To-Read for Every Student Planning a Career in the Public Service

by Martin Krieger

C. Ansell, Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy
A. Bertelli and L. Lynn, Madison’s Managers
R. Caro, The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol IV
I. Hacking, Representing and Intervening
S. Tang’s new book on institutional design, Ten Principles for a Rule-Ordered Society

Conflict and power-asymmetries were once the commonplaces of discussions of public service and its relationship to the governed. The concern that a more “cooperative” relationship with those who were powerful (as public servants were then seen), however defined, would lead to co-optation, the powerful distorting the positions and effects of the less powerful to suit the powerful’s own goals so that confrontation and conflict would be lessened. In effect, one of the main powers of the weak would be weakened. That public servants were agents of powerful principals was recognized.

We now hear more of collaboration and empowerment and incentives. More generally, what were once arenas of conflict are now matters of design and rule-following. Tang’s ten rules for the design of institutions and rules, much as discussions of incentives and markets, say that management is the term of art, and good management is a matter of setting up rules that allow and encourage people to do what is most desired by government or management. Ansell’s pragmatism and evolution, is a matter of finding out what works, and in that process collaboration is crucial. (Nature red in tooth and claw, the violent character of survival of the fittest, another message of evolution, is not here.) And, Bertelli and Lynn’s managers are regulated by the Constitution and the intents and laws of the Legislature, rather than by more more selfish or rent-seeking concerns.

In much the same vein, we are less likely to talk of T. Kuhn’s rendition of scientific change as a matter of a a clash and succession of paradigms. Rather, science is about representing the world (those paradigms) and testing out your ideas by marginally probing the world and seeing how it responds, more the matter of striking a tuning fork, and listening for its tones.

It is a nice corrective to read Caro on Lyndon Johnson. In the fourth volume, we see Lyndon humiliated by the Kennedy clan. Then Lyndon assume the presidency, and he is transformed for about seven weeks into a supremely subtle user of his skills and power. Wow!

It would be good if power and conflict and co-optation were again part of the basic training of public servants. It would also be good if in their training, their professors understood science as a matter of representing and intervening rather than talking of paradigms. And it would be good if everyone watched power in action, ala LBJ, if only to appreciate how masterfully it can be employed.

These are the best books I know of about the public service. Any concerns I might have about this is vastly outweighed by their excellence.