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The Need for Political Institutions to Focus on Sustainable Development

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By William Hatcher

Last week, I attended the International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) spring conference in Minneapolis. The IEDC is the premier association for economic developers, and being an IEDC certified economic developer is a standard of excellence in the field. At the conference, there was a diverse collection of panels, with topics ranging from infrastructure to retail and entertainment districts. Each of the panels contained experts from public organizations, nonprofits and private firms as well as elected officials from various level of government in Minnesota.

Hatcher juneThroughout the conference, the elected officials spoke eloquently about development and community investment in infrastructure, workforce development and amenities. The elected officials realized the importance of investing in public goods for long-term development success. Missing from their discussions were arguments for tax breaks for companies that at best only benefit a few and take funds away from the public sector’s ability to invest in its community. Listening to these elected officials made me think about how important it is that our elected officials make decisions by focusing on long-term goals rather than short-term wins.

In the U.S., we have many elected officials. In fact, we have more than 500,000 elected positions—of course, most of these positions are at the local level. We elected people to serve in positions ranging from the county coroner to the nation’s president. Often people joke that even the dogcatcher is elected. In the past, a number of jurisdictions did elect a person for animal control, and in fact, some town hall meetings in Vermont still do occasionally. This tradition of holding so many people accountable through the ballot box is an important tenet of our federal republic. It fits within Andrew Jackson’s view that the common individual should be able to enter and participate in government. But having so many elections and elected positions makes the U.S. unique among the world’s democratic nations. This amount of “democracy” often makes it difficult for effective, efficient and fair public administration.

Such a plethora of elected positions and officials pushes government to focus on short-term issues and problems instead of long-term solutions. Elected officials at all levels often serve short terms in office. As political scientists such as Douglas Arnold have soundly argued, elected officials are driven by the desire to get reelected. In many ways, this is a positive incentive. We want our elected officials to be fearful of the ballot box and to respect public opinion. However, the negative effect for administration and development is that elected officials will seek to find favor with the public by making decisions that produce rewards in the short-term, but may be damaging to the long-term health of our communities. As an example, for years elected officials in most states and many local governments have underfunded state and local pension systems (a long-term goal) in order to spend more public dollars on current expenditures (a short-term goal). In many areas from climate control to taxation, elected officials have difficulties making the long-term decisions.

Writing on this topic in Public Administration Review, Kenneth Meier called for “more bureaucracy and less democracy” because electoral institutions are pulled toward making short-term decisions. Meier argued that most of the problems facing our government are due to political failures and not failures of bureaucracy. The problem of policy gridlock, for example, is often the fault of electoral institutions avoiding legislative compromises to achieve short-term electoral success at the expense of long-term policy development. The behavior of Congress in recent years is a perfect illustration of this point. Meier called for public administration to argue for structural reforms to the political system that abate the problem of electoral institutions being driven by short-term incentives.

In the area of community development, having electoral institutions heavily influenced by short-term incentives is a significant problem because the process of developing a community is very much a long-term process. Development is about improving a community’s political, social and economic institutions. Such improvement takes years or even generations. Given the need for short-term wins, many elected officials often turn away from true development policies toward more growth-orientated decisions that will produce fast headlines, such as spending resources recruiting a company that often will not come to a community and if the company does relocate, the jobs created are often service sector ones.

In his article, Meier discussed a number of reforms centered on the national government. The following are two straightforward and often discussed reforms that would help focus local electoral institutions on long-term goals.

  • First, we need to decrease the number of local elected officials. Most of the nation’s 500,000 elected officials are at the local level. Many of these positions need to be merit-based positions not elected ones. For example, the county coroner is a position that should be appointed by county elected executives and legislators. The reform model of appointing a professional manager, who is held accountable by elected legislators, should be used for more positions. Public administration can help achieve this goal by articulating the long history of successes produced by the manager-council system of municipal government.
  • Second, states need to require a robust level of training for their elected positions. Many states already require a certain level of training on many elected and appointed officials. These types of requirements should be expanded. The training should focus on tools for professionalism and making decisions toward achieving long-term goals.

I want to stress that most of the nation’s elected officials are smart and honorable public servants that dedicate large portions of their time and income to serve their communities. Many understand the principles of successful public administration and development. But having so many elected positions in our system puts in place incentives that have negative effects on administration and community development.

I do not want to belittle the fact that the ballot box is what makes us a democracy, but our electoral institutions are too focused on short-term goals. Community development practitioners need quality and professional elected officials to help managers construct visions that are meaningful and representative of a community. Having more bureaucracy and democracy is needed at the local level to achieve this goal and sustainable development in our communities.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected]. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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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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