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Good Governance and Respect

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
January 19, 2024

In planning my first column in the new year, I thought about what 2024 would bring from a public administration perspective. Since the new year is an election year, it clearly brings change: new people, new perspectives, new problems and new policies. Unfortunately, an election year also brings debates, dissonance, disagreement and disputes. Already we see serious contention between the political parties that goes beyond policy disagreement to the questioning of personal integrity. Since, as a public administration educator it is important for me to help my students understand all of this, I decided to devote this column to a discussion of the roles of public administrators because students that understand these roles are better equipped to deal with both changes and contentious environments. 

As background to the discussion it is important to understand the context of the American system. It is a mixture of the political and the technical. In the system, we have two major actors: political (elected officials and officials appointed by elected officials) and career (officials appointed in the merit system). Political actors change with elections while career actors remain during these changes. Both actors provide essential talents to the public administration effort and our system functions best when citizens appreciate both.

As President Harry Truman noted, “No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected.” Transparency underlies governance so that the citizen can hold both political and career actors accountable. Political officials are subject to the immediate democratic process in that that they lose jobs when they lose elections. At the same time if the citizen disappointment is connected to faulty technical decisions made by career officials, those officials can be removed for cause. In short, political officials provide relative immediate accountability while career officials provide technical competence.

Because their tenure is subject to elections, political actors bring an urgency for policy change since voters want to see change as the result of elections. However, this urgency is offset by the career actor whose focus is to make slow and incremental policy adjustments. Slower change allows for policies to be tested and adapted to circumstances as well as to provide for quicker error correction while urgency is a better acknowledgment of citizen concerns. Although the differing time perspectives of the political and career actors bring tension, they also result in policies that better meet the citizen expectations of effectiveness and timeliness.

Political officials bring a context of practical decision making in the context of political realities. Career officials bring a context of technical capacity. Again, this creates tension. For example, political actors do not want to raise taxes while career actors often provide solutions that are most effective, but not necessarily cost-conscious. The tension between these two approaches often results in a policy that is largely effective at a reasonable cost.

The political actor also wants a decision that makes sense to the voter, while the career official wants a decision that will be efficient. Again, these two perspectives may be in conflict. A good example of this is the myth of the $600 hammer. There never was a $600 hammer. The $600 was a result of an accounting process that involved a large purchase of unrelated spare parts. Each part, no matter how complex or unique, was allotted the same overhead percentage resulting in a misrepresentation of the actual cost of the hammer. While this approach may have been efficient from an accounting perspective, it was a political disaster. Had the accountants communicated with the political leaders about this accounting method, they might have been able to use an accounting approach that avoided the resulting political outrage.

Finally, political actors bring thoughts about the possible, while career actors bring historical memory. Historical memory is important to help avoid mistakes of the past. However, historical memory can undermine the ability to create new approaches. Political actors pull career actors to take different approaches when they bring ideas about the possible to the table.

As President Barack Obama said, all people “…yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose…” Underlying these things are expectations that government listens to citizens, responds to citizen concerns and provides government services in a fair and efficient manner. In the United States, these expectations can only be attained when political leaders and career officers respect each other, acknowledge the legitimate roles of each other and work together in a collegial manner. While the new year will bring debates, dissonance, disagreement and disputes, hopefully, it will also bring respect and appreciation of each other by all those who participate in the governance process, so that Americans can have the best government possible.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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