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Maladministration in Turbulent Times

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

By Tom R. Hulst
May 23, 2021

The nation has suffered through a searing pandemic, shuttered schools and universities and endured increased racial injustice, homelessness, mental illness and attacks on electoral systems. During the past year public employees have provided heroic service across many venues: emergency services, police and fire, virtual-learning, public health and transportation. It is important to recognize the courageous responses by public officials in the challenging circumstances as well as to unpack those that have led to malpractice and administrative failure.

The field of public administration has its intellectual origin in many streams of socio-economic thought. The American constitutional stream provides the basis for democracy, rule of law and ethical conduct. These ideas were discussed and debated by Aristotle, Montesquieu and the American founders. The field has been influenced also by the stream of laissez-faire economics as espoused by Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayak. The underlying values of each stream of thought have been advocated by the respective proponents: equality, justice and due process for the rule of law; efficiency, competition and economy for economics.

There has evolved, in time, a conflict of cultures in public administration. A tendency has emerged in recent years to favor entrepreneurial principles over constitutional values. Governments should operate more like a business, some say, and should pursue strategic planning, reduction of red tape and privatization. According to Gerald Caiden in The Civilizing Mission of Public Administration, in Public Administration in Transition by Dimitrios Argyriades et al. many are, “Convinced that government is more of a problem than a solution, that the public sector without the pressure of market forces is somewhat parasitic and that public servants are excessively bureaucratic, incompetent, wasteful, unproductive and inefficient.”

This propensity to venerate economic models at the expense of public law has resulted, sadly, in a sometimes-unwitting animus toward constitutional values and civic virtue. United States presidents have described the government as the enemy. Indeed, there has been a movement recently toward the aggrandizement of authoritarianism, individualism and self-interest. Communitarian values have given way to self-centeredness, discrimination, xenophobia and greed. When these values penetrate society and public policymaking, they necessarily spillover into public administration.

The attempt to shoehorn economic theories into public administration at the exclusion of public law has contributed to the maladministration of public service in the new century. Gerald Caiden made an important contribution to the field in his seminal article in the Public Administration Review in 1991 entitled, “What Really is Public Maladministration?” Caiden provides an important taxonomy of administrative malpractice. He draws from scholars throughout the last 100 years who have written about administrative dysfunction. He lists 175, “Bureaupathologies,” that plague organizations—and have afflicted regimes from time immemorial. Some of the misbehavior Caiden mentions include corruption, nepotism, patronage and bribery. These can occur when business practices are imposed on public agencies and people lose sight of the values and ethics of constitutionalism.

Malfeasance (unlawful acts), nonfeasance (failure to act) and misfeasance (unethical acts) are legal terms that help catalogue failures in public administration. Recent examples of executive malfeasance include defiance of subpoenas by the House of Representatives pursuant to its, “Sole Power of Impeachment,” and pressuring state and local officials to change an election result. Local level officials engage in the abuse of power of law enforcement and misused public property and assets. Official nonfeasance has included ignoring the science that is applicable to pandemics and climate change, as well as turning a blind eye to social justice issues. Examples of misfeasance include undermining the role of Inspectors General in the United States government, violating ethics rules, weakening the efficacy of whistleblower laws and lying about public policy issues in times of crisis.

It is time to return to the values that were advocated by Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers and more recently by scholars Ronald Moe and John Rohr. As Moe et al. opined in an article in 1995 in the Public Administrative Review, Rediscovering Principles of Public Administration: The Neglected Foundation of Public law, “[R]ather than continue the contemporary drift toward an ever deeper misunderstanding of and active confusion of critical differences between public and private sector management a far better course would be to recognize the particular strengths and responsibilities of each sector. Government institutions are agents of the sovereign and function under public law. Private institutions are not agents of the sovereign and function under private law.”

Today’s public officials should realize that the simplistic adoption of business techniques does not improve government performance.  Some of these palliatives weaken government and interrupt the process of delivering critical services. Indeed, some can result in the maladministration of operations that lead to corruption and malfeasance. Public administrators should recognize they are not promoting competition or trying to earn a profit. They are responding to the highest calling that guarantees social justice, promotes the public welfare and safeguards the rule of law. In the words of John Rohr in, To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State, [Administrators], “Should lift their vision to see themselves as men and women who ‘run a Constitution.’”

Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University, was policy advisor to Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans, administrator in the State Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas in 2004 and currently teaches political science at Tacoma Community College.

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2 Responses to Maladministration in Turbulent Times

  1. Barbara StClair Reply

    May 27, 2021 at 12:28 am

    Mr. Hulst’s article certainly broadened my awareness and sparked curiosity for further reading.

  2. Gaylord B Anderson Reply

    May 24, 2021 at 7:41 pm

    This is a very provocative analysis of the current challenges facing educational leaders today and hopefully will promote deeper discussion of the many tough decisions educational leaders must make on a weekly basis in many school settings today. I was particularly struck by the author’s statement that “It is important to recognize the courageous responses by public officials in the challenging circumstances as well as to unpack those that have led to malpractice and administrative failure.” This sentence says it all! I hope you will encourage Mr. Hulst to submit future articles in the future. Keep up your good work at the American Society for Public Administration.

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