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Learning from Wisconsin: Why 2019 Promises to be a Dangerous Year

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

By Michael R. Ford
January 14, 2019

Last year in this column I speculated on the big issues facing the Public Administration (PA) field in 2018. Indeed, distrust of experts, local government fiscal stress, divisive politics and shifting democratic norms challenged our field in 2018. However, the big issues of 2018 were nothing new to PA; the administrative state has always faced legitimacy challenges, budgeting has always been about choices and norms are always changing. I fear the challenges we face in 2019 may prove to be a bit more sinister. To illustrate my concerns I turn to recent events in my home state of Wisconsin.

In 1949, Norton Long, in what has become part of the Canon of PA literature, concluded power was finite. When applied to the politics administration dichotomy, it would mean that a rise in political power would spell a decline in administrative power. Since 2010 Wisconsin has experienced this shift. The 2011 curtailing of collective bargaining rights, which spurred weeks of upheaval and generated national headlines, shifted power away from a historically well-organized public sector workforce. Strict limits on the state’s shared revenue program eroded local control over spending decisions, shifting power away from municipalities and towards state lawmakers. In 2011, Wisconsin changed its administrative rules process, transferring power from state agencies to elected political actors.

The common thread in all of these power shifts is that they were consequences of democratic politics. Yes, they were all controversial, and they all represented changing governing norms, but they could all be traced back to the preferences of the electorate as expressed via the democratic governing process. In a democratic society the administrative state must abide by the principals of public will and public acceptance, and manage public resources in a manner consistent with those principals. So, while the changes in Wisconsin between 2010 and 2017 shifted governing norms and challenged the state’s public sector, they were an outgrowth of democratic politics.

In 2018 the Wisconsin electorate changed course, choosing Tony Evers as its new Governor, and Josh Kaul as its new Attorney General. In a lame-duck session shortly after the election, outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a series of bills limiting the power of Evers and Kaul. Among other things, the new laws prevent the Governor from removing Wisconsin from lawsuits over issues like the Affordable Care Act, eliminate the Office of the Solicitor General, place limits on early voting, limit the Governor’s authority over the state’s economic development corporation, and limit agency power and executive authority (which was granted to Gov. Walker in 2011) over the administrative rules process. Though it is easy to dismiss these changes as the latest example of a shifting political landscape, they represent, I argue, something new. What began as a shift in power and norms has evolved into a problematic degradation of democratic governance itself.

After signing the bills then-Governor Walker declared, “The overwhelming executive authority that I as governor have today will remain constant with the next governor.” This claim is demonstrably untrue. Wisconsin legislative leaders justified the bills as protecting the will of the state as a whole rather than the will of the state’s two largest population centers, Milwaukee and Madison. Both of these reactions, i.e. Walker claiming he did not do what he just did, and legislative leaders claiming the will of the people expressed in an election is not really the will of the people, are at odds with the aforementioned principals of democratic governance.

I share the Wisconsin example because it is not unique, but rather a reflection of a larger challenge to democracy in governments here and abroad. I share this reflection in a PA publication because the implications of this challenge will test the PA community in 2019. How can the PA community serve as a steadying force ensuring continuity in government when concepts like evidence and facts devolve into political talking points? How can we represent the interests of the governed when political actors divide the governed into the legitimate and illegitimate? How do we gain legitimacy as practitioners in this environment?

Perhaps we can simply ride out the storm muddling through with our usual dedication to professionalism and performance until things improve. But this normal approach does not seem adequate in decidedly non-normal times. My hope for 2019 is a more outward facing PA community. What does this look like? One, a greater commitment to research focused on the practical governance challenges facing states and communities. Two, a greater commitment to research exploring the big questions in PA. Three, a commitment to engage with and empower more than the usual voices from (and in) the usual places in pursuit of one and two. Lastly, PA scholars and practitioners need to be active in speaking out in defense of the principals of democratic governance whenever and wherever possible. Equity, effectiveness, efficiency and economy – the pillars of our field – are imperiled when democracy erodes.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant 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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