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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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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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