Government’s leadership role is building consensus

Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

Professor, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Leadership in local government can be viewed as a community’s search for consensus about policy objectives and how to achieve them.
As communities become more diverse and politics becomes more inclusive, this increasing turbulence challenges the traditional view that local government decision-making is a reasonably orderly process involving elected officials and career administrators with established interests and recognized standing.
Instead, the framework used to resolve conflict shifts to “webs of influence” composed of a large number of networked participants who often have no legal standing, with varying degrees of commitment to community institutions and to established policy processes.
When the challenges of building community consensus overwhelm local government, there may be an implicit or explicit decision to give up on collective action and let the market and individual choice deal with the issue.
Yet markets are more than just an alternative strategy. They are also an alternative decision-making perspective that shapes how community leaders define themselves and each other as they interact to make decisions that affect the local community.
Here are the characteristics of these competing decision-making perspectives:

Characteristic Politics Administration Markets
Source of control Elections Law Supply and demand
Activity Game Problem-solving Buying and selling
Players Representatives Experts Buyers and sellers
Focus Policy decisions Policy Implementation Transactions
Conversation “What do you hear?” “What do you know?” “How much does it cost?”
Pieces Interests and symbols (“stories”) Money, information, people (“reports”) Goods and services (“contracts”)
Currency Power (stories) Knowledge (deeds) Money (profit)
Dynamics Change, Conflict and Compromise Continuity and Cooperation Flexibility and Exchange

These perspectives are distinct, though they often compete and overlap because politicians, administrators and business leaders view decision-making differently. Multiple and conflicting expectations of accountability are one major consequence of the differences between the decision-making perspectives.
Under the perspective of politics, the fundamental expectation is responsiveness to key stakeholders, but elected officials also face organizational rules, professional norms and legal standards.
Under the perspective of administration, administrative staff faces the challenge of accommodating the expectations of different stakeholder groups, but the primary behavioral expectations emphasized are obedience to organizational policies and deference to professional expertise.
For example, even in a simple case of traffic safety, employing political standards might require responsiveness to a neighborhood’s request for a stop sign at an intersection that, according to professional standards, does not warrant one.
The addition of markets as a perspective complicates the traditional conflict between politics and administration that public administrators must contend with as part of their responsibility for government operations.
It adds another way of thinking about public problems and another factor in calculating expectations and the formalizing of those expectations into elements of accountability. Because service contracting occurs within the context of traditional political and administrative expectations of accountability, successful contract management requires understanding how the “overlay” of a market perspective affects the content and interaction of the perspectives, including their associated sources of authority.
Under the perspective of politics, the fundamental expectation is responsiveness to key stakeholders (though elected officials also face organizational rules, professional norms and legal standards).
From a political perspective, privatization or service contracting respond to public beliefs that government can be made more efficient by forcing it to emulate and rely upon the marketplace and business methods.
Studies about whether the private sector is in fact more efficient, effective or innovative than government, or of what factors might contribute to effective adoption of privatization and service contracting by government agencies, are less important than the political responsiveness symbolized by the commitment itself.
One manifestation of such responsiveness is the fact that (regardless of other outcomes) privatization does cut the “size” of government by shifting functions to non-governmental organizations.
Under the perspective of administration, administrative staff faces the challenge of accommodating the expectations of different stakeholder groups, but the primary behavioral expectations emphasized are obedience to organizational authority and deference to professional expertise in general.
Contracts with non-governmental entities offer an increasingly popular option for meeting the obligations embodied in law and political mandates.
Even with contracting, government bureaucracies remain responsible for carrying out the law within a set of expectations of accountability that constitute an important piece of the perspective of administration. Balancing multiple sets of expectations while administering a law creates a bureaucratic culture where fairness, procedure, stability, long-term perspectives and political sensitivity are valued.
Under the perspective of markets, calls for contracting or privatization anticipate narrowing the expectations considered in the provision of the service to those specified in the contract, benchmarking each contractor’s efficiency (quality, quantity or timeliness of service) against competitors, and enforcing expectations through legal and administrative contract compliance mechanisms.
From a market perspective, service contracting or privatization presumptively include the expectations of the public agency (“the buyer”) and the contractor (“the seller”), as defined by “the contract.”
From the vendor’s standpoint, the contract provides the authority and financial incentive to act within a previously restricted domain. The vendor is driven by the need to flexibly respond to client needs in order to fulfill the outcomes specified in the contract.
The contract is drawn to provide the financial means to do so. But the flexibility, short-term, customer-centered perspective clashes with the perspective of government administration. Contractors seek flexibility in rules, procedure and process; an accountability approach that is sometimes alien to an administrative perspective that emphasizes fairness and opportunity for appeals.
So the search for community consensus goals and program objectives is complicated by: increasingly diverse and inclusive politics; the need to recognize politics, administration and markets as distinct decision-making perspectives; and the need to reconcile the conflicting definitions of accountability that arise from the conflict and interaction of these perspectives.
Donald Klingner is an author and professor in the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.