28 April 2017 | The Role of the Pubic Administrators and Some Implications to Our Programs, By Stuart Bretschneider*

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

Recent efforts by the new administration to change a wide variety of policies and programs has led me to look back at how our field has thought about the role of the public administrator.  Much of the current thinking on this is still rooted in the work by political scientists from the 1940s and 1950s.  This is not surprising given that in that time period we saw the emergence of the administrative state.  The Frederick-Finer debate, Dwight Waldo’s The Administrative State and his debates with Herbert Simon on this all dealt with the tension between scientific and professional competencies on the one hand and politics and the support of democratic institutions on the other.  These ideas have never really gone away and continue to play an important part in how we conduct our scholarship and how we train our students. My concern in this posting is to ask is we might be failing our students in our efforts to cover both professional skills on the one hand and understanding of democratic institutions and their role in maintaining and supporting them.

Let me start with some potential deficits on the professional side of the scale.  I remember having a discussion with Jack Knott shortly after the great recession about the growing emphasis in our field of private provision of public services.  My concern with this trend was that sometimes these options are portrayed in relatively un-critical often positive ways. Essentially public-private partnerships, social impact bonds and other such alternatives are by designed to provide private firms access to public dollars in new and more diverse ways.  Since the inception of our nation our governments have purchased goods and service from private firm but these new forms dramatically increase the diversity of forms and amount of this.  We almost never assume the motivation for selling the government various goods or services are to do good and most of our procurement activities begin by assuming “caveat emptor.” Shouldn’t this be the same standard when entering into a public-private partnership or considering social impact bond? My suggestion to Jack at the time was we should teach our students sufficient economic theory so that they would understand an appropriate starting assumption for any negotiations around programs of this sort begin with the idea that our potential private sector partner seek a deal that permits them to rent seek.  I further argued that the professionally competent public administrator had to have sufficient training in designing such contracts (e.g. corporate and public finance) as to prevent that rent seeking outcomes.  While some may argue this is being overly pessimistic, my response is that if this starting point is wrong little is lost but if it is correct and not sufficiently accounted for the cost are extremely high.  Think of this as a min-max strategy.  Nevertheless, how many of our program provide this level of capacity in our graduates.

Now let me turn to other side of the tension, understanding of and support for democratic institution.  Society as a whole has difficulty understand the design principles of our constitution and our federated form of government but this should not be the case for our students and a good public administrator.  The media, for example, constantly decry problems of grid lock in Congress but as any good and well train public administration student knows (of should know) that is exactly the outcome desired by the founding fathers.  During the Obama years Republicans marshaled the Courts and Congress to block administration efforts while today we see the same thing by Democrats. As individuals we have preferences and may view Republican’s under Obama as obstructionist and Democrats under Trump and protectors or vice versa but this is overly self-serving. To what extent are we providing our students with the simple insight that grid lock is the normal state of affairs, not an aberration? Along with this insight is the basic idea that our democratic structures and institutions were designed to prevent external groups (e.g. political parties) from capturing and controlling all the branches of government and exercising unconstrained political authority.

We actually have numerous example of how this system works.  In the 1980s President Reagan appointed Ann Gorsuch Burford to run the EPA with the expressed objective of shrinking the agency and walking back environmental standards.  Sound familiar?  During that time Democrats and some Republican thwarted those efforts.  In fact Congress confronted the President over a constitutional issue surrounding executive privilege and disclosure of agency document as part of that conflict.  In today’s situation we again have a President attempting to gut the EPA.  Some of my colleagues have argued that because the President’s party controls Congress, Trump is more likely to succeed.  While I believe that schisms in the Republican Party make this more problematic than that, from an institutional perspective we still have the system of Courts and Laws that slow down any such process of change. See how the initial immigration bans we delayed and more importantly transformed as a result of Court challenges. We also have the potential in the future if there is a Democratic President and/or Congress to reverse this direction.

Another example of how Democratic Institutions work is through the election cycle themselves.  I have a very distinct memory of Carl Rowe arguing they had created a ‘permanent republican majority,’ only to find there temporary majorities in both Houses of Congress give way. It is in the genius of the system that it favors divided government and political completion not efficient political processes.  This is not a guarantee for all time but a recognition that we must do a better job of preparing our students to understand and support these forces.

There are real threats though.  The use of contracting, especially with private sector firms, increase the likelihood arguments for efficiency over democratic process may lead to attempt to change our democratic institutions.  Also we have seen some liberal democracies slide towards autocracy in the past few years like Poland, Hungary, Egypt and even some older more established democracies like Turkey in recent years.  We need to remember that both Hitler and Mussolini came to power initially through democratic elections.

I always recognize I might be wrong in my assessment.  But ask your students what would be their basic assumptions in trying to establish a public-private partnership and why they made those assumptions?  Ask your students if divided government is bad and we should be strive for less conflict in policy making? I would be interested in what you hear.

* Foundation Professor of Organization Design and Public Management | Center for Organization Research and Design (CORD) | Arizona State University

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