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Public Administration and the Prevailing Political Regime, Part 1

This article is part one of two. Watch for part two to be posted this Thursday, March 15, 2012.

Thomas L. Bertone

In four previous Online PA TIMES essays, I advance a single argument, as follows. Professional public administrators are educated to have neutral competence in maximizing efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in governmental organizations. However, public administration occurs within a larger system that is directed and controlled by political operatives whose highest priorities do not usually include maximizing efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. As a consequence, public administrators should maximize efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in support of but subordinate to the higher political priorities. Specifically, I argue that:

  • There are four political groupings (Cultural Conservatives, Economic Conservatives, Conservative Democrats, and Liberal Democrats), each reflecting a distinct political philosophy and each seeking to actualize its distinct vision of society;
  • There is a public administration model that is most compatible with each grouping;
  • The individual public administrator should work with her/his superiors to ensure compatibility among the definitions of her/his job, the public administration model or system in use, and the political grouping in control; and
  • By ensuring compatibility, the individual public administrator will be pursuing efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in support of higher political priorities.

I also offer guidance on how to ensure compatibility.

To communicate my argument, I simplify the task of ensuring compatibility. This essay is the last in the series and introduces complications and, therefore, greater realism into ensuring compatibility.

Executive Administrations Operate Within Constraints Set By The Prevailing Political Regime. A public administrator should distinguish between the political administration in control of the executive branch and the prevailing political regime. A regime is defined as the set of institutions through which a political unit makes its fundamental decisions over a sustained period and the principles that guide those decisions. (See America’s Three Regimes by Morton Keller.) A regime exists for many years but is constantly changing and evolving. At some point, it will be replaced by a new, different regime; but, while it exists, it constrains its political actors, including any administration that controls the executive branch. The regime includes the prevailing public administration system. Over time, one can expect the prevailing principles, i.e., political philosophy, and the prevailing public administration system to become increasing compatible–until the regime begins to be replaced.

A new political administration’s principles will be either consistent with the prevailing regime’s principles or they will not. If they are not, the new administration will probably be severely constrained in its ability to implement its management plan, if one is defined. In most such cases, the new administration will simply accept the existing administrative system with perhaps some tinkering at the margins (because administration is subordinate to political priorities). See Professor Leonard White’s studies of four periods of federal administration.

Therefore, in pursuing compatibility, the individual administrator needs first to identify the prevailing regime in terms of the political groupings, identify the controlling political administration in terms of the groupings, note incompatibilities and constraints, and identify the intent of the administration with regard to the prevailing administrative system. (Think for example, of an Economic Conservative regime constraining the executive branch, a legislature with remnants of a Conservative Democratic regime, and a new Cultural Conservative administration.) In considering groupings, administrators should ignore political party labels and concentrate upon that which a grouping is trying to achieve.

Part two of this article will discuss how the federal government operates within an economic conservative regime, as well as state and local regimes. Watch for it this Thursday, March 15, 2012.

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One Response to Public Administration and the Prevailing Political Regime, Part 1

  1. Anonymous Reply

    March 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    “Political priorities” unoperationalized has no meaning – the lack of examples implies to me no consideration of the ethics of specific situations – the role of public employees is to execute government processes according to law and regulation. Where the political leadership has lattitude on policy emphasis, satisfying competing constituencies, performing or not performing a discretionary function, and funding, they must articulate their goals and objectives in specific ways and those affected by those decisions choose their appropriate action. In my opinion, we are personally responsible for every decision/action we execute or avoid.

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