to the traditional laws of politics, effortlessly able to trigger motivated reasoning among a polarized electorate. As President, with the full power of the federal government behind him, he may recast U.S. governance in a similarly dramatic fashion.