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The Problem with Governance by Gesture

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

By Michael R. Ford
July 21, 2021

In my research I often use public education as a case for yielding more general Public Administration (PA) insights. Hence, the recent wave of state-level policies targeting the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) caught my interest. The efforts are a textbook example of how governance by gesture is, in reality, not governing at all. Political grandstanding gets headlines, but it puts public administrators in an impossible situation.

Governance by gesture is simply when political leaders make grand pronouncements or take dramatic one-off actions rather than devise and implement a consistent governing strategy. It is often impulsive, unpredictable and motivated by a desire to win the day politically rather than improve government performance.

Consider the recent attempt by Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts to define CRT. Like many other lawmakers across the country, Ricketts is not able to offer a clear definition of the concept. It is not necessarily that these folks do not know what CRT is—it is that the actual facts behind CRT are not the point. So what happens when a state bans the teaching of a practice nobody can define? How are bureaucrats supposed to effectively implement an utterly incoherent policy? The short answer is they cannot.

Even more mind-boggling is the fact that the actual teaching of CRT in K-12 education, however one defines it, does not appear to be occurring. In my home state of Wisconsin, prominent think-tanks are calling for anti-CRT legislation without identifying instances of where it is actually being taught. How does a superintendent respond to a new state policy banning something that does not actually exist in practice? I suppose the superintendent does nothing. But, from the point of view of the political actors, action has been taken. The gesture was made.

On the surface governance by gesture may seem relatively harmless. But, I argue, it is a philosophy that damages the capacity of government. First, it is a waste of time, which creates an opportunity cost. In the case of CRT, attention that could be paid to a constructive discussion around race in K-12 education is sacrificed in favor of divisive hyperbole that makes no practical impact. Substantive debates with potential to improve public service delivery are ignored.

Governance by gesture also puts public administrators in a no-win situation. Consider the superintendent attempting to comply with anti-CRT legislation. Best case scenario is the superintendent goes through the motions of showing compliance and simply wasted a bit of time. Worst case scenario, the superintendent is attacked for not doing enough on the issue by political actors searching for an outrage opportunity. The larger point is the public administrator is working in spite of the actions of political actors, rather than in cooperation with them.

Another way of looking at is that governance by gesture divorces public policy from implementation. In a perfect world, public policy provides guidance to bureaucrats that helps ensure the goals of said policy are realized. We of course know the relationship between policy and implementation is complicated by all kinds of confounding factors. But, the basic premise generally holds that policy success is dependent on the work of the government actors actually implementing something. Governance by gesture is purely symbolic, leaving government actors with no role.

Even more damaging is the fact that governance by gesture gives the veneer of governing. Tough talk and the passage of legislation looks, from afar, like effective government. The less visible parts of the governance process, i.e. the stuff that happens after a policy is in place, are often assumed to be the point of failure when a gesture fails to produce anything tangible. This assumption feeds into the extreme anti-government narratives present in parts of American society. The bureaucrat is put in a position where success is impossible, and where he or she can easily be blamed for any perceived policy failure, no matter how disconnected it is from reality.

My deeper worry is that an entire generation is being taught that populist gestures are the proper role of policymakers. I use CRT as an example, but it is not the only example. Gesture politics occurs across ideologies and contexts as elected officials elevate political gamesmanship over functioning government.

Where does this leave the public administrator? Absent of clear policy direction, the administrator must double down on professionalism and finding a way to make it work despite our politics. While professionalism in the face of messy politics is a constant in PA, the more often we rely on workarounds, the more potential there is for a legitimacy crisis in our governing institutions. I do not pretend to have the answers on this one, but I do know it is a problem seeping into all levels of government.  

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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