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Lessons from the Resistance

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

By Thomas Barth
November 16, 2018

One of the challenges of being a public administration academic and a member of ASPA is the tension between being perceived as politically objective and at the same time speaking out about clear deficits in political leadership. Indeed, we teach our students about the importance of separating politics from administration, practicing neutral competence and being respectful of our elected leaders. We are also very careful about not being accused of showing political bias in the classroom.

However, we also teach our students about the need at times to speak truth to power and practice loyalty that argues back.

I would suggest today we have an opportunity and a responsibility to instruct our students to learn from a clear negative exemplar in our public life, President Trump. I would argue that this is not about conservative versus liberal political ideology or policy; this is about the elected leader of our country violating many fundamental principles of effective and ethical leadership that exists in the literature.

The good news is that there is an opportunity to learn from a leader like a President Trump, for it should be painfully clear now to all that our political system allows for the election of such individuals. Furthermore, our students and current administrators may now be or will be experiencing such individuals whether it be at the local, state or federal level of government, or perhaps in a nonprofit environment with a given powerful member of the Board of Directors.

It is important for us to be discussing in our classrooms and at our conferences how to respond to the following behaviors exhibited by our current President (note that these are merely examples):

  • publicly mocking the earnest testimony of a respected and accomplished citizen who accuses a public figure of sexual assault
  • questioning the integrity and legitimacy of the press whenever there is a question, article or statement that is critical of him or his policies
  • deliberately making false and misleading statements to promote or defend a policy
  • initially refusing to condemn racists and Nazi sympathizers
  • tweeting impulsively and recklessly

We need to discuss the responsibility of career public administrators who are working under such elected officials, and it is not enough to say at one extreme that there is little that can be done until the next election, or at the other extreme that one simply must resign. The former position implies that career administrators are merely hired guns, obligated to acquiesce to whomever happens to get elected, and the resignation option ignores that there are invaluable public institutions that need to be run and frankly mortgages and college tuitions to be paid.

I would suggest that it is instructive to carefully reflect upon the anonymous Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on September 5 authored by a senior official in the Trump Administration. The author makes it clear he/she is not part of the left and wants the administration to succeed; however:

“…we believe our first duty is to our country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic. That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

Such unsung responsible administrators (a term coined by Terry Cooper in his seminal text “The Responsible Administrator) are daily doing vital work. As John Rohr suggested in his work “To Run a Constitution,” public administrators have a duty to practice “subordinate autonomy” by serving all three branches of government; this implies the need at times to question and resist the actions of any one given member of a branch, including the leader of the executive branch. Such an approach is not treason or disloyalty; it is the ultimate expression of administrative ethics.

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics. [email protected]

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