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In Defense of Politics in Public Administration: A Value Pluralist Perspective


Scholars of public administration have historically too often been disdainful towards politics in the field, viewing political activities and interests as opportunities for corruption, mismanagement, and skewed priorities. Supporters of this anti-political stance have become even more strident in recent years, many of them advancing scientific models for the study and practice of public administration and governance.
Michael Spicer ...

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Scholars of public administration have historically too often been disdainful towards politics in the field, viewing political activities and interests as opportunities for corruption, mismanagement, and skewed priorities. Supporters of this anti-political stance have become even more strident in recent years, many of them advancing scientific models for the study and practice of public administration and governance.
Michael Spicer argues that politics deserves to be defended as a vital facet of public administration on the grounds that it can promote moral conduct in government and in public administration, principally by bringing to the foreground the role of values in administrative practice. Politics can facilitate the resolution of conflicts that naturally arise from competing values, or conceptions of the good, while minimizing the use of force or violence. Drawing on the writings of Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Crick, and Stuart Hampshire, In Defense of Politics in Public Administration argues that value conflict is an integral part of our moral experience, both in making our own moral choices and in dealing with those whose values conflict with our own. This book is a spirited declaration of principles and a timely contribution to a dialogue that is redefining public administration, both in theory and in practice.

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“This is a great book, entirely original, and I know of no work like it. It combines deep knowledge of relatively contemporary political and moral philosophy with a total command of the core literature in public administration. It goes well beyond works on ethics in public administration and is qualitatively well above even the best of them. Spicer is clearly among the very best minds in the field of public administration. He puts all the pieces together in this tour de force on what is and has long been the field's central question: What is the appropriate relationship of politics to public administration. This is a very important book and I hope it finds its way into every public administration program and every public administration faculty member's hands.”--David H. Rosenbloom, author of Building a Legislative-Centered Public Administration,Administrative Law for Public Managers, and Public Administration: Understanding Management, Politics, and Law in the Public Sector

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“Spicer argues that politics is central to public administration because it reflects the moral diversity and value differences found within a democracy. An outstanding book for collections on public administration, policy, and U.S. politiecs. Highly recommended for all readership levels.”—CHOICE

"Michael Spicer presents both a tightly argued endorsement of public administrators' necessary and legitimate participation in political discourse as well as a convincing rebuttal to those ... whose misplaced optimism about the possible benefits of technicist analysis, policy neutrality, and bureaucratic control conspire to produce what Spicer calls an 'antipolitical attitude.'"--Administrative Theory & Praxis / Public Administration Theory Network

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Michael W. Spiceris Professor of Public Administration and Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and the author of Public Administration and the State (Alabama, 2001).

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In Defense of Politics in Public Administration

A Value Pluralist Perspective
By Michael W. Spicer


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1685-3

Chapter One


Anti-Politics in Public Administration

The purpose of this book is to offer a defense for the idea and practice of politics in public administration. Admittedly, defending politics nowadays is a challenging task in light of the fact that politics and politicians are not especially popular and, in fact, candidates for elected office of a variety of ideological stripes often make great play of their desire to take politics out of government and to make government run more like a business or, alternatively, like a family or even a church. However, in looking at the failed states all around the world, this sort of antipathy towards politics strikes me as a rather silly, if not outright dangerous, sentiment. Certainly, like all human activities, politics reflects many of the vices that we see in much of human behavior: those of greed, avarice, pride, vanity, envy, lust, and so forth. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the vices of politics, it is important to remember that politics is also productive of certain virtues. Perhaps among the most important of these is that it can help us to keep the peace by limiting the use of violence in dealing with our differences. Whatever its vices, politics as a practice, for example, has enabled us in the United States, despite a wrenching depression and enduring racial strife, to avoid a second civil war for nearly a century and a half. Moreover, as events in Darfur, the Congo, and elsewhere make abundantly clear, keeping the peace through politics is not an achievement to be sneezed at. The horrific events of human suffering and violence associated with these conflicts should serve to remind us that politics is a precious, but also a very fragile, human achievement and it is not one lightly to be put aside. Politics provides us with a means of settling, at least for a time, the inevitable conflicts of interests and values or conceptions of the good that seem to arise among us without having constantly to take up arms against each other. Politics is, as Bernard Crick once wrote, "a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence" ([1962] 1993, 33). Moreover, as I argue in this book, politics is far more than just this. It is also a way of forcing us to face up to the conflicts among moral claims or values that are an integral part not just of our personal moral experience, but also of the practice of government and public administration. Furthermore, politics is a means of limiting the sometimes seductive and even admittedly occasionally helpful, but more often personally and socially destructive, consequences of single-minded obsession and zealotry.


Notwithstanding what I hope to demonstrate are these virtues of politics, it must be admitted that public administration, since its inception as a self-conscious field of study, has often expressed what can best be termed an "anti-political" attitude. Woodrow Wilson, for example, famously expressed such an attitude when he complained about the fact that "the people ... have a score of differing opinions" and "can agree upon nothing simple" so that "advance must be made through compromise, by a compounding of differences, by a trimming of plans and a suppression of too straightforward principles" (1887, 207). In Wilson's view, politics was an obstacle to progress and reform because "the many, the people who are sovereign have no single ear which one can approach" and they "are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish with the selfishnesses, the ignorances, the stubbornesses, the timidities, or the follies of several thousand persons" (1887, 208). More recently, Richard Nathan has complained about "the hyper-pluralism of American government" and has argued that we should consider ways of "toning down" this hyper-pluralism so that "hard problems can be addressed more easily and more expeditiously" and so that we might "get policy closure on high-salience issues and bring competence to bear in the implementation of these new policies once adopted" (1995, 215). Expressing an aversion to the political conflict characteristic of modern government, Nathan believes that we should do more to "insulate decisions from political heat and bring expertise to bear in doing so" (214). Nathan is by no means alone here in his aversion to political conflict. Kenneth Meier, perhaps one of our leading contemporary public management scholars, has opined that our "electoral branches of government have failed as deliberative institutions" and that their "policy failures ... are legion" because they are unable to "resolve goal conflict with informed public policy" (1997, 196). As Meier sees it, what public administration and governance need today is "more bureaucracy and less democracy" (196). Robert Behn, another leading writer in public management, has urged public managers to "exercise leadership" and to "take initiative to correct" what he sees as "the current failures of our system of governance" (1998, 221)-failures that include, in his view, the fact that "elected chief executives rarely give clear directions to their agency managers," the tendency of legislatures to "give directions that are ambiguous and contradictory-and often unrealistic" (214), and the "political failure of our system of governance created by the power of factions" (218).

Lest it be thought that this somewhat disdainful attitude towards the normal practice of politics has been somehow confined to the pages of specialized academic journals, it is worth noting that such an attitude has also been evident in more popular writings on public management. In discussing possible reforms in the budgetary process in the 1990s, the National Performance Review (NPR) report, for example, asserted that the budget should reflect what it termed "the thoughtful planning of our public leaders" and should not simply be "the product of struggles among competing interests" (Gore 1993, 15). "Unfortunately," from the NPR's perspective, "the most deliberate planning is often subordinated to politics" (15). David Osborne and Peter Plastrik sound a similarly critical note when they complain about how "steering" or "choosing and evaluating strategies to achieve fundamental goals" is "far easier in a rational, nonpoliticized environment than in the typical political environment one finds," because "in most political environments, elected officials are far more interested in achieving their short-term political goals ... than in increasing the government's capacity to choose long-term goals and strategies to achieve them" (1997, 107). Indeed, these authors would seem to display an almost complete lack of any respect at all for the political process when they endorse the idea that government reformers should "stand up to the interests that block change" by pursuing a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" approach to political and administrative reform (329). More recently, writing with Peter Hutchinson, Osborne urges reformers to reject "compromise policies" because "they do not produce the right outcome for the public at the end of the day" (2004, 334). In their view, it is time for reformers "to move beyond the outworn ideologies of left and right" and to seek "radical change rooted in common sense" (xiii-xiv).

The antipathy of our field to politics is exemplified best, perhaps, in the idea of the politics-administration dichotomy. Wilson, who is often credited with first advancing this idea, wanted public administration to be "removed from the hurry and strife of politics" (1887, 209). According to Wilson, "administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics" and "administrative questions are not political questions" (210). Civil service reform, for him, was "clearing the moral atmosphere of official life by establishing the sanctity of public office as a public trust" and was "but a moral preparation for what [was] to follow" (210). Seeking to further insulate administration from politics, Wilson sought the development of what he saw as an apolitical science of administration-one that, drawing on insights from European administrative theorists and the practices of European absolutist monarchies, would "straighten the paths of government, ... make its business less unbusinesslike, ... strengthen and purify its organization, and ... crown its duties with dutifulness" (201).

Wilson's idea of a politics-administration dichotomy, despite being frequently discredited by critics such as Dwight Waldo ([1948] 1984) and Norton Long (1949), remains influential within our field. Waldo himself refers here to the "per durability" of the politics-administration dichotomy (1983, 219) and, according

to David Rosenbloom, the dichotomy "continues to define a good deal of administrative thought" (1993, 503). Contemporary popular writers on public management, for example, call for a separation of "policy decisions (steering) from service delivery (rowing)" (Osborne and Gaebler 1993, 35), a distinction that clearly parallels the dichotomy. Also, scholars such as James Svara and Patrick Overeem continue to debate the meaning, relevance, and implications of the dichotomy in the most recent pages of our scholarly journals (Svara 2006, 2008; Overeem 2006, 2008). As Gerald Caiden put the matter a quarter century ago, "the prospect of separating things political from things administrative remains enticing" (1984, 51). If the politics-administration dichotomy is a myth, as critics have often charged, then it is a myth that, at least for some, "still remains an ideal that may yet be attained," a myth that "will linger on as long as there remains a strong anti-politics flavor in American society and scholars and public professionals still strive for objectivity in public administration" and, also, "as long as there are people who would like to run society, any society, 'scientifically and objectively'" (Caiden 1984, 71).

Common to a great deal of our literature is the sentiment, therefore, that politics is, at best, a necessary intrusion into governance and administration and one that compromises its efficiency and effectiveness. There is the intimation in a lot of our literature that while, given our democratic ideals, we would of course never wish to do away entirely with the conflict, compromise, and uncertainty of politics, it would perhaps be better if we could have somewhat less of it and somewhat more of enlightened statesmanship, expert administration, or some combination of these. Camilla Stivers is correct, in my view, in recognizing here our "tendency to view politics as a contaminant of rational, rigorous practice" (2008, 56). Politics bashing is an age-old activity, one that dates back at least to the writings of Plato. We must recognize that politics and politicians have always had a somewhat shabby reputation. As Crick reminds us, there are "many who think that politics is muddled, contradictory, self-defeatingly recurrent, unprogressive, unpatriotic, inefficient, mere compromise, or even a sham or conspiracy" (1993, 16). Indeed, he notes how, for many people, "it is the first test of a new acquaintance's sensibility that he despises politics, politicians, and political speculation (even occasionally among those who 'profess' the subject).... They object to its most characteristic features-compromise, uncertainty, conflict" (165).

Nonetheless, there is reason to worry, in my view, when those who would seek to advise and educate our public policy-makers and administrators so often express what is clearly an anti-political attitude. There is a danger here that the public administrators we help train might internalize such an attitude and actually come to see themselves as somehow superior to, or above, politics. Crick recognizes this danger when he warns of "those who think that administration can always be clearly separated from politics, and that if this is done, there is really very little, if anything, that politicians can do that administrators cannot do better." This is "the view of the servant who would not merely be equal, but who would be master, or of the administrator who feels constantly frustrated in his work by the interventions of politicians" (1993, 107).

Science in Place of Politics

A major reason why a defense of politics in administration would seem especially important right now is that our discipline is showing a renewed interest in a more scientific approach to governance and public management (Meier 1997; Gill and Meier 2000; Lynn, Heinrich, and Hill 2000; Hill and Lynn 2004). As with antipathy towards politics, this enthusiasm for a science of governance is not an entirely new sentiment in public administration. As noted above, Wilson himself, early on in our field, sought the development of a science of administration that would, as he put it, discover "what government can properly and successfully do" (1887, 197). Indeed, because of the compromise, uncertainty, and conflict so often associated with politics throughout history, there have always been those who have been tempted by the possibility of some more rational, more scientific way of resolving the differences that arise among us. Among the best known of these was, perhaps, Henri de Saint-Simon, a French utopian positivist philosopher of the early nineteenth century, whose ideas influenced Karl Marx among others. Following the French Revolution and more than a decade of European war, Saint-Simon looked to positivist science to preserve peace and social order. He saw such science as the means of "stopping [the] terrible scourge of general war, and of reorganizing the European community" (1964, 27). The problem, in Saint-Simon's view, was that, because "the method of the sciences of observation has not been introduced into political questions, every man has imported his point of view, method of reasoning and judging, and hence there is not yet any precision in the answers, or universality in the results" (40). He believed that "divisions of [political] opinion arise from the fact that each man has too narrow a view" and that, "for clear thinking men, there is only one method of reasoning, only one way of seeing things, if they are looking at them from the same point of view" (67). Positivist science would remove the sources of war and political conflict in human affairs.

To avert revolution and anarchy in the future, Saint-Simon advanced a collectivist plan of radical political and social reform rooted in his concept of positivist science. He argued that "the main energies of the community ... should be directed to the improvement of our moral and physical welfare" (1964, 76). In order to accomplish this end, Saint-Simon advocated giving "priority in State expenditure to ensuring work for all fit men, to secure their physical existence; spreading throughout the proletarian class a knowledge of positive science; ensuring for this class forms of recreation and interests which will develop their intelligence" (77). These efforts were to be administered by an elite group consisting of those "most fitted to manage the affairs of the nation, ... [its] scientists, artists and industrialists" whose work "contributes most to national prosperity" (78). Saint-Simon saw the development of scientific knowledge as forming the basis for a non-deist "New Christianity," one that would "link together the scientists, artists, and industrialists, ... make them the managing directors of the human race, as well as of the particular interests of each individual people," and "put the arts, experimental sciences and industry in the front rank of sacred studies" (105).

For Saint-Simon, social conflict and strife, both between nations and within nations, appeared as solely a technical problem, one that could be resolved on the basis of principles of positivist science and with the assistance of relevant expertise. To modern ears, Saint-Simon's ideas may seem wildly utopian, a mere philosopher's fantasy, at least at first glance. Nonetheless, this idea that social conflict might somehow be resolved by the application of science has remained very seductive. In fact, it is an idea that has pervaded an awful lot of our public administration literature and arguably forms the very foundation of our field. It appeared most visibly in the beginnings of our field in the scientific management movement of the early twentieth century, a movement that was inspired by the writings of Frederick Taylor. Taylor saw his principles of scientific management as not just a means of greatly enhancing economic prosperity, but also as a tool for resolving the great social conflicts of his time, most notably the industrial conflicts that were prevalent between workers and businesses of the early twentieth century. In fact, as Waldo observes in his classic review of early public administration writings, "it was the need for 'solidarity' that stimulated Taylor's first researches" (1984, 52). According to Waldo, Taylor disliked "the constant warfare" that he experienced as a foreman in supervising workers and "he wanted to take the matter of a fair day's work out of the realm of dispute" and "make the facts sovereign" (52). As Taylor himself wrote, scientific management was to render economic life not only "far more prosperous" but also "far happier, and more free from discord and dissension" ([1911] 1998, 11). He believed that the application of his scientific management principles would promote "more than all other causes, the close, intimate cooperation, the constant personal contact" between workers and businesses and, as a result, would "tend to diminish friction and discontent" (75). As Taylor saw it, "it is difficult for two people whose interests are the same, and who work side by side in accomplishing the same object, all day long, to keep up a quarrel" (75). Scientific management would reduce industrial conflict because it would arrange "mutual relations" between workers and businesses in such a way that "their interests become identical" (1). It was about "harmony, not discord," about "cooperation, not individualism" (74).


Excerpted from In Defense of Politics in Public Administration by Michael W. Spicer Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Anti-Politics in Public Administration....................1
2. Value Pluralism and Moral Experience....................18
3. Politics, Conciliation, and Value Pluralism....................37
4. Politics and the Limitations of a Science of Governance....................53
5. A Pluralist Approach to Public Administration: Adversary Argument, Constitutionalism, and Administrative Discretion....................70
6. Conclusion: Practical Moral Reasoning in Public Administration....................91
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