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What’s a Bureaucrat to Do? – A Different View

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

By John Pearson
January 17, 2017

Reading various reactions to the recent election in PATimes, I would like to offer the more traditional view: bureaucrats should operate in a non-partisan manner and help execute as best they can whatever new laws, regulations and policies come down through the political process. This is their duty under Article II of the U.S. constitution. I take issue with the claim that bureaucrats lack a public service character.

The political parties in the U.S. represent sets of very different values and beliefs. These differences translate into very different policies when the party out of power wins office. Bureaucrats need to accept that such changes are normal.

One PATimes column appeared to recommend outright partisan behavior. “But right now, we must work with moderates (yes, Republicans) to ensure that we do not undo what progress we have made.”

On the contrary — we need to maintain a non-partisan stance. That’s the whole idea of the U.S. civil service. The public administration community should support non-partisanship as well.

The column “What’s a Bureaucrat to do?” suggests government workers are lacking in a public service value orientation. It quotes Patricia Ingraham:

Merit is having not only the necessary skills and competencies to fill the job in question but also a public service character—a desire to act, not for individual self-interest but for a broader good.

And James Perry:

Developing public service as the core value is the bulwark of a system of administration that will motivate civil servants to do the right thing.

Somehow, there is a belief public administrators fail to do the “right thing” and that is the central problem causing public consternation with government. If public employees were imbued with a greater sense of public service, there would be a different outcome and the public would be happier with their government.

I would not agree. The law already prohibits government employees from using their office for personal enrichment. “The right thing” is light-bulb-1002783_640often indeterminate because there is high uncertainty regarding the facts relevant to a decision and because the public is divided on what values to emphasize (e.g., improving customer service, cutting program waste and abuse, cost avoidance).

I believe there are a vast number of reasons that people are dissatisfied with their government. Some are upset primarily with the behavior of politicians and dislike the partisan gridlock on major issues. Some are disturbed by what they believe is corruption. Others are concerned with specific performance shortfalls. In an earlier column, I argued the root cause of performance problems is agencies have insufficient resources to match the massively complex requirements from Congress and the inherently difficult problems that are assigned to them. Many people are very unhappy with government because of specific policies. One person told me “abortion is killing babies” and “homosexuality is an abomination.” No amount of governmental competence or public service orientation would satisfy this person. Current public policies simply do not reflect his values and beliefs.

My experience tells me competence is far more important than attitude toward public service. People vary enormously in their productivity in just about any activity including government work. I have worked with people who held very negative attitudes toward government in general or negative attitudes toward our program’s clientele. I can’t say such persons were less productive in their jobs. Sometimes such persons were especially attuned to ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse and saving taxpayer dollars. Negative attitudes toward government, government programs and program clientele are very common in our society. It would be a mistake to impose an “attitude” or “values” requirement when hiring government employees or contractors.

I recall a contractor who developed a suite of computer features that literally saved the day for our program a few years ago. He was a mathematician and seemed to enjoy solving a complex problem that had baffled everyone else. I didn’t inquire what he thought of public service or our program’s clientele. I was just happy to get our problem solved.

Look at it this way: if you were having a difficult surgery at a government hospital, would you want the best surgeon who happened to have a negative view of public service or a mediocre surgeon who had a very positive view of public service? I believe most of us would choose the surgeon who could produce the best outcome.

Some felt the recent campaign rhetoric was disturbing and suggested possibly extreme or illegal behavior. Bureaucrats in all countries should resist to the best of their ability doing things that are blatantly illegal — such as using the power of government to harass individuals, deportation without due process, imprisonment without trials, torture or government attacks on newspapers and journalists. Hopefully, such issues will not arise in the U.S. as they have in other countries.

However, we should not be quick to label the new administration’s initiatives as lawless. It’s hard to predict how courts will rule in a given situation. I wrote in a recent column why I doubted the frequent claims that the Obama administration was “lawless.”


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is goingstrongn2014@gmail.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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