The Folly of Cutting Bureaucrats out of the Policy Making Process

Over the few weeks I’ve had several good conversations with employees from different state agencies here in Wisconsin. None of the conversations were specifically related, but upon reflection two common themes emerged that give me some cause for concern. First, despite my many lectures to PA and MPA students about the importance of proactive government, it is almost impossible for the state bureaucracy to be proactive. The reasons why are familiar to any public administration student or practitioner: Budget cuts, unrealistic planning horizons, political meddling, increased workloads, and fear of political backlash. So while I should not have been surprised, it was a bit jarring to hear, and a nice reminder that preaching the negative consequences of reactive government is not enough to stop it.

So how can state employees and the agencies for which they work be more proactive? The first step is empowering them. Making that happen is more complicated, and leads to the second theme from my recent conversations: The iron triangle theory of policymaking is obsolete. Under that theory public policymaking requires three different groups. One, elected officials who have access to the legislative process. Two, special interest groups who have access to resources and supporters of specific policies. And three, bureaucrats who share their expertise and knowledge regarding implementation. The theory works because all three groups need one another. Less abstractly, the involvement of bureaucrats ensures that a policy can realistically be implemented and administered as designed and desired by policymakers and interest groups.

Too often in Wisconsin, the bureaucrats are being left out of the process. This creates several problems that limit the effectiveness of state government. First, agencies, by being shut out of the policy development process, are forced to create systems for implementing new policies on the fly. Not only does this ensure a less than perfect system, it unexpectedly takes attention away from other agency functions. Second, it allows for the creation of deeply flawed policies. What sounds good to an interest group, or plays well as a political sound bite, may in fact not be a logical or realistic policy. If the bureaucracy had a seat at the table, they could make that clear early in the policy development process. Third, it makes cleanup legislation an inevitability, which wastes the time and resources of both legislators and bureaucrats.

Likely, the elimination (limiting?) of the role of the bureaucrat in policy making was an inevitable result of years of anti-government rhetoric, and an ideologically motivated distrust of government employees among some elected officials. I am not sure of what can be done to address this problem, but I am happy to point out that it is problem. Purposely ignoring the individuals and entities that implement policies in the policy development process is a foolish decision that makes state government both less efficient and less effective.

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