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Dahl, Trade-offs and the Challenge of Democratic Structures

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
April 3, 2015

Robert Alan Dahl of Yale University died February 2014. His work cut across lines in academic disciplines and offered important insights into the nature of democracy and its application to economy and the governance of localities. He started his work during the 1950s. As the Cold War raged, he posited a grand descriptive theory for how systems could operate that required broad based public participation and had an impact on the political, social and economic spheres of life.

Among his ideas is a framework to describe our imperfect forms of representative democracy, where control is exercised by non-leader voters over the elected leaders, which he called polyarchy. This was in contrast to the elite rule of the Soviet world and the tendency for other modern systems to concentrate authority among expert elites in government, business and the nonprofit sector. The richness of his vision will continue to inform the work of public administrators for generations to come.

Tafoya Mass_statehouse_eb1This challenge is relevant today as we continue to design and refine our governmental structures. There is a constant tension between political accountability and expertise. Some 38 states use a form of election for judges including seven that have partisan contests. At the local level in New England, we elect a wide range of offices including registrars of deeds, registrars of probate, planning boards, sheriffs and tax assessors. While this level of control for the voters adds to the vibrancy of the republican form of government, there are concerns with asking the voters to pick candidates for offices about which they have marginal interest or knowledge. Moreover, some of these roles have technical aspects, which might be best served through public managers schooled in control of particular functions.

By “political accountability” I refer to those positions that are directly elected by the public and can result in the loss of the post if the pubic votes for an opponent in the next cycle. Certainly there are vast numbers of positions that must be subject to Dahl’s dicta of frequent elections with universal participation. The array of federal offices such as president and members of congress certainly need this treatment, as well as governors and members of the state legislatures. After that there is a wide variety of structures. For example, in 43 states the attorney general is elected but in the other seven they are appointed in some manner. Cities have elected and appointed structures. Some like Worcester or Lowell in Massachusetts have mayors elected alongside the city council, but the daily control over operations is invested in an appointed city manager.

Does the appointment of critical actors lessen the democratic nature of our governmental organizations? How far removed from the elected official can the structure grow and remain consistent with control through democratic governance?

We have come to believe in the idea of professional management and that complex organizations and complex tasks require technical, not political capabilities. There are 2.6 million federal civilian employees and one elected official at the apex of the organization. Of that number, 7,000 are direct presidential appointees and fewer than 1,000 require Senate approval. The vast majority is subject to hiring through non-political means. This design implies that instead of some form of political accountability that the stressed value is professional capability. The concern about this arrangement is revealed through the claims of excessive bureaucracy from government separate from the concerns of the people.

The importance of appointed officials increases at the local level. Particularly in those areas with part-time or volunteer elected officials it is critically important that communities have clear vision for policy so that there is proper political accountability. From Dahl’s framework, we learn that the public should be able to gauge the performance of the elected officials based on how well they supervise the specialists who are tasked with running the governmental jurisdiction. To meet the requirements for transparency and accountability, jurisdictional responsibilities should be clear and information available to the public so they can make decisions on whether they approve of governmental decision-making or not. The low rate of voter turnout at the local level complicates this oversight. In a typical suburban community near Boston, voter participation in the 2012 presidential election was at 80 percent, for the 2014 gubernatorial election it was 60 percent and in the local elections, held in the spring, it is typically less than 15 percent.

Whatever decisions are made on structures the design is imperfect. That is the heart of what Dahl taught us about governmental structures. There is no way that in modern societies we can return to a stylized version of Athenian democracy where decisions are largely made directly by an informed public. We are faced with political choices not just on policy outcomes but also on the fundamental structures that are to facilitate decision-making on policy. His recommendation was to err on the side of democratic participation and civic education and to experiment with the technologies of the 21st century to bring new modes of active engagement to the people.


Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is the undergraduate program director in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University. He served as a local elected official in Massachusetts for nine years and is still active in governmental affairs. Ben has his doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Georgetown University.

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