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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.