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Democracy, Change and Montesquieu: A Way Forward for Public Administration

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

By Lisa Saye
February 14, 2022

Much has been said and written regarding the life expectancy of democracy. Some say it’s dying, while others say it’s already dead. Democracy is a solid that moves like a liquid. It is the unmasking of a simulation of ideas and notions regarding the true function of government. It really has no relevant present-day comparison and its critical voice is essential to its future as a governing option.

Democracy is more than a thought experiment. Rather, democracy is a series of mingled debates and solutions applied by need and circumstance. Debates and solutions that navigate within particular environments that are distinct in implementation and improvement. Public administrators use formulas to polish the programs and objectives of specific public goods, thereby delivering government services to those we serve.

Democracies exist in traditional and post-traditional societies. In fact, democracy has emerged in societies around the world as a rejection of traditional government that was often more myth than reality. In many ways it addresses the internal conflict of a past that was determined by too few of its citizens. Democracy shifts ownership of the government to the governed and attempts to correct the misalignment of powerful interests by mobilizing all gender, social, economic and political classes. In almost every instance, democracy has been structural intervention and public administration has been formalized support.  

Government is what we commonly recognize as the authority to make and enforce rules. When we no longer recognize what is commonly legitimate leadership, we run the risk of crystallizing inequality, hate and disorder. The public administrator’s role is diminished when the fundamentals of democracy and good governance are ignored. A good government never shies away from dialogue concerning its inadequacies. Dialogue separates democracies from lesser and more unstable political ideologies. Democracies offer possibilities of the re-imagination of places, spaces and leaders and in doing so, it gives the community meaning and value. In his 1980 text entitled, The Essential Community: Local Government in the Year 2000, Lawrence Rutter wrote that the job of the public administrator is to make democracy work. His statement is so true. Public administration has a distinct public character which is reflected in the quality of its leadership. A leadership that understands that our conscious is our pillow.

Democracy is not theatre, nor is it performance art. It represents the best of the philosophical concepts associated with fragmented decision-making. While it does encompass the notions of selection as part of its framework, it is only liminal in its capacity to capture and bring together the margins of debate.

What must public administrators do going forward? How can we ensure that democracy continues to work? As polymaths, we have studied enough of democracy to know that as a political philosophy it moves a citizenry from crisis to stability. We also know that with every era, democracy is transformed and creates a new base of the social structure. Knowing this, we must be prepared to hone our efforts toward planting seeds of trees we will never see, while at the same time doing everything we can to ensure the environments for their growth.

What democracy always needs is a diagnosis that will contribute to its continuous improvement. In many public sector management texts, the final step an agency takes is to conduct an evaluation of its operations—preferably by a third party. The mistake many evaluators make is to devalue the citizen at the expense of the budget. Simply noting the degree to which expenditures meet allocations in relation to the policy or program severely omits the good it does or did for the individual citizen. Evaluations should demonstrate a definitive connection between what a policy is meant to do and what the citizen actually says it did. An evaluation of democracy should establish a similar connection. This is what Charles Montesquieu meant about the “spirit of the laws”way back in 1748 and it still holds true today.

Democracy hasn’t peaked. If it had, it would be matched with a precipitous decline in public service. And we know that is not the case. Change is still a constant and one that we as public administrators embrace every time we sit down at our desk or if we login remotely. Democracy paves the way for a strong middle class, more informed voters and tendencies for government compromise and reform. Without public outlets for growth and enfranchisement, the citizenry is ill-served.

Democracy is still alive and in some places it is doing quite well. It will survive society’s instances of starts and stops and though slightly winded, it will always be dressed and ready for work.

The copyrighted ‘Driving On’ image was taken by Lisa Saye in New York City near the United Nations.

Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Research Methods for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at DePaul University. Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Dr. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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