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Questions in the Aftermath of Deconstruction: Public Administration in a Transforming World

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

By M. Ernita Joaquin
April 23, 2018

In Governance in Dark Times: Practical Philosophy for Public Service, Camilla Stivers in 2008 lamented the emptiness that attended the business-minded reforms in government. They reduced public service into little more than selecting contract recipients and monitoring deliverables and portrayed individuals as connecting out of self-interest and dissolving the connection when it no longer serves them. Against that backdrop and the ethical dilemmas brought about by the threat of terrorism, the author called the era a “doubly dark time.”

Ten years after, we are confronted with a disquiet that transcends the hollowness of business-type governance. In 2017, presidential adviser Stephen Bannon pronounced the “deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of the pillars of the Trump Administration agenda. At the time, some derided it as “too late” because the administrative state was “dead,” due to the failure of political parties to carry out their gigantic promises to the electorate.

True, presidential reform agendas have come and gone. The administrative state had seen disruption, disarticulation and reinvention, resulting in what Professor Robert Durant calls the “neo-administrative state” — fragmented and hobbled in attacking wicked problems. As Arjen Boin and Paul ‘t Hart wrote in The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure in 2003, the market-favoring initiatives of New Public Management (NPM) could themselves be regarded as “an exercise in creative destruction” pushed by Western governments addressing perceived flaws in the existing institutional order.

What makes today’s deconstruction different is that a rollback in federal regulatory reach—as expected from Republican administrations—is just one component of a transformation being wrought in public administration. Deconstruction represents a departure from the incremental past, a lurch which, based on the evidence of the past year, appears to be part-disinvestment in and part-delegitimization of, vital components of public administration.

Where disinvestment is concerned, core personnel posts, such as in diplomacy and domestic safety are being hollowed out, or downgraded; programs that had surmounted acute policy deliberations in Congress are being dismembered extra-legislatively, or defunded against budget laws; and some processes that had supported cohesion within government agencies, such as labor-management councils, tax deductions for mobility, and flexible work schedules are being abandoned.

Missions are being shifted through budgetary directives, while expertise and institutional memory are being driven out by partisan and “toxic” rhetoric in DC. Deliberative policy avenues that are non-partisan, such as scientific or technical commissions are being shut down. Frequent budget gamesmanship in Congress wreaks havoc upon agency planning processes—and those of their own grantees and contractors—cascading to the detriment of public welfare.

Some of these actions might be reversible through the normal workings of institutions, but some might be unwalkable due to the other effects of deconstruction. It involves a delegitimization of civil service from inside government, abetted by today’s powerful information technology. Weaponizing information, it hurts the public service spirit while disinvestment attacks its body.

Weaponization occurs when a seemingly innocuous medium—think Twitter or Facebook –enables discrediting, disrupting or delegitimizing information to bypass fact-triangulation mechanisms, to be disproportionately amplified, delivered to a cognitively busy, yet polarized public, and then re-circulated and re-amplified as the medium interacts with others in the process of echoing, checking, or rejecting the information.

Examples are the barrage of “tweets” out of the White House against career personnel, or civil service protections, entire bureaucracies’ mission, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s, or what Larry D. Terry in Leadership of Public Bureaucracies, called the “epistemic authority” of public bureaucracies. An agency has epistemic authority if is perceived by others to have superior knowledge and competence in a field. Belief is crucial to the integrity of an agency’s mission, but weaponized bashing preempts the time-consuming process of objectivity regarding its target. To appropriate Norton Long’s famous 1949 imagery, deconstruction, circa 2018, paints a bureaucracy that is “an object of contempt to its enemies and of despair to its friends.”

Before the dust settles, we may need to examine the different areas that have been touched by deconstruction — whether it is mission integrity, workforce cohesion or citizen-government relationship. Revisiting old themes in bureaucratic politics and organizational adaptation, we could monitor to what extent judicial or legislative countermeasures are effective at propping up agency missions or protecting the workforce. We could explore at what point dismantling produces a state so weakened in problem solving that mere reversals in funding levels would not restore the depleted institutional capacity. Could “governance networks”—spawns of the NPM philosophy and the complexities they had to confront in the public arena—be tapped to reconstitute some of the lost expertise and memory at the federal level? How could agencies reconfigure their efforts at transparency, recognizing that data can be weaponized? What new mechanisms must be put in place so that real energies are channeled to support democratic processes, and prevent technology from driving—or undermining—the citizen-government relationship?

Management pioneer Mary Parker Follett taught that the law of the situation governs what ought to be done. As technology tilts the dynamic between institutions and the movement of information within the body politic, more new questions will arise for the deconstructed administrative state.

Author: M. Ernita Joaquin is Associate Professor of Public Administration at San Francisco State University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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