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Why it is Amazing that Public Servants can Administrate at All

This article is the first in a two-part series. Watch next Monday, November 21, 2011, for the second piece.

Alexandru V. Roman

The last decade can be easily characterized as an administrative nightmare both at the local and the federal levels. Looking back there was always a state of crisis or emergency. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2001 recession, Storm Allison in 2001, hurricanes Ivan, Charley and Frances in 2004 and Katrina and Rita in 2005, California wildfires and the Mississippi bridge collapse in 2007, hurricane Ike and the Tuesday tornado outbreak in 2008, the 2007-2009 Financial Crisis and the Great Recession, the Arkansas floods in 2010, and the April tornadoes and Spring flooding in 2011—are just some of the events that have put pressure on administration and emergency response in particular. However, it appears that regardless of their response, it is now the norm for federal and local administrations and emergency response agencies to be held at fault for most of the losses associated with such events or crises.

One can seldom assert that there is anything positive coming out of a crisis or a disaster. Yet, in an attempt to break the traditional approach of looking for what is wrong with bureaucracy and administration, in what follows I will address things that local and federal administration have done right. I will also discuss some implications from the lessons learned in dealing with recent crises and disasters. This is not intended to claim that disasters or crises are welcomed, but it simply constructs the argument that there is an inappropriate habitual focus on administrative failures. Administrative shortcomings are often relatively minor compared to the overall successes and the emphasis on failures prohibits us from seeing progress and improvements. This routine focus on the negatives generates a blame discourse that aside from fostering the inability to recognize success, also hinders the capacity of public managers to develop as practitioners. Working in an environment satiated with competing and contradicting political demands, dominated by a “bureaucracy is always at fault” discourse, and with few solutions provided by theory—it is amazing that public managers can administrate at all.

The Blame Discourse and Lessons from Disasters?
If there is anything that disasters and crises make evident in terms of the administrative state is that such events are the only periods when bureaucracy is not too big, not too evil or unnecessary. At any other point historically the majority of the governance failures has been traced by the dominant narrative back to the wickedness of bureaucracy.

The successful administrative responses to recent disasters suggest that this should not be the case. Public managers are able to deal with critical situations if allowed to undertake bold decisions. Traditional administrative response structures and accountability frameworks are still reliable and appropriate for governance. Milton Friedman asserted that when going gets tough we all turn into Keynesians. It is during crises and times of of trial that public servants are supposed to be the first to respond even if it might not be their job to do so. Nevertheless, regardless of their actions in the end the administration will still carry the blame. Public managers often appear to be the easy and the favorite targets in the search for scapegoats – but seeing only failures is also way of not seeing successes.

For example Katrina has been labeled as the model administrative failure. Undoubtedly, there have been disastrous shortcomings in responding and undertaking post Katrina recovery efforts. Nonetheless, as Martha Derthick, in her 2007 Public Administration Review article “Where Federalism didn’t Fail”, states: “…Katrina presents a complicated mixture of failure and success. More went well than most accounts acknowledge.” Inter-governmental cooperation led to the evacuation of approximately 1.2 million out of 1.4 million in the region. “Whatever the precise details, immense credit—far more than they have received—is due the state and local officials who put this plan [Contraflow] in place and broadcast it to the public, as well as to the citizens who acted on it…Search and rescue teams were needed to save from the flood waters the large number of people who had not evacuated before Katrina struck. That nearly all of them survived is Katrina’s second big success in public administration.” Obviously no praise can be attributed to the decisions concerning evacuating those who did not have private transportation. But is it fair to blame public managers for past decisions of irresponsible city growth, political bargaining and profit driven oversights?

There is something inherently paradoxical about the set of expectations of public servants. On one hand, they are not trusted with discretion and decision-making within a broader discourse of the uncontrolled bureaucracy; on the other hand, when things go wrong there is always a detailed search for the public manager in charge. Public servants are expected to do everything without being trusted or allowed to do anything. Administrative failures can be easily attributed to the contradictory and unstable framework of political controls, within which public managers have to construct their decisions. Ambiguous regulatory restrictions and incongruous demands rob public servants of their capability to make decisive choices or take responsive actions, but they also favor a culture within which “doing nothing” is better (safer) than “doing something.”

The manner in which local and federal administrations responded to the disasters of the earlier part of 2011 left little room for criticism. Federal and local administrations are learning. They are learning how to be prepared and how to respond more effectively, and they are doing so in spite of political ambiguities and discourse-driven imagery.

Watch next Monday, November 21, 2011, for “The Hypocrisy of Expectations,” the conclusion of this brief series.

ASPA member Alexandru V. Roman is a doctoral student in the School of Public Administration, at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]

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