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Nobody in Charge

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

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
October 24, 2014

In my last column, I argued that government has “pretend management” but needs the real thing. Today’s column will further explore this subject.

Wilson octLet me begin by acknowledging that it is indisputable, in a democracy that elected officials and only elected officials, are possessed with the legitimacy needed to govern. This explains why most institutions of government reserve the exercise of judgment and initiative to elected officials and, within limits, their political appointees, but no one else. Accordingly, government’s career employees are mostly limited to following directions .The idea of career management employees who would exercise judgment and initiative is inadmissible.

In short, experience proves that there is no political need for management. There is only an institutional need. It is a practical, empirical need. It would be well and good if the institutions of government could perform satisfactorily without management, but actual human experience demonstrates that they cannot. It is an observable, confirmable fact that managers are to organizational performance what doctors and nurses are to the provision of health care and what architects, engineers, and contractors are to the construction of buildings. Peter Drucker, in his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, described management as “the organ through which institutions … can be made to function and to perform their mission.”

In the absence of management, Drucker noted “things go out of control; plans fail to turn into action; or, worse, different parts of the plans get going at different speeds, different times, and with different objectives and goals, and the favor of the ‘boss’ becomes more important than performance.”

It is telling that there are no institutional arguments against management, there are only political arguments. The prevailing notion in the public sector, which is that politics and management are mutually exclusive, reflects a habit, rather than a conclusion, of thought. Unless there is an inherent political preference for poor organizational performance over satisfactory performance, which seems unlikely, this view cannot withstand even casual scrutiny. A corollary to the prevailing view is that adding management would subtract from political authority. This notion too is easily rebutted, because real world experience in organizations of all types shows that the presence of strong and capable management actually serves to increase, not decrease, the authority of the owners and policymakers to whom management reports.

The actual obstacles to management are far more daunting than the phony ones. I will name three. First, adding management would appear to subtract from political authority. Politicians who advocated management would be charged with abdicating their authority and responsibilities. Second, even if politicians across the political spectrum were to accept the proposition that adding management would add to political authority, the political results of such a transformation would remain to be seen. The last thing politicians want or need is more unknowns. Third, and in the end this may be the biggest problem of all, politicians would be loath to give up the authority to reward supporters with political appointments to high-level government jobs. Whether those jobs actually accomplish management is beside the point. These high-level appointments have substantial political value. There would have to be substantial political reward to giving them up.

It is no wonder, then that the idea of management has never been accorded serious political consideration at the state and federal levels. Nor will it, until it becomes politically necessary or advantageous to do so. Shortcomings and failings of federal and state agencies, as troubling as they may be, have not yet produced a political need to change organizational structures.

But consider how things work in the city manager form of government, and in thousands of local utility and special districts, which operate with the classic chief executive model instead of the political models found in federal and state government. In these agencies, career government chief executives perform the full range of functions that one expects chief executives to perform. These are the public sector’s best examples of management in action.

No one ever said, “The best way to add managerial values to government would be for professional, career chief executives to report directly to governing bodies. This will improve agency performance and will work politically, too.” It would be a wonderful thing, from my point of view, if some renowned person had said this! Instead, the classic managerial form was chosen, one agency at a time, in response to particular needs. Management theory was never part of the equation. Nevertheless, the sum total experience of the last hundred years is that the chief executive model, which successfully brings managerial values and focus on performance and outcomes to government, has produced widely salutary results.

We know from 100 years of experience, then that politics and management are not mutually exclusive. The virtual absence of management from state and federal government has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with intrinsic attributes of government institutions or the profession of management. It is a political absence.

In my next column, I will address the subject of organizational improvement, which is the key to success for all institutions, and which cannot be obtained in the absence of management.

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management.

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