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Adapting Public Administration to the Environment

Thomas L. Bertone

There appears to be widespread agreement within the career public service that multiple models of public administration exist. As an example, the PA TIMES article of May 2009, “Defining Public Service Attitudes and Actions,” by Margaret Stout identifies three models, the Bureaucratic Type, the Entrepreneurial Type, and the Steward Type. Given this agreement, a question arises: How should practitioners use this information?

The answer is that the practitioner should analyze the environment in terms of four political groupings, select the compatible administrative model, and act accordingly.

To elucidate, it is helpful to remember that, during the congressional debate over health care reform, it was possible to define four political groupings: cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, conservative democrats, i.e., the Blue Dog Democrats, and liberal democrats. These groupings are, in fact, political manifestations of long-standing philosophical traditions. Each of these traditions has a group of exemplary philosophers and a vision of government with which it can be associated.

  • Cultural conservatism can be associated with Edmund Burke at the time of our revolution, with Aristotle before him, and with Russell Kirk more recently. Its vision is one in which the chief executive presides majestically over a government that evolves along with its society.
  • Economic conservatism can be associated with Alexander Hamilton at the time of our revolution, with Adam Smith before him, and with Robert Nozick more recently. (In standard textbooks, such thinkers are associated with early liberalism.) Its vision is one in which a forceful chief executive uses government power to foster a strong state.
  • Conservative democracy can be associated with James Madison at the time of our revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau before Madison, and John C. Calhoun after Madison. Its vision is one in which the legislature resolves conflicts within its society and holds the government, i.e., the branch in charge of executing the laws, in check.
  • Liberal Democracy can be associated with the Thomas Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, with John Locke before Jefferson, and with Thomas Hill Green after Jefferson. Its vision is one in which a strong chief executive secures the rights of the people and the legislature reflects the will of its constituents.

Given that there are four groupings in which practicing politicians are striving to mold a government in accordance with their respective visions and that there is a coherent philosophy associated with each grouping, do the models of public administration correspond to these groupings?

They do.

  • The Cultural Conservative grouping and the Bureaucratic Type share a commitment to stability and predictability. Both are predicated upon an incremental approach to governing that depends on thorough staff work and expertly designed systems and procedures. The Bureaucratic Type is the model that a Cultural Conservative would find most compatible.
  • The Economic Conservative grouping and the Entrepreneurial Type share a commitment to strong and vigorous executive action. Under contemporary conditions, both embrace outsourcing government services as a method for policy control of program implementation (although the entrepreneur in the grouping is the political appointee, not the career employee). The Entrepreneurial Type is the model that an Economic Conservative would find most compatible.
  • The Liberal Democratic grouping and the Steward Type share a commitment to being responsive and accountable to the body politic. Both utilize mechanisms to solicit public input and to incorporate that input into the design of discretionary governmental programs. The Steward Type is the model that a Liberal Democrat would find most compatible.
  • The Conservative Democratic grouping relies heavily upon the well-known Iron Triangle, a device wherein a public agency is controlled by its head, congressional committees, and interest groups. This is a consequence of the conservative democratic requirement that legislative agreements be protected during execution. There is no independent counterpart in the PA Times article, although the Iron Triangle device and the Steward Type share a recognition of the importance of stakeholder participation in policy and program development

Thus, the administrative models largely parallel the political groupings.

An article by Jeffrey L. Brudney and Deil S. Wright on the American State Administrators Project in the January/February 2010 Public Administration Review reports a good deal of variation among state governments in the practice of administration. It is suggested here that a significant portion of that variation may be explained by different preferences among states for the political groupings and associated models of administration.

The point is that governments at state, federal, and, perhaps, local levels are controlled by representatives of political groupings that have different visions of what is to be accomplished and how to do it. The roles that they expect career civil servants to play differ accordingly. Career civil servants should be ready by training and outlook to respond to these differences. (It is recognized that administrations differ in the degree to which they explicitly define a preferred theory of administration. It is also recognized that the ability of an administration to accomplish a vision is constrained by many factors.)

This all suggests an opportunity for career civil servants to use their awareness of alternative public administrative models. Individual civil servants would be well advised to use some variation on the following six-step approach.

1. Identify the political grouping that is applicable to the environment, including the elected administration, in which one is working.

2. Verify the identification. This may be done explicitly through direct conversation with superiors or indirectly by making predictions about behavior of superiors and the administrative system and noting results.

3. Given the identification, specify the compatible public administration model and analyze what “maximizing efficiency, effectiveness, and economy” means in such a political grouping and public administration model combination.

4. Given the combination and analysis, specify the behavior that is called for in one’s own job.

5. Encourage superiors to understand and accept the conclusion about behavior that is called for.

6. Perform the job accordingly.

Thus, civil servants should insure that their concepts of their jobs and appropriate behaviors for the jobs are compatible with the environment in which the jobs exist. If they do not, they are susceptible to retaliatory action by political supervisors, as when President Nixon politicized the Bureau of the Budget and turned it into the Office of Management and Budget.

Thomas L. Bertone is retired president of Thomas L. Bertone and Associates (Management Consultants). Email: [email protected]

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