28 September 2017 | Rebuilding after the storms: The constitutional foundation, By Robert K. Christensen*

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

The recent natural disasters centered in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico have prompted many to look at government with fresh eyes.  Not least of these is President Trump.  Earlier calls to “drain the swamp” seemed distant if not incongruous to presidential tweets that waxed confident, proud and even deferential to government and government officials. Consider these examples[i]:

Without question, government institutions and government personnel fill(ed) myriad, critical roles in the preparation, response and alleviation of suffering stemming from Harvey, Irma and Maria. These roles are ones that private institutions admirably facilitated, supported and extended. But the reality is that many of these most critical roles are ones for which none but public institutions and public employees have capacity and even legal authority. Furthermore, our public institutions and employees exist as the embodiment of not only our current but also our long-held beliefs that these are key “instruments of collective action that [can] remain responsible both to democratically elected officials and to core societal values” (Kirlin 1996, 417).[ii] In King and Stivers (1998) words, “government is us.”[iii]

These recent hurricanes have scarred our country with staggering swaths of destruction. The destruction will, in many cases, require years of rebuilding and restoration before the sting and loss are lessened. The recent hurricanes have also concentrated our attention, including the President’s–if for just a moment–on the role and value of the action arm of the Constitution: public administration and public administrators.

That unconsciousness and distrust of these institutions and their employees prevail is perhaps not particularly surprising. Even as early as the late 19th century, Woodrow Wilson observed that, “a great deal of administration goes about incognito to most of the world, being confounded now with political ‘management’ and again with constitutional principle” (1887, 211).[iv]

Although some unconsciousness and healthy distrust of public administration may be understandable, even intentional, my hope is that the storms of ignorance and contempt that have ravaged public administration with increasing intensity can also serve to focus our attention on another restoration that is surely overdue:  our cognizance of and valuation of government institutions and employees. If “government is us” then the current storms of contempt are nothing short of hurricane-force self-destruction.

My call to be more vigilant in our awareness and valuation of public administration is, admittedly, not particularly novel. Many have already written helpful prescriptions to move us past these self-inflicted wounds.  Some of these include: reducing citizen estrangement by practicing democratic administration over bureaucratic administration (Durant and Ali 2013);[v] fostering citizen engagement (King and Stivers 1998); facilitating deliberative democracy (Nabatchi 2010);[vi] and creating communities of participation and inclusion (Feldman and Khademian 2007).[vii]

My own prescription does not detract from these but aspires to identify what I hope will more consistently serve as the sensible and compelling first, cognitive step to better support the rebuilding that must occur with our storm-damaged public institutions. The rebuilding process prudently focuses on the foundation before the rest of the work proceeds. So what is the foundation of public administration? In short, the Constitution. Wilson’s (1887, 212-213) own definitions of public administration reflect this, “Public administration is detailed and systematic execution of public law [and] is closely connected with . . . the proper distribution of constitutional authority.” Public administrators, while not tasked with framing the constitution, are clearly charged with running the constitution (Rohr 1986).[viii] This is an undoubtedly complex and challenging task, but it cannot be contracted out. There are neither substitutes nor alternatives permitted within the current constitutional framework. The Constitution is, with few exceptions, the domain of public not private actors. Its focus is overwhelmingly centered in and reliant upon public institutions and their employees.

These foundational, constitutionally-motivated observations are important to bear in mind as we evaluate the steps needed to restore the very institutions that have been ravaged by our own cynicism, but that are nonetheless inherently (and constitutionally) charged with helping society respond to the real storms that include natural disaster, pernicious poverty, addiction, prejudice, environmental justice, and crime.

[i] @realDonaldTrump, also reported at https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/08/trump-hurricane-irma-is-of-epic-proportion-but-the-government-is-ready.html.

[ii] Kirlin, J. J. (1996). The big questions of public administration in a democracy. Public Administration Review, 416-423.

[iii] King, C. S., Stivers, C. (1998). Government is us: Strategies for an anti-government era. Sage.

[iv] Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political science quarterly2(2), 197-222.

[v] Durant, R. F., & Ali, S. B. (2013). Repositioning American public administration? Citizen estrangement, administrative reform, and the disarticulated state. Public Administration Review73(2), 278-289.

[vi] Nabatchi, T. (2010). Addressing the citizenship and democratic deficits: The potential of deliberative democracy for public administration. The American Review of Public Administration40(4), 376-399.

[vii] Feldman, M. S., & Khademian, A. M. (2007). The role of the public manager in inclusion: Creating communities of participation. Governance20(2), 305-324.

[viii] Rohr, J. A. (1986). To run a constitution: The legitimacy of the administrative state. University Press of Kansas.

* rc@byu.edu Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University

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