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Public administration: 30-year-old principles still apply

Oct. 30, 2011 - 09:38AM   |  
By JAN KALLBERG   |   Comments

Dwight Waldo wrote "The Enterprise of Public Administration" in 1979 looking back on a long academic career, but also as a reflection about the future for public administration. Can a 30-year-old book be relevant? You bet.

Several of Waldo's comments are accurate about today's issues debt crisis, e-government and trust in government.

The modern U.S. is established on a foundation of economic growth, abundance and consensus, but a new paradigm of scarcity, decay and conflict is increasing pressure on public administration.

This is a radical shift that Waldo foresaw. Waldo raised the question that if the central glue that holds society together is the expectation of more, what does that lead to? If we build our society around a government that always delivers more services, benefits and progress, what would happen if there were less in the future?

Today, facing a large federal debt and austerity measures, we no longer can promise more.

Waldo presented a few principles that he used as a framework to explain, question and discuss public administration and other scholars' theories.

The first principle suggests that there is conflict between bureaucracy and democracy that obliges public servants to protect democratic values. This makes it impossible to run government fully as a business as businesses do not have to consider these values.

Second, there is no dichotomy between politics and bureaucracy. The traditional separation between principal and agent was for Waldo theoretically interesting, but realistically impossible.

Third, Waldo noted that ruthless pursuit of efficiency must be offset with consideration of public access. Government efficiency can be excessive and harmful to the interests of the people. According to Waldo, if efficiency is the only consideration, then bureaucracy fails to serve the people.

Last, Waldo considered government to be more complex than business; therefore, it must be managed differently. The Constitution is a vital steering document for government, but it has limited implications in the daily life of a business. One example of government's complexity is that far more stakeholders affect public administration in comparison to a business operation.

Waldo's predictions about the future for public administration describe five areas that would be problematic:

Legitimacy, the capability and focus to deliver the "good society."

Authority, the ability to implement policy with the acceptance of the people.

Institutional knowledge.

Control, the ability to control what we want to control in the bureaucracy. The growing size of government, with a multitude of programs often running parallel, seeking to solve issues for a diverse population, generates entropy and undermines control.

Confidence, the trust people have that government delivers the "good society" in the future. The debt crisis, and its media attention, is an example of a situation that decreases confidence in government. According to Waldo, feelings of vulnerability and fear of future events are the absence of confidence in public administration.

A legitimate government demonstrates that taxes are not collected in waste and that the return of public service makes taxes worth paying. The government proposes that it can do a better job for all citizens; the charge for those services is taxes. Simply claiming that government does a better job is not enough, it must be demonstrated. Accountability to the people is a thread through Waldo's reflections. Where is the public money spent? What tangible problem does the public program address? Government and politicians should be prepared to be held accountable.

According to Waldo, administration frames civilization and gives civilization its foundation. To uphold accountability, an opportunity must exist for anyone who wants to inquire, investigate and gather information about any potential wrongdoing. Open government and transparency address the citizens' opportunity to inquire and investigate. If we fail to create a transparent government, not only will accountability be affected, but also legitimacy, authority and confidence.

Jan Kallberg is a scientist at the Cyber Security Research Center at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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