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Rethinking Democracy: Reforming Appointee-Executive Relations

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

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of PATimes, Workforce Management.

By Evan Berman
March 30, 2018

Citizens in many democratic nations are calling into question whether their countries can deliver for them. Public frustration is increasing on income security, health care, public safety, education, public spending, infrastructure, corruption and inequality, to name just a few. For quite some people, frustration has turned into resignation and cynicism.

That these concerns are widespread globally—and not limited to a specific nation or political ideology—suggests that something is taking place about the way democratic governance is practiced, especially at national levels where concern about progress seems most profound.

It has become popular to cast the matter as legislative gridlock or personal or leadership ineptitude. However, my observation from around the world leads to a different conclusion: the lack of public administration theory and practice on democratic leadership in national governments.

National leadership is a topic about which the public administration community should have more to say than it has. Political science theory has been plentiful about political control of national bureaucracies. But, the point here is a different one: We need greater executive leadership where political leadership is lacking, as many have said is the case.

This is no swipe at political leadership, per se. Political accountability in democracies has done a great deal to ensure human rights and civil liberties; political leadership is a proven source of needed policy change in bureaucracies. Political accountability also provides legitimacy of which one-party states often are envious. Rather, this argument is more focused.

As modern government comprises thousands and thousands of programs, the very large number of leadership tasks in national departments requires contributions from political appointees and career executives alike. Political officials and legislatures provide some leadership, but it is inevitable that more is needed from career executives.

It is worth contemplating the extent of this challenge, an important numbers game. Senior leadership in national departments has hundreds, sometimes thousands, of programs to lead. Its responsibilities include implementing a president’s policy agenda, ensuring overall strategic direction, providing accountability to legislatures and media, managing coordination of regionally or globally dispersed operations, managing legal risks, providing leadership in crisis conditions, ensuring investments in capability development and even more (I recently provided an extended list in Administration & Society). Although the number of “major” national programs is seldom well catalogued, 7,000-10,000 is a reasonable guess. What about leadership for all of them? Take a recent New York Times article, reporting that the U.S. vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s, as other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. That the United States has not is not necessarily a matter of political ideology, but the reality of “other priorities.” Now, imagine this lack of leadership across thousands of other programs. The need for leadership becomes clear.

It is beyond the capacity of democratically elected officials and their appointees to provide leadership for all the above; indeed, they usually do not. A distinctive feature of democracy is what I call “distributed leadership” in national departments, a need to ensure that leadership tasks are well distributed across appointees and executives who comprise senior management. There are appointee-led leadership and executive-led leadership; today’s challenge is to increase the latter on major issues and do so with political accountability. The nature of distributed senior leadership is distinctive in the public sector; no such focus, theory or practice is found in the private sector. More should be made of it in public administration theory.

Political accountability of increased executive leadership is not a very difficult task; it involves appointees giving a thumbs up—or down—and input for executives’ initiatives, though sometimes involving legislative coordination, too. The greater challenge is to ensure proper conditions and incentives for executives’ strategic leadership. In fact, this leadership is found already in many technical and security agencies. Judging by the other issues, we need much more of it.

Comparative public administration shows insight into practices that could be further developed. First, we might start training political appointees for their governance tasks, as many are not aware of what is expected of them; few are prepared. As officials, training can be required, similar to ethics, media and legislative relations. Role clarity and accountability matter, too.  Such training could be legislated, as necessary.

Second, we should shine greater light on departments’ strategic capabilities and performance. Are they capable of providing what citizens rightly expect based on their missions and authorized program objectives? What strategic challenges do they and major programs face? Are they meeting them? An office of accountability could provide external assessment, led by credible experts. In democracies, citizens, voters, legislators and the press have a right to know how well departments and major programs are being led.

Third, strategic leadership should be a criterion for executive appointment and reappointment, promotion and performance bonuses. Doing so increases the pressure to take leadership seriously on all parties; all executives must do strategic leadership, regardless of their appointees’ dispositions. Assessing strategic leadership can be part of the appraisal, with personnel commissions as appraisers that oversee selection, promotion and rewards of senior civil servants.

Fourth, we should set aside budgetary resources for new executive initiatives, either trials or pilot efforts by executive order. The outcomes, if positive, can later be written into law. Appointees can veto those inconsistent with their ideology and give guidance as needed. In many agencies, new initiatives are funded from efficiency savings.

These practices are far from pipe dreams. China, Singapore, New Zealand and South Korea already practice them to varying degrees. It is time to learn from other countries, even if we do not wish to become like them in other ways. A good practice is a good practice. Empowering executives to show greater leadership will not solve every problem, but it must be a priority in these times. We may have been asking too much of our political leaders and their appointees.  Reform of appointee-executive relations is imperative for democracies around the world.

Author: Evan Berman, professor at Victoria University of Wellington, is recipient of the Fred Riggs Award for lifetime achievement in international and comparative public administration, awarded by ASPA’s Section on International and Comparative Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].

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