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Who’s Minding the Store in Government?

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Mary Hamilton

In his recent book, Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. argues that government at all levels is ‘managerially deficient.’ He supports his claim with several striking examples and explains how we can restore management to its rightful position in government.

Wilson, former city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif., also has a lot to say about how public administration schools fail public managers. His argument has significant implications for how we educate public managers; but those topics are for future columns. This column will focus on Wilson’s ‘case for management.’

(Spoiler alert: Wilson pokes holes in the conventional wisdom that politics and administration are one and the same AND in my opinion, provides the best descriptions I’ve seen of the respective roles of elected officials and administrators without denigrating either.)

Back to the focus of this column.

Maybe Government Should be More Like Business??

hamilton mayWilson argues that in business and nonprofits the assumption is that organizational performance has something to do with management. “Not so in government,” he says, “the assumption in government is that outcomes result from the performance of elected officials.” If we like the officials, we praise the outcomes; if we don’t, we blame them. In other words, “the controlling world view is a simple one:  Management is for the private sector; politics is for the public sector.”

In addition, Wilson contends that in the public sector we “suffer from a collective inability to distinguish between what is political and what is managerial.” For example, Congress working on telecommuting policies for federal employees. A political issue?  It sounds much more like one that would be better handled by government managers so that Congress could use its time for more vital national issues which are political.

Politics Reigns Supreme

He acknowledges the primacy of politics when he argues that political values ALWAYS trump other values. Rightly so—he says, and I agree. However, the dominance of politics does not excuse managers from tending to the management of public institutions in order to produce high quality performance.

So what to do if you are a public manager? You already know that politics reigns supreme and the public sees government as poorly managed and government managers as overpaid, incompetent and/or lazy sycophants. You have already had plenty of experience attempting to get the attention of your political bosses to clarify guidance and/or make a management recommendation about a proposed policy. You have been trumped numerous times by political values. You also know that you have no authority to effect actions that will improve your program/organization’s performance. Moreover, you have a government structure (especially at the federal level) that makes no sense and gets in its own way. Finally, you have a plethora of rules and regulations that frequently tie your hands. What to do?

Whither Top Management in Government?

Wilson spends more than half of his book responding to that question. He laments that:  “Government’s career managers are much underrated and under equipped.” Nevertheless, he says, “the future of government will, to a great extent, be the future of its management.”

If government managers, he argues, do not focus on organizational outcomes and performance, no one in government will. Politicians do not have the time and  it is not their role. In effect, there is no top management in government. Some politicians try to play that role, but the smart ones soon learn that they do not have the time and, if they are smart, they understand that they also do not have the skills. However, few elected officials understand that the best way to improve government is to “do their political work . . . and structure government institutions to enable career executives and managers to perform managerial work.”

What Strong Management Would Do

So it comes back to the career executives and managers. Wilson argues, “the most formidable responsibility facing career public sector executives and managers, individually and collectively, is to compensate for the absence of top management.” Obviously career people “cannot, must not and dare not, fill the top management role themselves.” However, he asserts, “Career executives must (and career managers should) think like top management even if they cannot act like top management.”

In a section titled “What Would Strong Management Do?” Wilson recommends the following:

  1. Report on the ‘state of the organization’, e.g., candid descriptions of successes, failures, future prospects, even if the politicians don’t want to hear them.
  2. Ask your political bosses for directions regarding the most salient questions and problems the organization faces and make sure the questions you ask are managerial ones, not political, e.g., about changing rules to reduce administrative complexity, etc.
  3. Report on gaps between the directions received from your bosses and institutional capacity.
  4. Report on the present and future cost of following the directions you’ve been given.
  5. Report regularly on the organization’s productivity, e.g., cost-effectiveness, employee and contractor performance, state and use of equipment and property.
  6. Look for opportunities to improve the performance of the public sector as a whole, e.g., focusing on the collective performance of government agencies rather than just your own.

Overall, Wilson is arguing that management should consistently be a voice for “more effective” not for “more” and should consistently and professionally state things in management terms, not political ones.

The Big Picture

Elaborating on #6 above, Wilson says, “executives must know, across the spectrum from broad purposes to detailed implementation, what they would do if they were suddenly blessed with reasonable measures of authority.” (Emphasis is mine). This means focusing on big picture results. “Every executive and manager should have a personal list of the top-management decisions he would make if he could. It should be constantly reviewed and updated.”

Wilson recommends that these lists have three categories —all of them intended to be part of the “big picture view.”

  • Structural—how would we organize if we had a blank slate, how would we simplify and cut or combine parts of our organizations?
  • Operational—how should we operate these new structures?
  • Plant and Equipment—how would we address the inability to financially support the physical property our organization/s own?

Now It’s Up to YOU

Why would you, a seasoned, sane career executive or manager pay any attention to these recommendations? Why not dismiss them as trite and unrealistic? You should pay attention because:

  • You, the career executive/manager, can’t “flourish if the institutions you manage are under siege or foundering.”
  • Your pride will suffer if you aren’t part of an organization that not only functions well itself, but contributes to the positive functioning of all of government.
  • You have a moral obligation “to propose and recommend what is needed, whether or not [you] have been asked to do so.”

So what do you think?  Is Wilson’s argument compelling, irritating, unrealistic, inspiring?  Let me know.


Author: Mary R. Hamilton, senior executive in residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She can be reached at [email protected].

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