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The Tension Between Institutions and Populism

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

By Michael R. Ford
May 6, 2024

Last month I attended the annual conference of the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA). As always, it was an invigorating experience. So many academics, students and practitioners presenting research on the major challenges facing government today. Most exciting for me was listening to work that explicitly tied research to practice. I left confident that our field has the tools to address the major governance challenges facing the United States today.

A couple days later, however, reality hit. My own institution is facing unprecedented fiscal challenges making even basic tasks, like campus mail delivery, a luxury we cannot guarantee. I turn on the news and see a former president and current presidential candidate in the midst of a criminal trial. Internationally we see the continued breakdown of the post-World War II order manifesting in conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East. Locally, I am watching many school and municipal boards captured by partisan political parties who are investing massive sums into technically nonpartisan elections. Most concerning as a professor are the conversations I have with graduates sharing the increasingly large mental toll that public service is taking on them. I see more and more people leaving the profession.

My intent is not to be depressing, but rather to recognize we are navigating a transition period in how we organize and manage our society. The more I write and think about the current state of U.S. democracy the more I see it as a struggle between institutionalism and populism. Institutionalism is defined differently in different fields, but I use it as a broad term explaining a society organized around and guided by the strength of its institutions. Institutions include local government, the larger government bureaucracy, higher education, election infrastructure, nonprofit organizations and more. All of these institutions provide expertise and stability in a democracy where political leadership changes at regular intervals. The continued development of a democratic society requires long-term planning insulated from short-term political passions. Institutions can provide the conditions for such planning.

Populism is also a difficult concept to define clearly. However, it broadly puts society into two groups: 1) the people, and 2) the elites. The people are considered the legitimate voices, while the elites are corrupt to the point of making decisions to benefit themselves at the expense of the people. There is always a unique tension between these two camps as a democracy needs institutions to function, but cannot be truly democratic without broad representation. As Patrick Liddiard wrote for the Wilson Center, “Populist mobilization can increase democracies’ representativeness but undermine governance.”

In other words, there is a need for a balance between populism and institutionalism, but currently we have a battle rather than a balance, and populism is winning that battle. The current state of affairs is problematic for Public Administration, a field based on professionalism and expertise, two concepts that are becoming synonymous with elitism. For example, I recently had a conversation with a good friend who, after 20 years in municipal management, was terminated by a newly elected city council. This friend is a MPA trained to manage based on evidence, facts and non-partisanship. He lost his job via a populist revolt for doing exactly what he was trained to do.

What can we as a field do about it? My first thought was to create a course on the politics of professional management to better prepare students for the populist politics so many will face in public management positions. My second thought was that a specific course is not nearly enough, we need ways to better weave political savviness into the fabric of our MPA curriculums. It is possible to be politically savvy without being political or partisan, but that is a fine line to walk, and is also a concept that quite understandably invites resistance in a field founded on the desire to insulate day-to-day public management from politics. 

Returning to my original observations from ASPA. Our field has the tools to address the many challenges facing U.S. society today. I have no doubt we also have people who are up to the task. However, we cannot be effective until we overcome the perception that technocratic competence is an elite concept that is opposed to the will and interests of the “people.” Our field is always evolving, but maybe evolution is not enough, it may be time for a more wholesale change on how we view our profession, our theories and our connection to politics and practice.

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. He also serves as the Director for the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research.   

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