When Professionalism and Political Ideology Collide

There are no easy answers for a career public manager ordered to cut spending with no consideration of its impact.
by | December 20, 2016

Richard Clay Wilson Jr.

A retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

How should government's professionals respond when they are told to slash spending with no regard for consequences? I retired in 2010 from a 38-year career in government. Over all those years, I never needed to contemplate, much less answer, that question. But when I talk with current public-sector practitioners, I am asked it almost as a matter of routine.

Anti-government sentiment is now so prevalent that it is commonplace for career government administrators to find themselves working for elected officials who disdain the longstanding and traditional idea, much less any process, of weighing the costs and benefits of government spending. These elected officials want to reduce the size and scope of government institutions as an end in itself. How should conscientious career professionals, who have dedicated their careers to obtaining benefits for the public from government spending, respond when they are directed to disregard what they have always striven to accomplish?

I have long argued that there is a simple and basic proposition that must guide government's professionals: Because paying taxes is mandatory, those who are responsible for the performance of government institutions have a moral responsibility to render those institutions worthy of the tax receipts they receive. This seems to me an inarguable proposition.

But it is also inarguable that the elected officials of government get to decide how much to tax and what for. When elected officials want deep spending cuts and are indifferent to the outcomes of those cuts, the employees of government have no choice but to follow the directions they are given.

The ultimate cost of government, however, is incurred over the long term, reflective of the politics of the long term. This is why it is such a challenge for government's professionals to cope when they are told to slash spending immediately. They know that cuts in current spending often result in increased future spending, while increases in current spending quite often serve to reduce future spending. In short, reducing government spending in the present and reducing it in the future are two entirely different propositions. Sadly, there is no room in the political arena for such complexities. Government professionals are understandably flummoxed.

I suggest two possible answers to their quandary. The first is understandable and excusable. But the call of duty dictates the second one.

The first answer is a personal choice. Untold numbers of career employees have served honorably and well for the better part of their working lives. They owe it to themselves and their families to continue to make a living for as long as they can. When they are directed to cut spending and programs without heed to the consequences, there is no dishonor in following directions. (There is dishonor in giving those directions, to be sure.)

The second answer is systemic. When one accepts a job in government, one assumes a moral obligation to institutional worthiness that one does not assume when one accepts a job in the private sector. When private-sector institutions become unworthy, they go out of business. It is impermissible for governmental institutions to be, or become, unworthy.

Those responsible for the performance of government's institutions, then, have a moral duty to advise the elected officials they report to, and the public as well, about the costs and benefits of public spending in both the present and the future. These duties are inherent in the assumption of managerial and professional responsibility in the public sector.

Government's professionals must stay out of the political arena; they cannot engage in ideological or partisan argument and debate. But they are can and should set forth, in writing, their considered opinions about the long-term cost impacts for their agencies and the long-term results outside their agencies that attend to the spending decisions that confront elected officials. Whether those opinions are received, much less considered, is beyond the reach of government's professionals.

When government professionals are directed to do what they regard as harm to the agencies they serve, then, they must decide whether or not their personal circumstances dictate that they do as they are told without comment. That is, after all, what their political bosses would prefer. We ought not to judge those who choose this course too harshly. The proper course, however, is for government's professionals to set forth their views for consideration whether or not their bosses want to receive them.

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