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Why Management Would Be Good for Politicians

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

By Richard Wilson, Jr.
January 23, 2015

I have argued in previous columns that institutions of government lack, but desperately need, strong and capable management. I have also pointed out that the obstacles to meeting this need are political. In this column, I will argue that elected officials would derive political benefit from meeting the institutional need for management. That is not, of course, how they see it.

Let us start by contrasting the responsibilities borne by political appointees to top management positions to those that would be borne by politically neutral professional managers in the same positions. It is a given that political appointees must dedicate themselves to the political success of appointing authorities: that is their salient purpose. They do this by accomplishing the politically mandatory, preventing the politically unacceptable and presenting and reporting everything in the best possible light for appointing authorities. In sum, the political interests of appointing authorities must be uppermost in the minds of political appointees.

Politically neutral top managers, on the other hand, are obliged to hold an altogether set of political values: political reality for them is the opposite of political reality for political appointees. Politically neutral professionals must perform their work in the expectation that, tomorrow, they will report to the political adversaries of the people they report to today. Accordingly, professional managers must avoid any hint of serving political values. Instead, professional managers must continuously demonstrate that they are managerially competent and politically neutral. They do this by being honest and transparent about directions received and measures undertaken, by disclosing institutional strengths and weaknesses and looming future problems, and by building career-long track records in terms of recommendations made and results produced. In sum, organizational, not political, performance must be uppermost in the minds of professional managers.

The introduction of civil service systems in the 19th century is an obvious historic precedent for what needs to happen now in terms of management. Politicians across the political spectrum loathed the idea of civil service systems with politically neutral employees. They much preferred to fill the jobs of government with political supporters. But doing so meant the work of government came to a complete standstill every time a new set of politicians took office, which had become politically unacceptable. So it was that elected officials consented to civil service government, albeit with extreme reluctance. The politicians who established civil service systems had no idea that they were creating the finest government institutions ever seen.

A change of structure of the same order of magnitude as the introduction of civil service is again required. Elected officials cannot be blamed for not wanting to give up the prerogatives they still enjoy in terms of appointing political supporters to top positions in government. At some point, however, the pervasive need to obtain performance from government institutions will outweigh these political interests. When this happens the results will be every bit as stunning as was the case with civil service.

Professional managers in possession of requisite authority to actually run institutions of government would, over time, accomplish a world of good, which would accrue to society as a whole, including politicians. Moreover, the pursuit of institutional performance would oblige capable management to continuously obtain directions and consent from elected officials about things that actually matter. Elected officials would find that vesting professional, politically neutral management with real managerial authority would increase their political authority. Proof of this proposition is everywhere to be seen, as weak management is always anathema to strong boards and weak boards are anathema to strong management.

Put another way, functioning management would oblige elected officials to make a smaller number of much more consequential decisions. In the absence of management, elected officials are called on to make myriad inconsequential decisions. Making vast numbers of small decisions makes politicians feel important, but in truth those decisions matter little. Capable elected officials would find that real management made them matter more than they thought possible.

In sum, the advantages of management would be broad, while the disadvantages would remain narrow. Elected officials would indeed lament the absence of top management jobs to promise to supporters and the absence of political confidantes in those positions, who often do render valuable political services. What these confidants do not do, however, is achieve institutional performance. If politicians were to take a civil service system type leap and establish management that did produce performance, they would find the results estimable.

The practice of dealing with management would evolve into a new category of activity for elected officials. It would be an apolitical activity. From time to time, aspects would have to be moved to the political arena so that partisan political values could be applied. Mostly, however, politicians would find themselves making decisions with organizational import but little or no political import. Across the political spectrum, politicians would find that strong management netted them a great deal of good.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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