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Chaos and Confusion: The Erosion of Administrative Capacity in Wisconsin

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

By Michael R. Ford
September 14, 2019

During the early days of the Trump administration, then White House strategist Steve Bannon voiced his goal of, “Deconstructing the administrative state.” At the federal level, this process has taken the form of deregulation and vaguely articulated complaints about a deep state usurping power from dutifully elected politicians. Of course, the tension between the elected officials passing policies and the unelected bureaucrats implementing them is hardly a new development. Both the legitimacy challenge facing the administrative state and the willingness of politicians to run against the bureaucracy are fixtures of the American system. But what does the deconstruction of the administrative state actually look like in practice? What are the governing consequences of efforts to reduce bureaucratic authority? The case of Wisconsin, I argue, provides an answer to these questions.  

Over the course of the past decade, the state’s bureaucracy has been radically reshaped by three significant events. The first, which gained the most external attention, was Wisconsin’s near-elimination of public sector collective bargaining. The legislation known as Act 10 dramatically reduced the power of organized labor in state and local government. As a result, the incentive structures and daily working conditions faced by public employees are evolving in ways that shift power to higher-level management and governing boards.

The second event, the passage of 2011 Act 21, received less public attention. However, it represented a frontal assault on Wisconsin’s administrative state. Prior to the bill’s passage, state agencies enjoyed substantial administrative rule making power. Under the new law:

  • Agencies can only create administrative rules if it is explicitly permitted or required in legislation.
  • The Governor is empowered to create guidelines for implementing administrative laws via executive orders.
  • The Governor must approve the scope of a proposed rule before the formal rule-making process can begin.
  • The Governor must approve or reject the final draft of all proposed rules.

The changes to Wisconsin’s rule making process transformed an agency driven process into a politically driven one. The rules guiding implementation are no longer a product of government employees and their presumed expertise, but rather a product of elected officials’ political preferences.

The third event was the lame duck legislative session that occurred shortly after the election of current Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. Among other things, the legislation produced in the lame duck session:

  • Removed the Attorney General’s authority over state participation in federal lawsuits.
  • Limited the Governor’s authority over the state’s economic development agency.
  • Shifted some of the rule making authority given to the Governor in the aforementioned 2011 Act 21 to the legislature.

The curtailing of collective bargaining, administrative rule reform, and the lame duck session can all be understood and explained as unique events aimed at deconstructing elements of Wisconsin’s bureaucracy. The collective impact of these events continues to reduce the state’s administrative capacity. How? Rates of voluntary employee separation, i.e. employees leaving by choice, have greatly increased since the passage of Act 10. It follows that the average state employee today is younger and less experienced than the average employee prior to Act 10. My own research finds a link between Act 10 and reduced morale among Wisconsin’s teachers.

The changes in administrative rule making authority have led to fewer administrative rules being enacted. While the intended impact of this policy change was to ensure bureaucrats are not creating policy, in practice the reduction of administrative rules can complicate implementation by reducing certainty for both agencies and citizens. Procedural checks that ensure equity in implementation are no longer present. Finally, the lame duck session is creating a governance paralysis most recently illustrated by the inability of the Attorney General to legally settle lawsuits impacting state taxpayers.

The ongoing Wisconsin case showcases how efforts to reduce bureaucratic power can backfire when the realistic impacts of administrative deconstruction are not considered. If the bureaucracy does not have the authority to run government on a day-to-day basis, who does? This question remains unanswered. In his Preface to Public Administration, Richard Stillman warned that efforts to privatize government would become a self-fulfilling prophecy by first reducing government capacity, and then using that reduced capacity to justify more privatization. But, theories of privatization do at least offer a plausible market-based approach to service delivery. As Wisconsin is showing, eroding administrative capacity without proposing an alternative creates only chaos and confusion. The inevitable result is wasted taxpayer money, reduced trust in government, an inability to guarantee fairness in service delivery and a slow degradation in the overall quality of government services.


Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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One Response to Chaos and Confusion: The Erosion of Administrative Capacity in Wisconsin

  1. Burden Lundgren Reply

    September 20, 2019 at 10:26 pm

    Concise, depressing and terrifying. Does the author see a possible path back to normalization?

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