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Misfits at the Top

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

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
June 26, 2015

All but the smallest institutions feature multiple cultures, reflective of organizational purposes, structures, practices and histories. At the top of every organization is a culture of top management. The norms and values of the top management culture are known throughout every organization and contribute, for better or for worse, to attitudes and behaviors at every level.

The vast majority of public sector institutions, however, have two cultures at the top, not the usual one. At the very top is a political culture, reflective of the values and priorities of the politicians who hold office at any given time, together with the personalities and approaches of their political appointees. Just below these political cultures are top management cultures that reflect the values and priorities of the highest-ranking nonpartisan career employees.

These two cultures of the top are not good fits for each other. The political cultures reflect the priorities and the time frames of political office holders, whose presence is the result of the last election and whose future depends on the next one.

The managerial cultures of the top, on the other hand, reflect the histories and practices of institutions. The priorities and time frames of these cultures reflect organizational issues and calendars. Those who hold top management positions reveal the long-term values and preferences of the organizations in which they have advanced.

Every election brings new appointees to the political cultures at the top of government’s hierarchies. The top management figures, on the other hand, tend to remain in place for long periods of time. The former are, by and large, politically savvy but organizationally unprepared. The latter are organizationally savvy but politically unprepared.

The coming together of partisan political figures and nonpartisan managerial figures that happens after every election has much in common with corporate mergers. Students of business have long recognized that corporate mergers may make all the sense in the world but still fail due to the incompatibility of merging cultures. Often there is nothing inherently defective about either merging culture; they simply don’t interact successfully. The same kind of drama plays out in government, as partisan political actors and nonpartisan managerial ones strive to work together. Sometimes they work things out and sometimes they don’t.

Consider a hypothetical but typical situation from two points of view. The setting is state government. The actors are the governor and an agency head. A troublesome issue has arisen. The issue requires a management solution, but the subject matter would be grist for the governor’s foremost political adversary.

It is probable that, if the agency head were not to raise the issue, it would remain undetected by political radar. Raising the issue so as to deal with it, however, would risk political repercussions. The management gain to be realized by dealing with the matter would be moderate. The political risk attendant to acknowledging the problem so as to deal with it would be high.

The first vantage point is that of an agency head who was appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor. The second vantage point is that of an agency head who is a career nonpartisan management figure.

These two figures face the same circumstance, but are duty-bound to reach opposite conclusions. The agency head who is a political appointee owes a duty to the governor to serve the governor’s political interests first and foremost. This agency head cannot choose modest managerial gain if it comes with significant political risk to the governor.

The career nonpartisan manager, on the other hand, is duty-bound to reach the opposite conclusion. Not only must the career manager serve managerial values first and foremost, but that person is precluded from weighing the potential political consequences that might or might not come into play for the governor or the governor’s adversary.

The honorable and correct answer to our problem, then, depends on whether one’s duties are political or managerial. Political appointees are obliged to honor political values. Career managers are obliged to honor managerial values. They will all act, and be evaluated, in the context of the cultures they are part of.

Situations like this one happen every day, at every level of government. They demonstrate the difficulty of evaluating problems on their own merits and determining the right thing to do. All too often the correct answer to the question “What is the right thing to do?” is, “It depends.”

Such situations also showcase the inevitable confusion that attends when government’s employees, who themselves belong to all manner of different workplace cultures, each of which features its own biases and interpretations, look upward for guidance. This necessarily means looking to the political top and the managerial top too. No wonder guidance is hard to come by!

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management. Email: [email protected].

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One Response to Misfits at the Top

  1. Stephen B. Gordon Reply

    June 27, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Thank you for this very insightful piece. What you have written is an excellent example of the type of practical, experienced-based questions and insights that those of us who teach in public administration programs should be sharing with our students.

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