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Public Administration: Do, Re-Do… Un-Do

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

By Monica Naime
November 5, 2018

Having had the opportunity to live both in developed and developing countries, I have always found interesting the relativity of public problems. One common thing that has become more salient in the last few years is the great disillusionment going on, especially in the so-called post-truth era: arguments on degradation of public service; fake news; techno-skepticism. As a converted lawyer, I dare to say that this is not exclusive to the social sciences, as this pessimism is also common in the legal field, also.

The more we study some of the most pressing problems, like climate change, public security and migration, the more we realize they are inherently multi-causal, uncertain, transboundary, fluid and complex. The difficulty for apprehending these wicked problems implies the need for developing organizational abilities for adaptation in the face of uncertainty AKA the need to develop what the literature calls crisis management skills.

A straightforward interpretation and response of the increasing wickedness of these issues has been to strive for more technically qualified public administrators, both in academia and in government. But in many countries a new profile of public administrators seems to be wanted by new governments. Mostly, the change in the way Public Administration communicates with its polity has come hand-in-hand with a rejection for technocratic professionals, towards more pragmatic–or even ideologically-oriented–ones.

An instinctive reaction, especially from our community, is to disapprove of this change. However, maybe our cognitive and social biases play an important role: we are loss averse. In the face of an apparent threat, we feel the need to protect our field of expertise. This fear subtlety brings back the long-standing distinction between technique and politics, even if our rational side can agree that there is no one-best-way to handle public problems, as technical and political distinction is not binary but, at best, a continuum.

There is no doubt that Public Administration faces challenging times. But this should not necessarily mean that we should respond to it with a tighter defense on the model we learned, and now work and write on. We need to adapt and learn how to manage our scientific community in a time of crisis. We might be missing some opportunities to advance theory. One of these opportunities is to understand our changing context by analyzing policy reversibility.

Many governments in the world face changes in leaderships as well as social pressures to take back some fundamental decisions of the past generation: membership in the European Union; climate change policy; education and social welfare reforms; renegotiating trade agreements; even revising infrastructure projects that are already underway.

The illusion of permanence of public decisions has been unconsciously at the root of many trends in the literature: incrementalism, efficiency, creation of public value, performance, evaluation, even literature on administrative reform and reinventing government focuses on the introduction of new trends, and less on reversing the current ones. Even if closely related, I consider them to have different distinct, as they represent different units of analysis.

Many questions emerge. One I cannot grasp my mind around is if, in practice, policy reversibility is a measure of policy success or of policy failure. Should we build more resilient policies, or should we rather strive for reversibility in the light of changes in political preferences? Regardless of this glass half-full, half-empty debate, a pressure to understand this topic is its important consequences, especially regarding democratic accountability.

After all, responsiveness in the delivery of public services implies communicating the reasons behind the decision. A decision to reverse any given policy, after having spent any amount of resources in its implementation, is not exempt from accountability standards. A retroactive evaluation of the previous decision is unavoidable.

Addressing this topic can even constitute an outlet for reducing the geographical bias of current trends on Public Administration, as it is possible to find plenty occurrences of this phenomenon in Latin America and other developing countries. For once, a context of pre-truth seems to have a comparative advantage to a post-truth one.

Author: Monica Naime is a PhD Candidate at CIDE, Mexico and a visiting fellow at UiB, Norway. She is a 2018 Founders’ Fellow and can be reached at [email protected]

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