A Need for Co-optation Strategies for Public Administration

Governments confront perhaps the greatest confluence of global challenges today than in any period in history: the first-world financial and fiscal challenges of late capitalism’s conflict with humanism; the looming ecological catastrophe of climate change and quagmire of future energy production; and the third-world challenges of population explosion, urbanization and intensifying conflict over dwindling resources. At the same time, public administrators tend to poll about as well as your average congressional session.

Distrust of government administrators today is a scenario not unlike the nation’s last great economic calamity, when public officials responded to the Great Depression by strengthening the Great Fiction of our field: the separation of policymaking from the administration of government.

This artificial separation was exacerbated by the ongoing debates within public administration over the organizational differences between business and government, and whether the discipline is more artistry or science. Despite the best efforts of administration scholars, the root-stems of the dichotomy survive in modern American governance and impede the ability of practitioners to establish an acceptable “zone of influence” in policy advising. Worse, the public appears at a loss to comprehend and appreciate the vast size and scope of the tasks government administrators have been charged with performing.

The modern conception of the policy-administration dichotomy is often attributed to the writings of Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow. James Svara calls the dichotomy model that would grow out of their writings more an “aberration” in the history of government administration theory, one that neither man ever prescribed or even mentioned beyond the general desire to break the hold of spoils-era corruption on public management.

In promoting the council-manager form of government, Richard Childs envisioned the public administrator as a leadership figure in the community who would bring only questions of general policy to the council. Such empowerment of unelected leadership would later become a politically unpopular and minimalized characteristic of the progressive reform era, much to Childs’ disillusionment.

One potential long-term remedy is to behave organizationally much like Selznick’s definition of cooptation: “The process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy determining structure of an organization as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence.” In his 1949 book, TVA and the Grass Roots, Selznick was describing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s methods in the 1930s for generating local buy-in for its mission to improve flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Depression-racked Tennessee Valley. But the concept seems aptly suited for confronting the present disconnect between the public and their government.

Cooptation applies to an organization threatened by societal pressure as a form of adaptation to inoculate itself. Although wishful thinking, why couldn’t public administration make similar efforts to strengthen government agencies threatened by modern tax revolts? Much like some countries require citizens to serve in the military, government would be better-suited by political leaders with some level of training in administrative theory and procedures.

Selznick writes that “cooptation reflects a state of tension between formal authority and social power,” and its affect is to limit choices, and change the character and role of the organization. He writes that the phenomenon has taken hold as society has democratized, voluntary associations have formed, and the government has greater need to broaden the public’s participation as a means of control.

Today, quite the opposite patterns of fact have emerged: public participation in government has dropped precipitously over the years. Politicians are hailed for showcasing their lack of basic understanding of governance. While it is unlikely public administrations will resign their positions in mass and run for public offices, the discipline needs to take a hard look at antiquated prescriptions for policy analysis against the backdrop of today’s modern perceived policy failures. Who is failing whom?

Submitted by Aaron Deslatte


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