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The Growth of Authoritarianism:  A Challenge for Public Administration—Part 1

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

By Tom R. Hulst
March 6, 2023

There is a gnawing, palpable and dangerous drift toward authoritarianism in America. Indeed, there has been a movement recently toward a belief in autocracy, voter suppression, conspiracy theories and repudiation of civic virtue. Democratic values of the rule of law, popular sovereignty, majority rule and individual rights have given way to distrust of suffrage, abuse of power and denigration of public institutions. 

Research from 133 countries has revealed a convincing relationship between individual beliefs, culture and politics. “State authoritarianism is strongly related to authoritarian attitudes among citizens that result from a culture that is based on hierarchies and traditional family structures” (Meloen,2000). The recent rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. culture, therefore, can debase the nation’s institutions, pervert policymaking and infiltrate public administration.

Americans have grappled with the structure and function of public administration since the founding.  When asked what was created at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin famously retorted, “a republic madam, if you can keep it.” The republican ideas of the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), Romans (Cicero) and enlightenment thinkers (Locke and Montesquieu), influenced the Founding Fathers. Literally meaning the “public interest” the idea of a republic can perhaps be better defined by what it is not, rather than what it is.

In The Peculiar Stateless Origins of American Public Administration and Consequences for Government Today, PAR, V. 50, N.2 March /April 1990, Professor Richard Stillman wrote, the founders sought “the elimination of the king, heredity, hierarchy, privilege, noble titles, and tradition as a basis of rule; above all anything that smacks of royal bureaucracy or administration.” The founders also conceived of a constitutional government with a separation of powers and checks and balances to avoid the manipulation by factions and rise of autocrats. In Federalist No. 10 James Madison wrote, beware that “[M]en of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.” The Founders were concerned about the human penchant for despotism and authoritarianism.

The founders of the profession of public administration were likewise concerned about upholding “republican” principles. They were also interested in promoting the viability and legitimacy of the administrative state. In the early 20thcentury, governments at all levels were disorganized, incoherent and often corrupt. Charles Merriam, Luther Gulick and other prominent thought leaders of the day provided a blueprint for reform of governmental administration.

Luther Gulick, a founder of modern management theory, represents the embodiment of the effort to reconcile an effective public administration with democratic and constitutional principles. Gulick wrote the Notes on the Theory of Organization in 1936 which according to Lyle C. Fitch in Luther Gulick, PAR. Vol. 50. No. 6, p. 604, made two contributions to the theory of public administration. “One was POSDCOORB*, the acronym for the seven functions of the chief executive. The other was the clarification of the principles of hierarchical organization. In the Notes, Gulick wrote in Weberian style that an “Organization requires the establishment of a system of authority whereby the central purpose or objective of an enterprise is translated into reality through the combined efforts of a single directing executive authority over many specialists.” Or, as Paul P. Van Riper wrote in PAR, Vol 50, No. 6, 1990, the classical model of management advocated by Gulick, “required a strong, centralized executive management, functionally organized with well-developed personnel and financial staff functions.” Could Gulick’s model of classical management have contributed to today’s drift to authoritarianism? The answer is likely a resounding “no.” Other aspects of the American psyche have caused this shift.

Gulick articulated more egalitarian components of administrative theory as well. He advocated the importance of comprehensive planning in the public service, and espoused programs of professional development, employee recruitment, research and budget and policy analysis. Gulick advocated for energy in executive leadership because he wanted a strong “backbone” within the structure of government so the values of democracy, freedom and republicanism could flourish. As Robert Denhardt said in 1986 at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, “recent theorists and the recent Gulick point to the importance of public administration as a moral and ethical concern.”

Current researchers and practitioners in the field have demonstrated that effective administration occurs through collaborative, humane and ethical principles of leadership rather than through authoritarian notions of hierarchy, imperiousness and arbitrariness. Public service practitioners can further disclaim authoritarian values through everyday professional practice. They can develop leadership models within departments, agencies and schools that constitute “little democracies”: these entities can share decision-making, exhibit ethical conduct and honor the rule of law. Officials can employ democratic strategies in external operations as well by providing authentic public hearings, encouraging rumor control, inviting open access to public records and conducting town hall meetings. Finally, public administrators can partner with schools and colleges by implementing programs that improve civic learning and student engagement.

Part 2 of this series will further feature modern principles of administrative leadership that contrast with authoritarianism by drawing on articles from the field including fellow authors’ observations in the PATIMES.

*POSDCOORB-Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting

Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University. He served as policy advisor to Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans, administrator in the State Superintendent Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas in 2004 and currently teaches political science at Tacoma Community College.

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