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The Tragedy of Public Management

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

By Larry Arrington
January 22, 2018

There is a trend in public management to hire people in top level positions who are purely technocratic functionaries — or worse: they know how to feed the egos of elected officials and not much else. These so-called public managers are weak as leaders. They do what they’re told without contributing to the conversation about how best to perform in the public interest.

Good public managers must be transformative leaders (Burns), who are critical systems-thinkers; good collaborators; and effective co-creators of desired futures (Senge). They also must know how to build the three main foundations for political quality: the rule of law; strong and properly resourced organizations; and a culture of democratic transparency and accountability (Fukuyama).

Public managers must be guardians of the public trust who know how to help build a Good Society. Sustainability — which stresses justice across the interdependent domains of the economy, society and the natural environmental — should become an organizing principle and overarching visionary goal of the organizations public managers lead.

Where are the transformational leaders and builders of political quality among appointed public managers and elected political leaders? What’s behind this decay in the leadership capacity and political quality? What’s keeping a new public administration paradigm from arising?

I think the best answer to these questions is “identity politics.” Elected officials want safe bet appointments who “think like us.”  If someone is perceived as having a counter—world view or an innovative idea contrary to dogma—ideologues move to blacklist or fire them.

We need a renewed respect for public servants who answer a vocational calling. The best mangers know how to remain objective, to point out the pros and cons of various courses of action. They have a sense of the moral high ground and the common good. They have the autonomy to do their job as independent thinkers and actors, accountable to trusting elected leaders.

Instead, public managers are everywhere under assault by ideologues who have a political agenda to deconstruct public agencies and disparage employees. Our culture must stop denigrating our public administrators, cease the obsession with privatizing public services and abandon the ridiculous assumption that government should be led and staffed with people because they have business experience.

Many people who are appointed to significant positions in public administration because they have a business background prove out to be incompetent. They have no understanding of the principles of good government, no sense of the context in which governing must occur. Far too many public managers come from the special interest groups agencies are designed to regulate. This is an old form of corruption of governments the world over.

How to understand this tragedy and transcend it is among the most significant challenges of our time. Identity politics causes us to see the “other,” the one who is different, as an enemy to be defeated, rather than a person capable of helping lead with proficiency. Good leaders are creative and imaginative people. Many of them are different, a cut above the ordinary. That’s what makes them good leaders.

Weak public managers often rely on arcane management practices, are terrible leaders and have no knowledge of modern organization theory or practice. Many people in the public service have developed a siege mentality due to bad leadership and ideological tribal politics. All they want to do is to keep a low profile, keep earning their paychecks and make it to retirement. Others are more restless, and want to make a difference.

Unless public managers become mediators of the tensions between elites and ordinary people, builders of political legitimacy and confidence-builders of good governance, the Progressive Era designs for improving governance may end up in the dustbin of history among the hollowed-out institutions unable to adapt to the demands of change. This loss includes the federal, state and municipal public administration principles and practices at the core of modern theory and practice; including the council-manager plan.

There is another aspect of this tragedy of public management. Promising talent will decide to avoid a public career. People capable of providing transformative leadership will leave the public service.

Capable public managers are often boxed in, demoted, or fired. These servant leaders are wounded warriors with broken hearts. They must become our most respected leaders — or our economy, quality of life and natural environment are doomed.

Hopefully, their tragedy in the moment will help shape an even stronger character, whose servant-leadership will become irresistible. But first we must awaken to the tragedy of public management, see its connection to the larger dysfunction of our political system and rededicate ourselves to building a worthy public service.

In my work, I call for a grassroots Cosmopolitan Uprising — a renewal of the principles and values of democracy, what I label Civitas, before it’s too late to renew a sustainable political system and a good society.


Author: Larry Arrington is a Florida-based former city and county manager, and planning and management consultant. He is President of the Civitas Project, a non-profit organization affiliated with Stetson University and dedicated to good government. To explore Larry’s blogs and books, go here.   

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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