The Importance of Understanding the Politics of Public Administration

Similar to the act of biting into a giant tri-level, stacked turkey sandwich — full of juicy tomato, iceberg lettuce, and provolone cheese on sourdough bread — is the jaw-breaking, mouth gaping attempt by governments setting out to conquer so many public policy issues at one time. An example of such a task at hand is the Obama administration’s lofty agenda in just year one of President Obama’s administration. Barely half of a year into his first term, the President is tackling issues such as an economic recession, healthcare, global conflicts, budget deficits, energy consumption, and immigration. The wide array of issues being addressed has led some critics to state the President seems to have bitten off more than he can chew, with certain issues becoming diluted or poorly resolved in the process of lawmaking, funding allocation, and program changes. Indeed, the difficult role of influencing Congressional leaders to see things his way and author and/or support specific policy legislation falls on President Obama’s shoulders. However, when it comes down to implementing actual changes, public administrators will take on this task.

As public administrators behind the scenes, we are responsible for enacting most of these policy changes. We are tasked with achieving agency missions and providing public service in the heat of such political environments. It is simply not possible to approach a policy issue in American government without considering the leading political party behind the final decision or voting power. Understanding the political ramifications confronting elected officials in light of our bureaucratic processes and final recommendations is essential to accomplishing our agency tasks and achieving success. If an elected official is facing reelection, he or she will understandably vote differently than he or she might have had with a close election cycle closing in. The expressed justification for voting a certain way may not be heard or even addressed if the elected official is facing public scrutiny.

An added challenge in setting policy is to consider the multiple political interests facing a potential policy shift, such as those experienced in a multi-member elected council, board of supervisors, or commission system. To accomplish a task, management must consider the political interests and voting climate in which policy changes will occur. Knowing the political climate for an issue will change the timeframe, implementation, and message utilized by public administrators who set out to address new policy changes.

Management and administrators higher up in the organizational structure generally understand the politics of policy making better than field staff and others situated further from government leaders and elected officials. Policy making is typically a confusing and unknown activity for field staff who do not directly concern themselves with the political maelstrom that is the governmental decision making process. It is no wonder that field staff tend to identify management and agency bureaucratic leaders as being out-of-touch and ineffective when they do not deal with the political system in the same way these leaders do. Decisions like what programs to cut or public facilities to close may not seem logical or justified to field staff, when in fact, there may be political heat facing bureaucrats making such decisions.

By ensuring agency or department staff are aware of the political process in which an organization exists, a clearer understanding may be achieved by staff regarding how certain decision outcomes are made. In taking the time to educate staff regarding the political process and bureaucratic measures bills, policy changes, and how other government decisions are made, staff can develop awareness for why things are the way they are. At least then, public administrators might also be better supported in biting off the giant policy change they are asked to take on.

By Melissa Clary, Southern Nevada ASPA Secretary


6 thoughts on “The Importance of Understanding the Politics of Public Administration

  1. Good observations. I identify with their accuracy and relevance. This essay brings to my mind the challenges from the other end of the policy process; the user, client, intended beneficiary’s interaction to the service implementation intended to address a problem, market failing, or serve some target.

    Operational level public servants need to understand what impacts and shapes the tools, resources, and mandates they are given. Simultaneously, how are the messages describing necessary adjustments effectively routed for action to the effective change points, in the effort of serving the intended purpose? Changes are often needed and sometimes authorization for those adjustments must come from heights in the hierarchy, creating a similar opportunity for education to processes at the front lines.


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