Political Hot Potato

Career civil servants can't be expected to make all the hard decisions.

Civil servants can make decisions that are better for the long-term good of the country than elected officials can, right?

In a new book, public management expert Alasdair Roberts explores the rise and limits of that way of thinking, which he dubs in the title, The Logic of Discipline (Oxford University Press, 2010). The basic premise is democracies like ours have turned much of the nation's major decision-making authority over to professional bureaucrats. They fear politicians will make the wrong decisions because they're too focused on their own reelections. In addition to handing power to professionals, democracies also have created a variety of laws, rules and regulations designed to constrain politicians from making bad choices.

Roberts notes that foreign policy and national security are governed by such depoliticized systems as are major economic security institutions. "There are certain tasks, essential to the operation of globalized markets, that are organized in distinctive ways so that they will be buffered from popular influence or the vagaries of political judgment," he writes.

From the Base Realignment and Closure Commission system to pay-as-you-go budgeting rules, from the push to give federal agencies' management chiefs fixed, apolitical terms to the empowerment of independent bodies such as the Federal Reserve to make fundamental decisions for the nation, the logic of discipline is a pervasive mentality when the United States faces thorny issues. The underlying view is politicians can't be trusted.

But is handing authority over to civil servants and a predetermined set of rules always the best way to organize governmental operations? Roberts says the recent financial crisis and consequent worldwide economic recession is a clear argument that the professionals don't always know best. Central banks failed to prevent the crisis, independent regulatory agencies fell down on the job and budgetary restraints the world over were tossed out the window to save the global economy. Unelected professionals and a system of rules didn't get the job done. Their failures point to an obvious reaction in a democratic society. "Delegation of power to technocrat-guardians implies a weakening of the public's ability to participate in decisions that affect the welfare of the country," Roberts writes. "People might become alienated from, and eventually rebel against, a system in which power is closely held."

The problem with turning over too much power to civil servants is whether a system that does so can be sustained in a democratic society. If not, then it's setting up civil servants for failure. Roberts suggests that systems of discipline cannot be expected to make all the hard decisions that elected officials don't want to make. They can be too inflexible to deal with a world where things change and government needs to be able to adapt rather than live within a rigid system of predetermined action. Elected officials might have to step up to the plate more often and use their discretion, rather than push decisions off to civil servants. Roberts also suggests ditching the words "depoliticization," "autonomy" and "discipline."

"Within democratic systems, policy preferences cannot be locked in," he notes.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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