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When Politics and Public Administration Are at Odds

A functioning administrative state is necessary for democracy to work. Weaponizing administrative functions invites ineffectiveness and a cycle of retribution.

(Becky Wright Photography/Shutterstock)
Politics decides and administration does. Though an oversimplified cliché, the phrase does speak to the basic logic of separating the day-to-day administration of government from the political process. Though there have always been ebbs and flow in the balance of political and administrative power, we seem to be at an extreme point where everything is political. While it has been rightly argued that some of our core democratic institutions have proved more fragile than expected over the past few years, I think our larger challenge is the politicization of core administrative concepts.

Reflecting on this larger challenge has led me to two uncomfortable questions. The first: Does the United States need to be a democracy? The answer is no. No matter how sacred I find the American experiment in self-government, many a state functions under alternative political systems. Which leads to my second question: Can a functioning democracy exist without an effective administrative apparatus? Again, I think the answer is no. To return to my cliché, if everything is politics, all we do is decide. Democracy without a functioning administrative state is doomed to fail because nothing will get done.

Anti-state attitudes are nothing new. It is not surprising that politicians run against Washington, i.e., seek public office due to dissatisfaction with their government. But there is a big difference between a desire to reform administrative institutions and a complete indifference to them. Again, if everything is politics, 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 were sent duplicate tax bills. It was confusing, and the public rightly called for accountability. Thankfully, the problem was identified, changes were made to the process and the mistake should not occur again. Yes, a mistake was made, but accountability meant finding the problem and improving the administrative process. However, when fully politicized, accountability devolves into retribution. Find who made the mistake and fire them. It feels like accountability, but it does not actually result in any substantive improvement in governing. Worse, it invites a cycle of retribution that can weaponize administrative functions to the point of ineffectiveness.

Another core administrative concept, federalism, is being similarly politicized. American federalism is a structural tool for keeping government effective, despite our many divisions and policy disagreements. There will always be disagreements over what level of government should be responsible for what, but ideally it is at least clear about who is responsible for what at a point in time. When politicized, federalism is simply used as a buzzword for stripping power from political opponents. At that point, a concept that facilitates good governance in a complex society devolves into another barrier making it harder to govern.

Finally, the concept of representation in the administrative state, when politicized, loses its practical meaning. I witnessed this firsthand during our local debate over a mask mandate last year. Opponents of the mandate claimed they had no representation for their position. In reality, our city council passed a mandate on a divided 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 getting one’s 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 how well it was done. Administrative effectiveness, efficiency and equity are impossible when they flow from a decision deemed illegitimate by those who disagreed with it.

None of this is meant to mean that politics is somehow bad, or that administration should not be bound by political oversight. Without democratic oversight, administrative evils become a potential threat as equity takes a back seat to efficiency. Rather, it illustrates how a functioning administrative state is necessary for democracy to work. We can have a functioning state without a democracy, but we cannot have a democracy without a functioning state.

As a believer in self-government, the politicization of administrative concepts is frightening. A democracy that cannot deliver on the will of the people cannot hold. Does that mean an authoritative turn? Or something less dramatic like a steady erosion of trust and legitimacy? I do not know. But I do know that the remedy is an administrative state that delivers on the promise of effectiveness and equity.

This column was originally published by the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times Online. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization or of Governing’s editors or management.
Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and an elected member of the Oshkosh, Wis., Common Council. He can be reached at
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