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Political Work (It’s Not What We Think)

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.
December 19, 2014

Wilson decIn theory, elected officials of government perform, for the public sector, the same functions that boards of directors and top managers perform in the private sector. In practice, however, elected officials rarely act in these roles. This is not because elected officials lack interest in, or capability of, doing so. The reason they do not perform in these capacities is that it is impossible for them to do so. A multitude of factors make this so.

Consider what elected officials are, and must be, about. First and foremost, they are about holding political office. The value of holding office supersedes, and must supersede, all other values. (Candidates for office who value other things more than winning elections don’t win.) Accordingly, elected officials have two primary managerial responsibilities. The first is to successfully manage their campaigns for office. The second is to manage the political offices they hold in accordance with the politics of re-election. It is an immutable given that, above all other things, elected officials must attend to the politics of elections and of holding office. As satisfying as it may be to disparage these political priorities, no one in elective office is free to subordinate them to other interests.

After winning election, and having set up their offices, politicians are next called upon to engage with each other. Every elected official assumes office having made a host of commitments that can only be attended to by working with political peers. For as long as they hold office, elected officials’ third priority must be working with, which includes working against, other elected officials.

The three political responsibilities noted above are all-consuming, even at the local level. Elected officials face a continuous onslaught of demands. They can rarely respond to them all, much less satisfy them. Politicians’ calendars are filled, morning, noon and night, with obligatory meetings and appearances. Most elected officials have insufficient time to attend to the most basic political requirements of holding office, much less have time left over for other things. When politicians take on further responsibilities, such as those discussed below, they must do it on overtime.

As much as elected officials might wish to deal with the inside functioning of government’s institutions, there is close to zero opportunity for them to do so. We can think of the institutions of government as distant shores that politicians may aspire to visit but never will. It is forlorn and futile to hope that, someday, elected officials will transform themselves into functioning boards of directors and top management. To imagine that it could be done is to misunderstand the nature of politics.

Although it cannot be acknowledged, it is widely understood that politicians don’t run the agencies of government. But this does not give politicians a pass when those agencies come under fire. Indeed that is when politicians must do something even harder than run those agencies: they must speak for them. At the same time, politicians must also speak for the public. It is a fundamental political truth that no one but currently serving politicians can do either of these things.

So it is that elected officials are about the connection between the public and the institutions of government, even though they are not about the inside functioning of those institutions. Elected officials often learn the hard way that they are responsible for this connection, as happened recently in Ferguson, Missouri. The political deficit in Ferguson was not inside city hall, but on the streets and among the people. The political work required to address such deficits must take place on the streets and among the people, not in the offices of government.

It is fair and correct to observe that, as far as the institutions of government are concerned, elected officials are dealt losing hands. These losing hands grant elected officials little opportunity to do much about agencies of government. At the same time, they are obliged to accept institutional ownership at times when they would much prefer to disown. Speaking in adversity for government and public both is one of the hardest tasks politicians are called upon to perform. It is almost impossible to perform it well.

So it is that politicians are in a devilishly bad place as far as the institutions of government are concerned. They cannot possibly oversee and manage them, but they own them anyway. There are two established ways for politicians to deal with government’s institutions. The first is for elected officials to appoint political assistants to government’s top management jobs. The second is to fill those jobs with politically neutral professional executives. The first means has long been the choice of federal and state government. The second is prevalent, but not universal, at the local level.

It is curious but true that it is taboo in the public sector to discuss the merits of these two means. One searches the literature of political science and public administration in vain looking for insight into the pros and cons of partisan versus neutral top management. Even in the face of government’s worst failures, no one calls for reconsidering how government institutions are run. The reason the subject is taboo is all too clear. It is that it is unwise to ask questions that have unwelcome answers.

Next month, I will make the political case for vesting managerial authority and responsibility in professional managers instead of political appointees, the managerial case for doing it having long since been made.

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.

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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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