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Beyond Technocracy — Civics, Culture and Public Service

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

By Stephen Harding
March 16, 2018

In the January 22, 2018 issue of the PA Times, Larry Arrington wrote an article entitled: “The Tragedy of Public Management.”  His concerns point to the rise of local government’s technocratic functionary, one steeped in the acumen of business proficiency while driven by the elected boards insistence on prioritizing the narrow objectives of identity politics. This is a not so subtle inference that this combination is not in the best interest of a civic culture or the welfare of the broader public. By way of paraphrasing, the article supposes a number of these same technocratic managers, whether by intention or not, are neither civically minded, nor true public leaders. They are, rather, proficient processors of public goods and services reacting to the pressures of narrowly defined short-term political necessities. If my interpretation of his essay is correct, it could be inferred that these functionaries are contributors to the zero-sum game of division and separation rather than facilitators of trust and collaboration. In this scenario the best interests of democratic principles and the welfare of the overall community are jeopardized.

The Rise of the Technocrat

Common knowledge reveals that in the early 1990’s the image of the faceless governmental bureaucrat, top-down, regulatory minded, “Administrative Man” was hypothetically replaced. Enter the champion of the New Public Management, the market driven “Economic Man.” He is “Reinventing Government” according to Osborne and Gaebler. He views the public interest in terms of the aggregation of individual interests, constituents are now customers, privatization and entrepreneurship are his mantras. With an emphasis on cost-efficiency and expedient customer service, he is expected to do more with less. He and his counterparts eagerly consume the plethora of new business-based seminars focused on maximizing efficiency and learning all about the habits of highly successful people. Engaging in Public-Private-Partnerships are testaments to his newfound proficiency.  Simultaneously, Economic Man becomes fully immersed in the accoutrements of the information age. Between new methods of management and the rising dependence on technology, there is a whole lot to learn. It’s new. It’s exciting, and better yet, these new-found centers of knowledge provide a set of applied skills that for some verifies tangible employability.  An education in civics and culture may not seem so material. Economic Man, holding on to the vestiges of his former administrative self, is steering but continuing to do a little rowing as well. Yet the notions of aggregation, community-owned government, empowering rather than serving, are not universally accepted.  These concepts require the sharing of power, authority and an acknowledgement of the foundational priority of “Civitas”, in Arrington’s words. The technocratic functionaries have yet to fully understand for whom they work. They are either obtuse or unwilling to subscribe to the canons of the common good. In my own experience these local government technocrats do exist. In comparison to the greater public service membership, I would suspect they are outliers.

Democratic Principles and Practices are Still Valued

Studies and surveys which focus on the necessary competencies needed by local government managers are readily available. Most are referenced in the essay, “Core Competencies in Master of Public Administration Programs: Perspectives from Local Government Managers.” Partially dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of the surveyors themselves, the resulting prioritization of required knowledge areas were somewhat varied and yet at the same time verified. In some instances, technocratic skill sets were of priority while the survey results conducted by B. Haupt, N. Kapucu and Q. Hu themselves concluded that the more civically oriented competencies were of the greater importance. Out of the five core competencies recommended by The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), practitioners deemed one to be the most important: Articulating and applying a public service perspective. Of note are the subareas of importance:

  • Develop respect and demonstrate methods for authentic interaction
  • Value and demonstrate commitment to professionalism and integrity in serving the public
  • Communicate public interest based on ethical reasoning and democratic participation
  • Critique instrumental reasoning to promote social and economic equity and justice
  • Incorporate and value principles of democracy, public transparency, and consensus building

Outstanding Concerns

  • Managers state that they mostly learned democratic principles on the job and not in the classroom
  • Most place little value on coursework in the social sciences which would include the study of American culture and principles of governance
  • Identify politics, as evidenced by self-sorting ethnocentrism, tribalism and populism originate at the local level


Arrington is correct, outlying technocratic functionaries and their politically expedient proclivities exist. They appear to be outnumbered but their presence is felt.  An expanded educational approach to civics and cultural literacy may serve to combat this narrow approach to governance.  Our curriculums clearly need to be sensitive to the “-isms.” Fareed Zakaria may say it best:

“Even technical skills by themselves are a wonderful manifestation of human ingenuity. But they don’t have to be praised at the expense of humanities, as they often are today. Engineering is not better than art history.”

Author: Stephen Harding is an Adjunct Instructor at both Northwestern University and the University of La Verne. Over his forty-year career he has served nearly 60 public and private sector client agencies.  In addition to serving as a city manager in four communities, he has held vice presidencies in both the municipal consulting and real estate development industries.

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