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Overcoming Anti-government Culture to Build a New PA Brand: Establishing Public Political Competency for Effective Public Leadership

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 5 of 14. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online.

Kai-Jo Fu

In America, as well as in other countries, increasingly complex policy issues and large-scale crises such as global threats and financial issues have made government become more important. People really expect their governments can do something in the society and be a powerful force for good. However, some cynicism regarding government has never ended and instead has become part of American political culture. Nowadays, it is difficult to make people believe that working through government can actually make the world a better place. Critics insist that the major problem is that America’s governments are now increasingly responsive to special interests instead of the public interest. Governmental and contracting scandals make people frustrated and disappointed with the political system. Governments must engage in networks and public-private partnerships. Thus, learning how to maintain principles of accountability in these relationships becomes a challenging issue for public administrators. Additionally, the failings of public sector leaders are often attributed to ethical shortcomings. The speed of modern communication and closeness of media coverage can exacerbate the public’s cynicism and skepticism regarding governmental performance. Consequently, the resulting loss of citizen trust in governments has led to increased cynicism and impeded the ability of citizens to make informed judgments as participants in their democracy.

The main solution to cynicism regarding government is to win back citizens’ trust by developing effective public sector leadership, which must be accountable and responsive to public interests. When citizens perceive their governments favor special interests and cannot balance political interests and values through negotiation and conflict resolution, this perception fuels public hostility toward politicians and government in general. Therefore, we must have a type of public sector leadership to manage the political surroundings of public administration effectively. Effective public sector leadership can provide a significant vision to guide organizations and their members. Thus, effective administrative leadership plays an important role which can affect millions of people and have citizen trust in governments.

Developing more specific and accurate skills beyond general leadership theory is imperative for public administrators. The theoretical arguments and empirical cases analyzed in the study of public sector leadership provide a way to think about what public sector leadership really is but does not truly explain how to exert leadership to cope with the external political environments that public administrators confront. Most empirical cases only capture bureaucrats at the top level (e.g., political leaders and political appointees) because the word leadership is derived from the work of the leader which is attractive because of its dramatic and accessible policy debates and discussions (Doig & Hargrove, 1987; Ingraham, Thompson, & Eisenberg, 1995; Svara, 1994). Beyond describing the significance of substantial political systems, theoretical arguments cannot offer sufficient evidence and practical implications without empirical testing (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2006; Terry, 2003; Van Wart, 2005). Effective public sector leadership requires good management and leadership. The focus of my research is to build a consistent understanding of how leadership is associated with administrative processes and political systems, and thereby ultimately enhance individual or organizational outcomes.

Political skill, one type of effective leadership skill, is a construct developed by business researchers (Ferris, Perrewé, Anthony, & Gilmore, 2000; Ferris, Treadway, et al., 2005). As an interpersonal effectiveness construct, it combines social understanding with the ability to adjust behavior to the demands of the situation in ways that appear sincere, inspire trust, and effectively influence others (Ferris, Davidson, et al., 2005). The construct has four critical dimensions: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability, and apparent sincerity. Research has shown that political skills enable leadership effectiveness (Ammeter, Douglas, Gardner, Hochwarter, & Ferris, 2002) teamwork and organizational performance (Ahearn, Ferris, Hochwarter, Douglas, & Ammeter, 2004; Ferris, Witt, & Hochwarter, 2001).

Yet, while individual-centered political skill is necessary it is insufficiently understood in the context of leadership skills in the area of public administration. Primarily stressing governmental settings, the public sector leadership literature proposes that effective leadership skill is exercised in democratic political institutions. Serving as an agency of society as a whole, governments need to consider democratic values and pursue socially desired outcomes. Leadership for public managers is not just a right but an obligation (Behn, 1998). Developing a measurement scale of political leadership qualities based on the business literature is important because it provides a better micro foundation for understanding public managers’ behavior. It is important for public administrators to acknowledge the external political environment when they wish to develop their political competencies and apply those competencies to public organizations.

Thus, the fundamental issue in the field of public administration is that the unique context and constraint in the public sector affect leadership and organizational effectiveness. Unlike typical organizational behavior studies that emphasize political skill in individual performance or internal organizational outcomes, public employees are key actors in the policy arena and they must deal with sophisticated political environments and fragmented political authorities. External political environments can highly impact public managers’ political behavior. The traditional politics/administration dichotomy is no longer viewed as appropriate in contemporary government settings. Proponents of the dichotomy argue that a clear line can and should be drawn between public administration and politics, and that public servants are only responsible for executing policies established by elected officials. However, engaging in political activities, within proper boundaries, is generally accepted as a legitimate and important part of a public manager’s role (Heymann, 1987; Moore, 1995; Olshfski, 1990; Olshfski & Cunningham, 2008; Svara, 1999, 2008). Surprisingly, despite the growing interest in what might be described as the more positive side of politics in the workplace, the field of public administration has paid little attention to what exactly happens in such activities and what political skills public administrators require.

A critical component in conceptualizing the construct of public political competency is through analyzing empirical research. Focusing on political management, this study analyzes three critical empirical studies containing agenda and policy making processes (Olshfski, 1990; Olshfski & Cunningham, 2008), strategic management (Moore, 1995), and collaboration management (Agranoff & McGuire, 2001, 2003; McGuire, 2002, 2006). In the three different political arenas, several political strategies, behaviors, and competencies suggested by these authors can be employed in the workforce and succeed in political management. Indeed, their studies resonate with public sector leadership literature that argues that effective leadership skill is embedded in substantial cognition and knowledge of political systems and environments. In addition to a political skill inventory (PSI), I identify three essential elements that comprise administrative political competency: political astuteness, visionary skill, and inclusive skill.

Thus, public political competency (PPC) for public administrators denotes both perspectives and includes individual-centered skills such as political skill at the micro level and knowledge-based cognition such as substantial knowledge of formal institutions or political environments at the macro level. In addition to the four facets of political skill, the new defining elements of PPC highlight the importance of cultivating public organizational skills described as follows:

  1. Political astuteness refers to the understanding of the substantive knowledge of political systems and the processes of government and their own departments based on position, politics, and perspective. Political astuteness ranges from low to high. The more extensive the executives and managers’ understanding of governing processes and the dynamics of those processes—the more politically astute they are—the more likely they are to make more reasoned calculations in recognizing and operating in the decision-making process (Olshfski, 1990)
  2. Visionary skill refers to the ability to look beyond public administrators’ own immediate needs and results. Crosby and Bryson (2005, p. 108) state that visionary leadership “shapes the meaning of public problems and inspires commitment to proposed solutions.” They explicate several criteria such as “seize the opportunity to be an interpreter and direction giver in a situation of uncertainty and difficulty,” and “offer a compelling vision of the future.” More specifically, visionary skill has both knowledge-based cognition and specific skill. Visionary skill indicates that public administrators need to have the competency to identify the level of problems and set the goal, then find a way to appeal to the common good. To do that before making a decision or a request involves consideration of the situation for all parties involved.
  3. Inclusive skill emphasizes the relationship between public managers and the public. Moore (1995) suggests that government authority can create environments in which citizens who face collective problems can work together and decide what they would like to do. Involving citizens in the decision making process can improve the quality of policy making and create public value. Inclusive skill has two specific interpretations. First, public managers can bring people together from different perspectives in ways that allow them to appreciate one another’s perspectives and thus enhances the design and implementation of policies. Second, public managers can facilitate the practice by creating opportunities for people with different ways of understanding public problems to work together in a collective space to solve problems (Feldman & Khademian, 2007).

This new construct of PPC has significant theoretical implications for research in public management and organizational behavior as well as practical implications for managers and workers in public organizations. As PPC is key to performing an excellent job and regaining citizen trust in government, public administrators need to be equipped with a thorough understanding of the competency and its effects. Thus, government agencies can develop and enhance employees’ PPC through coaching, mentoring, learning and experience. The goal of public administration is to implement policies decided on in political and institutional surroundings. Public administration is not just about managing programs and policies. Public administration’s main purpose is managing democracy.

 Kai-Jo Fu is a student at Florida State University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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One Response to Overcoming Anti-government Culture to Build a New PA Brand: Establishing Public Political Competency for Effective Public Leadership

  1. leadership skills development Reply

    June 18, 2012 at 1:17 am

    What is effective leadership skills development?

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