Thursday, August 11 2022

Politics decides and the administration does. Although an oversimplified cliché, the phrase reflects the basic logic of separating the day-to-day administration of government from the political process. Although there have always been ebbs and flows in the balance of political and administrative power, we seem to be at an extreme point where everything is political. Although it has been rightly argued that some of our key democratic institutions have proven more fragile than expected in recent years, I believe that our greatest challenge is the politicization of fundamental administrative concepts.

Thinking about this larger challenge led me to two uncomfortable questions. The first: should the United States be a democracy? The answer is no. As sacred as I find the American experience in self-government, many states operate under alternative political systems. Which brings me to my second question: can a functioning democracy exist without an efficient administrative apparatus? Again, I think the answer is no. To return to my cliché, if everything is political, we only decide. Democracy without a functioning administrative state is doomed to failure because nothing will be done.

Anti-state attitudes are not new. It is not surprising that politicians run against Washington, that is, they seek public office because of their dissatisfaction with their government. But there is a big difference between a desire to reform administrative institutions and total indifference towards them. Again, if everything is political, nothing gets done and the state cannot survive.


The nature of accountability illustrates the politicization of administrative concepts. Accountability is complex in practice but, at its core, it means there is follow-up when things go wrong. Recently, in my city, hundreds of residents received duplicate tax bills. It was confusing, and the public rightly called for accountability. Fortunately, the problem has been identified, changes have been made to the process, and the error should no longer occur. Yes, a mistake was made, but accountability meant finding the problem and improving the administrative process. However, when fully politicized, accountability turns into retaliation. Find out who made the mistake and fire them. It sounds like accountability, but it doesn’t actually lead to any substantial improvement in governance. Worse still, it invites a cycle of retaliation that can militarize administrative functions into inefficiency.

Another fundamental administrative concept, federalism, is also politicized. American federalism is a structural tool for maintaining effective government, despite our many political divisions and disagreements. There will always be disagreements about which level of government should be responsible for what, but ideally it is at least clear who is responsible for what at any given time. When politicized, federalism is simply used as a buzzword to disempower political opponents. At this point, a concept that facilitates good governance in a complex society turns into another obstacle that makes governance more difficult.

Finally, the concept of representation in the administrative state, when politicized, loses its practical meaning. I witnessed this during our local mask mandate debate last year. Opponents of the mandate claimed they had no representation for their position. In reality, our city council passed a mandate on a split vote, so their position was represented in the minority. But many felt the Democratic decision was illegitimate because they disagreed with it. In other words, representation meant going your own way, not simply being able to participate freely in the democratic process. It follows that the administrative implementation of the approved policy would be deemed illegitimate, regardless of the quality of the latter. Administrative effectiveness, efficiency and fairness are impossible when they flow from a decision deemed illegitimate by those who disagree with it.

None of this means that the policy is somehow bad, or that the administration shouldn’t be bound by political oversight. Without democratic control, administrative evils become a potential threat as fairness takes precedence over efficiency. On the contrary, it illustrates how a functioning administrative state is necessary for the functioning of democracy. We can have a functioning state without democracy, but we cannot have democracy without a functioning state.

As a proponent of self-government, the politicization of administrative concepts is frightening. A democracy that cannot respond to the will of the people cannot hold. Does this mean an authoritarian turn? Or something less dramatic like a steady erosion of trust and legitimacy? I dunno. But I know the remedy is an administrative state that keeps its promise of efficiency and fairness.


This article was originally published by the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times online. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization or of Governingeditors or management.

Michael R. Ford is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and an elected member of the City Council of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He can be contacted at fordm@uwosh.edu.

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