Government Reform: Traditionalist’s Perspective


John Kamensky, Senior Fellow

A believer in the traditional perspective of government management would see good public management as using a strong hierarchical approach to ensure accountability, a rule-based set of procedures to ensure consistency and uniformity, and clear distinctions between the public and private sectors.

The traditional perspective actually encompasses a broad continuum of adherents. At one end of the continuum are some academics that call themselves “Constitutionalists” and share strict interpretations of what they see as good public management. At the other end of the continuum are the pragmatic traditional public administration practitioners. They tend to promote the administrative principles framed by the 1937 Brownlow Committee and Hoover Commissions. They see the importance of a strong executive branch and hierarchy, but remain flexible regarding implementation.

The “Constitutionalists” Perspective

According to Constitutionalists, such as Dr. Ronald Moe, “the United States is the only nation in the world established according to a comprehensive political theory.” They say that the federal “government was established by the Constitution of 1789 and, although initially small in size, it was complete and the rules of governance established at the time continue to provide the basis for the organization and management of the executive branch.”

According to Moe, the Constitution reflects the clear intent of the Framers to organize a government based on three premier principles with respect to the organization and management of the federal government being:

“1. The institutions of government shall be divided among three co-equal branches, the legislative, executive, and judicial, and these branches shall be at once institutionally separate and interdependent.

2. All administrative functions are to be located within the executive branch and
responsible to the president and through the latter accountable to Congress.

3. There shall be a governmental sector (agents of the sovereign) and a private sector, and they shall be separate and function under distinctive theories of jurisprudence).”

Moe extends the interpretation of these principles as follows:

The President as Chief Executive. “The President has executive powers, several of which are stated in the Constitution. Implementation of laws, for example, is principally the responsibility of the President.”

The Executive Branch should be treated as a unified system. According to Moe, “The Constitution and the intent of the Framers was to have a unified executive branch accountable to the President through necessarily hierarchical delegations of authority.” In support of this view of government, a series of “general management laws” have been enacted that assume the entire executive branch is a single, unitary organization. The term “general management law” refers to those cross-cutting laws that apply generally to all agencies of the federal government, such as the Civil Service, Administrative Procedure, Budget and Accounting, Ethics in Government, and Freedom of Information Acts.

Congress is Co-Manager of the Executive Branch. “The powers of Congress are defined and enumerated in Article I of the Constitution, a location selected intentionally.” Congress “establishes departments and agencies and, to whatever degree it chooses, the internal organization of agencies, personnel systems, confirmation of executive officials, funding systems, and ultimately determines whether the agency shall continue to exist. It is Congress that establishes all programs and determines whether or not they are being implemented properly.”

Functions should not be commingled between the public and private sectors. Constitutionalists are clear that there are two distinctive jurisprudential systems in the United States; public law and private law. According to Moe: “In the governmental sector, the constitutional presumption is that the actions of an agency or officer must have their basis in public law. Silence in law is prohibition [to act].” In contrast, in the private sector, “the reverse presumption holds sway. That is, private persons may act as they please unless there is a law prohibiting their actions.”

(Note that these interpretations are not necessarily subscribed to by all!)

Perspectives of Pragmatic Traditional Practitioners of Public Administration

The traditional practitioners of public administration stress the importance of hierarchy, clear organization, and process. They reflect the tradition of Luther Gulick and Louis Brownlow, who wrote the classic texts on public administration in the late 1930s, such as “Notes on the Theory of Organization.” For example, Gulick defined and popularized “the work of the chief executive” as “POSDCORB” – Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting. These functions became the framework for what traditionalists see as the core capabilities the institutional Presidency must develop and sustain. The reform recommendations of the 1937 Brownlow Committee to President Franklin Roosevelt are premised on these principles and resulted in the transfer of the Bureau of the Budget to the newly-created Executive Office of the President; that agency has evolved to the present Office of Management and Budget.

The pragmatic traditionalists also believe in solving real-world problems. They will apply general management approaches, such as those summarized by POSDCORB, but where needed they remain flexible and responsive in the implementation of the President’s policies and priorities.

Options the Next President Might Consider for Achieving
“Good Public Management” from a Traditionalist’s Perspective

A president who subscribes to the traditionalists’ perspective might consider initiatives such as:

  • A stronger institutional management capacity in the Executive Office of the President by either expanding the role of the Office of Management and Budget or by creating a separate Office of Federal Management reporting directly to the President.
  • The creation of Sunset commissions to review individual agencies or rationalize programs to reduce redundancies and overlap, or to reorganize agencies to be more efficient.
  • The use of scorecards and assessments of agency management capacity and program functions.
  • The appointment of Chief Management Officers in departments and major agencies to integrate accountability and priority-setting among various management functions.
  • The review of all the existing general management laws to ensure consistency and reduce superfluous requirements.
  • An assessment of contractor-government employee functions and tasks to ensure “inherently governmental functions” are only performed by federal employees and that the delineation of accountability and responsibility is clear.
  • An emphasis on procedural accountability, ensuring compliance with rules, and strengthening the role of inspectors general.

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One Response to “Government Reform: Traditionalist’s Perspective”

  1. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    The Constutionalists do not recognize the fact our Constitution is an extension of British Common Law which is usually traced to the reign of Henry I and the Writ of Habius Corpus.
    The Constitution is a dynamic document and is the first time the basis of Common Law was placed in a single document but left dymamic by the amendment process in fact it would have been rejected if the first ten amendments had not been made.

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