Democracy, Public Administration, and Public Values

Written by: Jocelyn Johnston and Tina Nabatchi

Jocelyn Johnston (American University) H. Brinton Milward (University of Arizona), Tina Nabatchi (Syracuse University), James L. Perry (Indiana University), and Curtis Ventriss (University of Vermont & Johns Hopkins University) came together to address the larger environment in which contemporary public administration finds itself. As our discussions progressed, we began to specifically focused on the intersections of democracy, public administration, and public values in our current political and historical context.

We asserted that public administration in the United States (and elsewhere) is operating in a new era of estrangement, characterized by a rising tide of public distrust, political polarization, and populism that threatens to erode the democratic foundations of the field. Specifically, we noted that while criticisms of government can be found throughout history, geography, and political systems, the current disdain of some politicians for the “deep state,” as well as for courts, Congress, the free press, and other democratic institutions, has begun to erode the “checks and balances” required in the American political system – a balance in which public administration is deeply embedded. This, coupled with the rise of populism, the worldwide phenomenon with adherents outside of conventional left-right politics, has produced a numbing cynicism that is tearing at the very fabric of democratic discourse and public decision-making.

This era of estrangement is exacerbated by, among other issues, unprecedented levels of contracting across myriad policy domains. This “hollowing of the state” undermines public values and political legitimacy and fortifies a professional ethos that views social issues as primarily technical problems that can be addressed with instrumental reasoning and analyses. In turn, this has narrowed the field’s intellectual agenda, diverting scholarly attention from the most critical issues of the day.

Given these and other issues, we chart a path forward, one paved with an intellectual agenda that includes suggestions in three broad areas – scholarship, connections to practice and the public, and education. First, in terms of scholarship, the field needs to cultivate scholarly inquiry that highlights public values, their trade-offs, and their bearing on public actions, examines the role of public participation in identifying public values and generating better policy and outcomes, and uses multi-level analyses and methodological pluralism.

Second, we must acknowledge the responsibility of public administration scholars and practitioners to tightly tie the field to public values by articulating them clearly and integrating them into practice. This can be done through a focus on professionalism and participatory practices.

Finally, a strong cadre of public administrators is another defense against estrangement. This means educating professionals for public service not only by equipping them with knowledge of policy analysis, management, budgeting, and other technical matters, but also by helping them to understand that public administration is more than a utilitarian enterprise. Public managers and policy analysts occupy a fiduciary purpose and role in a democratic system, which mandates they uphold a greater variety of public values than just managerial and market ones. Thus, we must educate our students not just to understand, but also to uphold and advance broad sets of public values, including democratic, constitutional, and legal values, especially in situations when those values are hardest to realize.

Without striking chords of hyperbole, we believe that this era of estrangement endangers the core of public administration. The estrangement has diminished the sense of “publicness” in public administration at precisely the moment when it is perhaps most important to sustaining democratic ideals, practices, and institutions. For this reason alone, not to mention for other policy-directed purposes, such as reducing income inequality, mitigating climate change, and reforming injustice in our corrections system, public administration must use its voice to speak to public values and to the public itself. However, many formidable forces are likely to be arrayed against strengthening public administration, filling the hollow state, and reinforcing the links between democracy, public administration, and public values, including, for example, regulated industries, industries with large volumes of contracts, and political coalitions on the right and left. They will not yield easily, and yet we cannot divorce public administration from politics. Instead, public administration must actively respond to this estrangement and seek to repair and strengthen the links between democracy, public administration, and public values through scholarship, connections to practice and the public, and education.