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Author Responds to Comments on “Public Administration and the Prevailing Political Regime”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a Comment on Bertone’s PA TIMES Online article “Public Administration and the Prevailing Political Regime” published March 12, 2012, a reader wrote:

“‘Political priorities’
unoperationalized has no meaning–the lack of examples implies to me no
consideration of the ethics of specific situations–the role of public
employees is to execute government processes according to law and
regulation. Where the political leadership has lattitude on policy
emphasis, satisfying competing constituencies, performing or not
performing a discretionary function, and funding, they must articulate
their goals and objectives in specific ways and those affected by those
decisions choose their appropriate action. In my opinion, we are
personally responsible for every decision/action we execute or avoid.”

Below is Bertone’s response.

Thomas Bertone

I understand the Comment to say that, if political appointees operationalize political priorities by making them specific and communicating them to civil servants, the civil servants will then execute the operationalized priorities by using established procedures in accordance with laws and regulations. Thus, there is no problem worthy of an essay, unless the operationalized priorities pose an ethical issue for the civil servants. In that case, the civil servant must make an ethical decision and be held accountable. To the extent that there is an issue, it is one of ethical choice.

I see the situation differently. Professional public administrators are often educated to be neutrally competent in maximizing governmental efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. The question is whether, in pursuing their professional mandate, they march to their own drummer and are insufficiently responsive to political leadership. Our presidents seem to believe so; and, if they do, I have no difficulty in believing that others do as well.

In the 1960’s, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (BOB) was perhaps the example par excellence of neutral competence seeking to maximize governmental efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. Nevertheless, President Nixon, after spending eight years as vice president observing the BOB, considered it to be unresponsive. He politicized it and turned it into the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). (See my first PA Online essay.) President Nixon’s perception is apparently still with us. (See PAR July/August 2010, “The Triumph of Loyalty Over Competence: The Bush Administration and the Exhaustion of the Politicized Presidency” and PAR Supplement to Volume 70, “The Suspect Handmaiden: The Evolution of Politics and Administration in the American State.”)

To cure this situation, I place the responsibility upon the professional administrator, believing that s/he should be educated in the political–administration relationship and that many political appointees will not be so educated. My series of essays is written to provide guidance on how to fulfill that responsibility effectively. Specifically, I say that public administrators should seek to maximize efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in support of political objectives. (See the introduction to my fifth essay, above.)

Concerns about ethics in the Comment may originate from my emphasis upon political objectives, but I have specific objectives in mind. I argue that there are four political groupings and that each grouping reflects an enduring political philosophy. (See my first essay.) Each grouping has its own vision of the good society that it wishes to build. The political objectives of which I write relate to actualizing these separate visions, i.e., the paramount political objective of each grouping is to build the associated good society. There is nothing, to my mind, unethical about such objectives.

The Comment also suggests a need for specifics. I agree; but each essay is limited to 1300 words, leaving little room for specifics. I have chosen to solve this problem by breaking my argument into five different essays. The first and last essays are general. The middle three are specific, covering budgeting, public professional managers, and chief executives. The second essay gives specific examples of political objectives for budgeting, itself being an exemplary case.

  • The specific political objectives consistent with Cultural Conservative budgeting are stability and predictability, i.e., incremental budgeting;
  • The specific objective consistent with Economic Conservative budgeting is implementing the mandate, i.e., programming;
  • The specific objective consistent with Conservative Democratic budgeting is protecting the legislative agreement, i.e., controlling budgetary execution through accounting; and
  • The specific objective consistent with Liberal Democratic budgeting is being responsive to the people through planning.

I do not believe that these objectives necessarily pose ethical problems. However, I may have misinterpreted the Comment. If so, I would be happy to try again.

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