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The Need For Autonomy In City Administration

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

By James Luna
September 16, 2014

The role of public service and democracy has been a consistent subject of debate in both academic writings and public service practitioner circles. At the center of the debate is whether democracy adds credibility to the mission of public service organizations. The debate makes for an intriguing consideration because democracy, at its foundation, is not complementary to public service. In one sense, democracy is the antitheses of public service. “Public service and democracy are antithetical because the existence of a public service in democracy contradicts the notion of government by the people,” according to Mary Hamilton, in her 2007 article “Democracy and Public Service.” How is it, then that the ability of public servants to serve a citizenry is enhanced when democracy is embraced?

The terms public service and democracy carry ambiguous overtones. Therefore, it is important to clarify the two definitions for the purpose of this article. Perhaps the most useful characterization of professional public service comes from H. George Fredrickson, who proclaims public administration to be the marriage of the arts and the sciences of government to the arts and the sciences of management. Professional public service characterizes the ability of agencies and agents to provide fundamental services to the citizenry. Democracy adds credence to professional public service when those agencies and agents are held accountable for their actions by the public to whom they serve. Therefore, the role of public service is to bring about democracy in practice.

Luna septA concern among scholars and public service practitioners is the career administrator professional who does not embrace democratic principles. The municipal public sector provides vast career opportunities for professionals, as illustrated by the fact that municipal government payrolls have exhibited only one measurable decline over the last 30 years. The massive size and scope of municipal government is indicative of the practicable need for qualified professionals. The professional facet of municipal government is an important characteristic of a functioning democratic organization because administrators are not limited to only an understanding of democratic theory; they possess the training and the experience to instill democratic values within the government system. The result is a well-rounded organization because training and experience enhance the administration side of municipal government when professionals apply democratic theory to public service. The difference is that administration professions define the specific fields that encompass public service, while professional administrators define the qualities brought into an organization by specific individuals who fill an organizational need. The underlying motivation is that they come to fill a need (profession) for well-trained, qualified individuals (professionals).

Conventional wisdom dictates city administrators be guided in their actions, and, in effect, be limited in their decision-making by organizational rules and norms. Organizational conduct restrictions are designed to preclude administrators from becoming involved in inappropriate decision-making. But is restraining the ability of public servants good for democratic governance? Without discarding the viability of formal guidance in democratic municipal government, public professionals should ultimately be responsible for their own actions and more apt to serve the citizenry with a certain level of autonomy.

Regardless of the type of municipal government, citizenries have options for expressing concerns to city leaders, such as in the council-manager model. However, a dynamic organizational culture where administrators are permitted to act as an active conduit between the public and the organization can create an additional avenue to ensure organizational objectives harmonize with the well-being of the citizenry.

Autonomy is important because municipal democracy involves addressing public concerns to which there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. Terry Cooper, as stated in his book The Responsible Administrator, suggests, “The task is to design a response to a problem at hand that addresses the immediate short-term situation but looks to the wider organizational, legal and social contexts for the longer-term answers.” Certainly, if an organizational culture dimishes an administrator’s decision-making capability, the organization will have a more difficult time making necessary adjustments to adapt to a changing societal environment. Those changes come in various forms, as Cooper clarifies, “Needs are satisfied through constraints—in time, money, power, ability to persuade, and the strength to absorb consequences.”

The suggestion is not that a certain level of training or experience is rationalization for the idea that a public service professional should have free reign nor is it an advocation of unabashed internal opposition to organizational norms in the interest of public service. Democracy in municipal public service is achieved when not only the needs, desires and demands of the societal milieu are brought the forefront, but moreover when those needs, desires and demands are heard and addressed to the benefit of the public. Therefore, the public characterizes the role of the city administrator and the ability of the organization to support the citizenry is enhanced through the autonomy of the city administrator. The adage, you cannot please all of the people all of the time, is valid in city administration. However, autonomy can assist in allowing administrators to please most of the people most of the time.

Author: James Luna holds a master’s of administration with a public management emphasis from Northern Arizona University. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

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2 Responses to The Need For Autonomy In City Administration

  1. David Adersen Reply

    September 20, 2014 at 1:15 am

    I wonder if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand this idea about democracy and public service. I have heard it expressed that there should be more democratic principles practiced within public service agencies . . . because . . . after all, we are a democracy.
    My first thought is that we are definately not a democracy. We are a republic. In a democracy every person gets a voice and a vote on each and every issue, but in a republic each and every person gets a vote on who will be able to vote on the issue. And then these “representatives” get to vote (or not vote at all)any way they please with no regard to the wishes of those who voted for them in the first place.
    My second thought is that public agencies are no different than private organizations in that there is a boss with managers who report to the boss, and each of these managers has employees who report to them; and the boss reports to the board of directors who report to the shareholders. The best example of this hierarchy is in a couple of movies . . . military movies, for sure, but the military is a form of a public agency.
    One is in the movie “Crimson Tide” when Captain Ramsey played by Gene Hackman is addressing the Executive Officer – Mr Hunter, played by Denzel Washington. Captain Ramsey says, “Those sailors out there are just boys… boys who are training to do a terrible and unthinkable thing, and if that ever occurs the only reassurance they’ll have that they’re doing the proper thing is gonna derive from their unqualified belief in the unified chain of command. That means we don’t question each other’s motives in front of the crew. It means we don’t undermine each other. It means in a missile drill, they hear your voice right after mine, without hesitation. Do you agree with that policy, sailor?”
    Hunter: “Absolutely, sir.”
    Capt. Ramsey: “We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it.”

    The other is in the movie U571 where Matthew McConaughey plays the Executive Officer on a sub where the captain and a majority of the crew are killed. Therefore, he must assume command. In convincing a member of the crew that he is in command he says: ” What the Hell are you doing!! This is NOT a God damn Democracy!”

    Public agencies are to democracy what janitors and maintenance men and hospital administrators are to the medical profession. In the medical profession, doctors tend to the medical treatment of the sick, while all these others are in a support role. These support roles require no advanced medical training, they need training in administration, or janitorial or maintenance.
    This is the same of public service personnel. At work, a janitor who demands democracy when the organization is deciding who will take out the trash finds himself out of a job.
    Giving autonomy to private enterprise managers results in embezzlement the same as autonomy to municipal administrators. Everyone answers to someone. Public agencies answer to politicians who are supposed to answer to the people.

  2. Minch Lewis Reply

    September 17, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    I don’t understand the tension between democracy and public service. Isn’t fiscal responsibility defined in terms of budgetary compliance? The administrator plays a role in determining budgets, but then is limited by the democratic process that sets the budget. You might check out my comments in:

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