The legitimacy of listening

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

A public bureaucracy is the means through which a government carries out or oversees its policy objectives.  Legitimacy – or the belief by the governed that political decisions are or are not justified – is held to be a critical aspect of governance,[i] as without this support governments can and do topple.[ii]  Thus, the administration of this public bureaucracy plays a critical role in the legitimacy, and therefore the continuation, of government.

In a democracy in particular the legitimacy of public administration derives – theoretically, at least – from its reflection of the will of the people as communicated through elected officials to the bureaucracy.[iii]  In America, arguably more so than in other countries, the legitimacy of the administrative component of government is continuously at issue.  Charles Wise, Michael Spicer, and Larry Terry locate the impetus for this enhanced scrutiny in the privileged place of the Constitution in the United States.[iv]  The general perception of the role of the Constitution in the legitimacy of public administration, as detailed by Wise and Spicer and Terry, emanates from an idealized vision of the Framers as possessing a unique knowledge of human nature and politics which they infused into the Constitution; therefore legitimate administrative processes are those that follow the Constitution as the basic law of the land as much as they reflect the values set forth in the Constitution.

This idealized view is similar to the point of view championed by John Rohr and his regime values-based public service ethics.  According to Rohr, the regime values in America are those expressed in the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.[v]  However, this grounding of administrative legitimacy in the Constitution and the Court introduces as many issues as it resolves.  First, while it is obviously wise for administrators to be familiar with the gist of relevant Court rulings, the level of familiarity with the history and the logic of the Court that is required by Rohr is unrealistic for many already overburdened administrators.  Second, at times there are significant temporal lags between changes in socially acceptable values and Court decisions – for example, the fifty eight year span between Plessy v. Ferguson[vi] and Brown v. Board of Education[vii] – which would bind a Rohrian administrator to outdated regime values that do not reflect the emerging values of contemporary society.  Finally, there are also any number of conflicting values in the Constitution and the opinions of the Court that must be otherwise reconciled, such as the Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United[viii]case granting First Amendment protections to the political speech of corporations which contrasts starkly with the historic emphasis on the protection of individual human rights.  For all these reasons, as Rohr himself admits,[ix] any administrative guidance provided by the Constitution and the Court must still be supplemented by the judgment of administrators, which judgment ideally would be directed towards producing outcomes that enhance the legitimacy of both administration and government.  Thus, if appeal to the Constitution alone is insufficient as a method to ensure legitimacy, then legitimacy must be realized through other means.

To this end, the major focus of administrative thought – dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson and his calls for a technically competent public administration to rescue government from the confusion of politics[x] – locates legitimacy in the rationalizing of the processes of bureaucracy.  When paired with elected officials chosen through free and fair elections, this rationalizing of administrative processes is theorized to inevitably produce rational outcomes, thereby legitimating the government (i.e., the rationalizing of administrative processes connects inputs with outputs and ends with means, so that if the electoral inputs are rational so will be the administrative outputs[xi]).  The history of public administration is for the most part wave after wave of successive theories as to how administrative processes can be made more rational.  Most of these theories are premised upon making the study of government a science through the discovery of universal administrative principles,[xii] tackling the problem from a variety of angles.  However, for all the little successes of these different approaches, none of these theoretical orientations has yet been able to deliver the objective or universal principles of administration around which the field could be consolidated.

For example, the latest iteration of this quest for legitimacy via the rationalizing of administrative processes is the New Public Management (NPM) movement.  NPM emphasizes the increasingly efficient delivery of services through the application of market-based managerial practices, in particular the quantification of administrative inputs and outputs.[xiii]  The underlying belief of NPM is that just as the Invisible Hand mechanisms of free markets allocate economic resources to their most efficient use despite – or actually because of – the selfish interests of individuals, these same principles applied to public administration will likewise allocate political resources to their most efficient use.[xiv]  However, after decades of widespread implementation the results of NPM have been ambiguous at best,[xv] and have not in general been associated with increases in perceptions of legitimacy; in fact, if anything the application of NPM methods has been correlated with significant declines in the perceived legitimacy of government.[xvi]

The results from NPM are just the latest demonstration of why a Weberian emphasis on formal bureaucratic efficiency[xvii] is not a sufficient standard for legitimacy.  As exemplified by the defense offered by the Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann that he was only making the trains run on time,[xviii] undesirable and even monstrous outcomes can result from the uncritical implementation of bureaucratic rationality.[xix]  Even when the ends are ethically justifiable and the means are as rationalized as possible, perverse outcomes of administrative actions are not only possible but common[xx] which also contributes to declines in perceptions of legitimacy.  Thus, if the legitimacy of government is the goal of public administration, the rationalizing and quantifying of administrative processes does not appear sufficient for this goal.  Therefore, some other means than those already attempted are needed to produce this legitimacy.

Given these difficulties in accounting for the legitimacy of public administration, some question the utility of the discussions ad nauseam of legitimacy at all, offering instead a Hegelian justification that ultimately the administrative state is both rational and legitimate simply because it is,[xxi] and therefore the field should just move on to more worthwhile debates.[xxii]  While the history of public administration suggests there is some merit to this position, this disappointing history does not mean that legitimacy is not a valid concern or that there are not administrative processes that can not only produce but actually enhance legitimacy.  This is where the recent “narrative turn” in public administration comes into play[xxiii] as an antidote to the increasing – and increasingly futile – positivist and quantitative emphases in public administration research.[xxiv]

This turn towards narrative in public administration is part of the relatively recent post-modern turn in the social sciences in general.[xxv]  This post-modern turn in public administration manifests as the recognition of the historicity and contingency of administrative phenomena, and therefore as a deep skepticism about foundational claims and the quest for universal administrative principles.[xxvi]

As reflected in the increasingly positivist thrust of mainstream public administration,[xxvii] so much of the contemporary study and practice of public administration is premised upon the assumption of the generalizability of administrative processes.  This orthodox view of administration is related to the belief that legitimate government operates from the top down[xxviii] in what Miller and Fox call a “loop model” of democratic decisonmaking.[xxix]  The top-down hierarchy and step-by-step looping process are thus assumed to provide the structure and regularity which allow for the generalizability and therefore the quantification of administrative phenomena.  As detailed above, this quantification in turn is believed to enhance the performance of administration, which in turn enhances the legitimacy of government.

Instead, this focus on narrative in public administration locates the legitimacy of the field in its responsiveness to the actual people and groups with which administrators come into contact, in particular through paying attention to the narratives – or the stories – these individuals and groups employ in expressing their different viewpoints.[xxx]  Narrative-focused administrators are still legally and ethically bound to carry out the directives given them by elected officials within the constraints established by the Constitution and the Courts in a feedback loop of decision making, but the important difference in this case is that the focus on narratives and listening promote a bottom-up impetus for administrative actions.[xxxi]  The bottom-up listening of this focus on narrative is the key to the increased responsiveness of administration to the public, thereby enhancing the legitimacy of government in the process.

[i] Beetham, D. (1991) The Legitimation of Power. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[ii] Sharp. G. (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power and Struggle. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publishers, Inc.

[iii] Scharpf, F. W. (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gilley, B. (2006) The Meaning and Measure of State Legitimacy: Results for 72 Countries. European Journal of Political Research 45:499-525; Gilley, B. (2009) The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy. New York: Columbia University Press; Rothstein, B. (2009) Creating political legitimacy: Electoral democracy versus quality of government. American Behavioral Scientist 53:311-30.

[iv] Wise, C. (1993) Public Administration Is Constitutional and Legitimate. Public Administration Review 53(3): 257-261; Spicer, M. and L. Terry (1993) Legitimacy, history, and logic: Public administration and the Constitution. Public Administration Review 53(3): 239-246.

[v] Rohr, J. (1986) To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press; Rohr, J. (1998) Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.

[vi] 163 U.S. 537(1896).

[vii] 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

[viii] 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

[ix] Rohr, J. (1998) Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, p. 28.

[x] Wilson, W. (1887) The Study of Administration. Political Science Quarterly 2(2): 197-222.

[xi] Easton, D. (1965) A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Inc.

[xii]Bendor, J., & Moe, T. M. (1985). An adaptive model of bureaucratic politics. American Political Science Review, 79, 755-774; Bendor, J. (1988). Formal models of bureaucracy. British Journal of Political Science, 18, 353-395; Bendor, J., Moe, T. M., & Shotts, K. W. (2001). Recycling the garbage can: An assessment of the research program. American Political Science Review, 95, 169-190; Moe, T. (1980). The organization of interests. Chicago: Chicago University Press; Moe, T. (1990). The politics of structural choice: Toward a theory of public bureaucracy. In O. E. Williamson (Ed.). Organization theory: From Chester Barnard to the present and beyond (pp. 116-153). New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press; Simon, H. A. (1948). Review of: The administrative state. Journal of Politics, 10, 843-845; Simon, H. A. (1957/1947). Administrative behavior: A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York: The Free Press; Simon, H. (1966/1947). A comment on “the science of public administration”: Comment on an article by Robert Dahl. In C. E. Hawley & R. G. Weintraub (Eds.). Administrative questions & political answers (pp. 34-37). New York: D. van Nostrand Co., Inc.; Simon, H. A. (1952).  Development of theory of democratic administration: Replies and comments. American Political Science Review, 46, 494-496.

[xiii] Hood, C. (1989) Public administration and public policy: Intellectual challenges for the 1990s. Australian Journal of Public Administration 48: 346–58; Osborne, D. and Gaebler T. (1992) Reinventing Government: How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

[xiv] Le Grand, J. (2007) The Other Invisible Hand: Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xv] Radin, B. (2006) Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, complexity and democratic values. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press; Gregory, R. and Lonti, Z. (2008) Chasing Shadows? Performance Measurement Of Policy Advice In New Zealand Government Departments. Public Administration 86(3): 837–856; Moynihan, D., Fernandez, S., Soonhee, K., LeRoux, K., Piotrowski, S., Wright, B., Yang, K. (2011) Performance Regimes Amidst Governance Complexity. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 21: i141-i155.

[xvi] Bok, D. (1997) Measuring the performance of government. In J. Nye, P. Zeikow and D. King eds. Why people don’t trust government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 55-76; Bekke, H. and Van der Meer, F. (2000) West European civil service systems: variations and similarities. In H. Bekke and F. Van der Meer eds. Civil service systems in Western Europe. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. pp. 275-290; Bok, D. (2001) The trouble with government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[xvii] Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley, CA : University of California Press.

[xviii] Arendt, H. (1992) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.

[xix] Adams, G. and Balfour, D. (1998) Unmasking Administrative Evil. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

[xx] Sieber, S. (1981) Fatal Remedies: The Ironies of Social Intervention. New York: Plenum Press; Scott, J. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[xxi] Hegel, G. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right. A. Wood ed., H. Nisbet trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.20, 389-390; Hegel, G. (1967) Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 164, 283.

[xxii] Warren K. (1993) We have debated ad nauseam the legitimacy of the administrative state – But why? Public Administration Review 53(3): 249-254.

[xxiii] Ospina, S. and Dodge, J. (2005) It’s About Time: Catching Method Up to Meaning – The Usefulness of Narrative Inquiry in Public Administration Research. Public Administration Review 65(2): 143-157.

[xxiv] Pitts, D. and Fernandez, S. (2009) The state of public management research: An analysis of scope and methodology. International Public Management Journal 12:399–420.

[xxv] Rosenau, P. (1992) Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[xxvi] DeLeon, P. (1997) Democracy and the Policy Sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; Miller, H. and Fox, C. (2007) Postmodern Public Administration. London: M.E. Sharpe.

[xxvii] Pitts, D. and Fernandez, S. (2009) The state of public management research: An analysis of scope and methodology. International Public Management Journal 12:399–420.

[xxviii] Redford, E. S. (1969). Democracy in the Administrative State. New York: Oxford University Press.

[xxix] Fox, C. J., & Miller, H. T. (1995). Postmodern public administration: Toward discourse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

[xxx] Bevir, M. (2011). Public administration as storytelling. Public Administration, 89(1), 183-195.

[xxxi] Stivers, C. (1994). The listening bureaucrat: Responsiveness in public administration. Public Administration Review, 54(4), 364-369; Alkadry, M. (2003). Deliberative discourse between citizens and administrators: If citizens talk, will administrators listen? Administration & Society, 35(2), 184-209; Catlaw, T., Rawlings, K. and Callen, J. (2014) The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self. Forthcoming.


What is the right thing to do? Listen.

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

As an administrator, and as a person, what is the source for good action in this world?  On the surface, this appears to be a sophistic or obtuse philosophical question, but it is a question that actually lies at the heart of not just public administration, but of living in the world itself: Not only how are we to administrate well, but also how are we to live well in this world?

Both acting and living well in this world are reasonably premised upon our actions coinciding with the true operation of the world as it actually is, or that our knowledge of the world accurately guides our actions.  The problem with such an approach in public administration is that, as evidenced by the long and ongoing history of the academic study of public administration, we do not have any such access to the Truth about the world of administration as it actually is – other than at best we only partially or contingently understand the world of administration.  The same state of affairs holds equally for the world at large, especially in ethical terms; for all the scientific knowledge we may have gained about our world through physics or genetics, for example, even these areas have unanswered questions and significant theoretical blindspots, and the tentative knowledge we do have does not of itself provide any clear-cut ethical prescriptions.  In the end, we are still left with the question of how are we to know to act and to live well in this world.

According to Michel Foucault’s close reading of the Western canon, there are two primary modalities in Western thought for living truthfully, what Foucault refers to as “Platonism” and “Cynicism,” or belief in an ideal world upon which our present world is derived versus belief that the world we are in is the only world there is.  In “The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self,” the authors rely on Michel Foucault’s rendering of these two primary modalities to suggest the latter as the proper orientation for both ethical (or ‘right’) administration and ethical living.  The authors contrast the otherworldly Platonic ‘care of the soul’ with the Cynical or Socratic ‘care of the self’ as distinguished by their emphases on the source of knowledge – Platonic knowledge is exclusive and timeless and apart from existence, while Cynical knowledge “focuses on the unique contours of material existence and sees truth as manifested through that very existence.”

The authors identify the application of this care of the self as applied to public administration through the practice of parresia, or truth-telling, first through the “questioning and testing of one’s way of life and relationship to oneself,” and second through the social practice of speaking freely in public.  In both cases, the key practice as identified by the authors is that of listening.  In the first case, the administrator listens to himself or herself in the context of his or her surroundings as the means for determining right action; in the second, through listening the administrator fosters free dialog among the parties involved in their area of administration as the means for discovering right administrative action.

This combination of personal and public listening is similar to the concept of public administration as a Nietzschean Joyful Science I have written about in a previous post.  In both approaches, the vocation of public administration is not separated from one’s actual life but rather both are intertwined in a process of personal and public realization.  The objective in both is not to divine the fundamental principles of administration, but rather to discover those principles which apply best in the perpetual process of becoming that is public administration.  Also, in both the Foucauldian and Nietzschean approaches the social and the personal depend upon one another, as personal listening and realization depends as much upon the social context for guidance as the ethical development of the public sphere depends upon persons who are engaged in this active process of personal listening.