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Doing for the Social Sciences what Darwin did for the Biological Sciences, Part 2

Due to
its length, this article has been split into three pieces. Watch for
the third piece, which discusses the author’s Political Elasticity Theory in more detail, to be posted next Monday, April 16, 2012. Part one of this article may be read by clicking the link in the Related Articles box below.

Herbert H. Werlin

Francis Fukuyama, in his 2004 book, State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, recognizes the impact of inadequate public administration in weak or failed states. For example, in regard to helping HIV/AIDS victims, the “public health infrastructure may be nonexistent, incompetent, or highly corrupt; medicines will be stolen, records will not be kept, and donor funds will end up in the hands of bureaucrats rather than going to the patients that they are meant to serve.” The weaker the state, the less likely it is to be able to “monitor tax compliance and enforce tax laws.”

Yet, Fukuyama insists “that the field of public administration is necessarily more of an art than a science” because “there are no globally valid rules for organizational design.” Part of the problem has to do with the difficulty of measuring public sector outputs, particularly public services. “If the latter cannot be measured accurately, there can ultimately be no formal mechanism for delivering transparency and accountability.” A second problem has to do with the fact that “best practices” in one country or situation may not be so in another country or situation. “Good solutions to public administration problems have to be, in some sense, local, which requires a very different relationship between government in developing countries their outside donors and advisors.” These problems are connected to a final problem, having to do with appropriate forms and levels of decentralization. In this regard, “there is simply no theory that can provide generalized guidelines for an appropriate level of discretion in public administration.”

I have struggled, over many years, to link public administration to political science, economic development, and comparative politics so that public administration literature could be more useful and understandable to practitioners and students. My development of Political Elasticity (PE) theory, emerged from my work with Dwight Waldo and Sheldon Wolin (the great political philosophy professor) during my Berkeley graduate school days in the early 1960s. As explained in my 2001 Public Administration QuarterlyEssay in Memory of Dwight Waldo,” I wandered into Waldo’s administrative theory seminar, having taught public administration at Texas Tech, using Leonard White’s 1955 textbook, Introduction to the Study of Public Administration. While I found the seminar interesting, I did not know how to use what I was learning for African studies, which was my reason for being at Berkeley. Moreover, questions raised by Waldo and Wolin having to do with the need to reconcile politics and administration, bureaucracy and democracy, scientific management and humanistic management, among others, intensified my confusion. As I explain in my 2001 essay, various experiences facilitated my efforts to deal with these questions:

MY STUDY OF THE NAIROBI CITY COUNCIL. For my Ph.D. dissertation under Carl Rosberg (completed in l966 and published in l974), I did a study of the Nairobi City Council as it shifted from British colonial rule to African control. The new Council members wanted jobs, contracts, and favors to be given to friends, tribal members, and supporters, regardless of their qualifications. As such, they could not be withdrawn without antagonizing these people. This caused organizational relationships to break down. Officials no longer respected one-another for their competence, with the result that authority within the bureaucracy and between the Central Government and the City Council could not be delegated with any expectation of implementation. I described this situation as “inelasticity of control.” In other words, the “rubber band” characteristics of political power, which we take for granted in an ordinary bureaucracy, were no longer functioning in any effective way.

MY YEARS (1977-84) AS EDITOR OF The Urban Edge (A World Bank newsletter). When this job ended, I went back to the academic world and to my work on administrative theory. Fortunately, I met Waldo, who had then retired to Virginia, mentioning that I had gathered enough material from my World Bank experience to write an interesting book He suggested that I take a look at “contingency theory”–the theory that there is “no best way” and that “what works, works.” This was a source of confusion for World Bank staff who were expected to find and promote “best practices.”

I eventually decided that we needed a theory of leadership which could account for the fact that, for every success story in public administration, there seems to be an equal and opposite failure story, and that different evaluations of the same approach (be it public housing or school vouchers or whatever) are irreconcilable. I therefore came to the conclusion that governance (the capacity “to guide or steer” in its original Latin meaning) should be analyzed on the basis of two dimensions: “political hardware” (referring to rules, procedures, technology, organizational arrangements, methods, etc.) and “political software” (referring to the quality of relationships between leaders and followers essential for the effectiveness of political hardware), including qualified personnel, acceptable goals, two-way flows of communication, motivation, competition, independent spheres of authority and conflict-resolution procedures.

The importance of political software can be seen in a comparison of efforts by South Korea and Ghana to introduce a Value Added Tax (VAT). When South Korea did so in l977, the government took two years to prepare for its implementation. Nationwide tryout exercises were carried out on three separate occasions before the changeover to the VAT. Along with a consultation and information program, it expanded and retrained its tax administrative staff. Ghana, on the other hand, carelessly introduced a high VAT (set at 17 percent of the price of many commodities and services) in February, l995, without proper consultation with business and community groups. It led to the largest protest demonstrations during the Rawlings administration and eventual withdrawal.

MY USE OF COMPARATIVE CASE STUDIES. PE theory suggests that, as countries develop, their manifestation of political power takes “an elastic form” insofar as it can be delegated or decentralized in many different ways (like a rubber band) without being undermined and that (like a balloon) it can predictably affect the behavior of increasing circles of followers, participants, and the general public. It thereby becomes a form of “social energy.” In other words, as countries develop, political power becomes more persuasive and less coercive insofar as governments can integrate and alternate “soft” and “hard” forms of power. For example (as presented in my 2003 Public Administration Review (PAR) article, “Poor Nations, Rich Nations: A Theory of Governance”), in Lagos, despite a large World Bank loan, officials could not “force” people to pick up garbage in an organized way because of weak political software, whereas in Tokyo (as a comparison) officials can generate enough public cooperation to allow a different type of garbage to be picked up each day of the week, everything recycled or burned for energy.

The third and final piece of this article will be posted Monday, April 16, 2012.

Herbert Werlin is a retired University of Maryland professor and was for many years a researcher, writer, and editor for the World Bank. He is the author of a 1998/2001 (with a 2001 addendum) University Press of American book, The Mysteries of Development: Studies Using Political Elasticity Theory. He is the winner of the 2010 Fred Riggs Award given by ASPA’s Section on International and Comparative Administration. Those interested in PE Theory may wish to look at the most recent (January/February 2012) issue of Challenge. Email: [email protected].

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