How can PA demonstrate that expertise is not akin to elitism?

Politics can be a dirty old business. Here in Wisconsin the political ads for our Senate race include imagery that ranges from a baby urinating on a grandfather to a mushroom cloud. I was in Phoenix a couple weeks ago and saw a striking ad where a candidate demonstrated his qualifications for elected office by shaking hands with a dog in slow motion while soothing music played in the background. Back when I had a professional connection to the political world, I was told this is silly season. Well, I never saw anything as silly as the presidential race this year, but you all know this. Today I am pondering a different question, how can Public Administration professionals and academics demonstrate that expertise is not akin to elitism? The rise of Trumpism certainly is linked to a level of distrust in American institutions, which are seen by many as corrupt bastions of the elite. One of the perceived elite institutions is government itself.

Now bureaucrat bashing is nothing new (Charles Goodsell wrote an entire book attempting to defend the bureaucracy), but the level of contempt we are witnessing scares me. It is one thing to view our government as inefficient or out of touch, it is quite another to conclude it is inherently corrupt and therefore illegitimate. In times of uncertainty I like to look at source documents, so I turned to Woodrow Wilson’s famous essay, “The Study of Administration.” Wilson wrote: “Wherever regard for public opinion is a first principle of government, practical reform must be slow and all reform must be full of compromises. For wherever public opinion exists it must rule.” He goes on to note how difficult it is to make sense of public opinion when a society is as diverse and divided as ours. Many of of us in the field of Public Administration believe the difficultly of governing a fragmented society can be overcome through professionalism, ethical behavior, and a commitment to the ideals of social equity and representative bureaucracy. We all sacrifice to be part of a governed society, and thus have an equal and legitimate claim on our government that must be respected by public administrators. However, this passage from the Heritage Foundation website posting Wilson’s essay reminded me that not everyone agrees with our field’s take:

“The essay, published in the Political Science Quarterly in July 1887, advocates a trained bureaucracy that has the expertise and the will to oppose popular opinion when they deem it necessary. In contrast to the founding principle of equality—meaning that claims to superior wisdom cannot justify rule and that legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed—Wilson argues that expertise is a title to rule.”

Though I disagree with their take on Wilson’s essay, I do recognize that it is not a fringe opinion. Just this morning in Wisconsin I read another quote describing our state’s education agency as an actor from which schools fear retribution. When in doubt, blame the undemocratic bureaucracy. The thing is, an effective government sector needs experts. My former employer, generally considered a conservative voice, echoed this point in a 2011 report, in which author Robert Gates called for better training of government managers. Why? We need  well-trained experts to serve in government if we want to maximize government performance.

I encourage my students (and anyone else who makes the mistake of talking government with me) to debate the appropriate size and functions of our government. I agree with the Heritage Foundation that government legitimacy is a function of the consent of the governed. But today I see the healthy and necessary political debate over the proper scope of government power eroding into blanket condemnations of its very existence.

How can we as a field, and a society stop this? How can we as a field demonstrate that expert teachers, police officers, managers, DNR wardens etc, are a necessary component of a free, stable, and democratic society, rather than a threat to it? My go to answer to these questions has long been professionalism, ethics, and a commitment to establishing our field’s relevancy. But I worry that is not enough.


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