"Public Administration and Political Power" was the theme of the 2001 Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture in Representative Government, hosted by the Carl Albert Center on the Norman Campus of the University of Oklahoma November 6, 7, and 8. In three engaging presentations, Holden analyzed the role of bureaucracy in a democracy, the role of public opinion in shaping public administration, and the relationship between Congress and the bureaucracy.
Holden, the Henry L. and Grace M. Doherty Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, is a past president of the American Political Science Association. He is a widely respected scholar recognized for his research and teaching on the politics of ethnicity, race relations, urban law and order, decision-making theory, and public administration theory. He has also served in executive positions in state and federal government, and as a consultant at all levels of administration. His many books and articles include, most recently, Continuity and Disruption: Essays in Public Administration (1996).
Among the enduring themes in Matthew Holden's scholarship are the vital role of bureaucracy in public affairs, the relationship between citizens and the bureaucracy, and the importance of congressional oversight of bureaucracy. These three concerns framed his Rothbaum Lectures.
In the first lecture Holden introduced the audience to several concepts that have been central to his analysis of the administrative state. Government rests upon three kinds of power derived from three distinct resources: information, money, and force. Government is organized functionally in three aspects: legislation, adjudication, and administration. With respect to the three functions of government the third, administration, exercises all three kinds of power. It provides and controls access to information, it dispenses money, and it imposes regulation backed by the coercive power of the state. For most citizens, interaction with government is interaction with bureaucracy. Again, Holden identifies three kinds of activity undertaken by bureaucrats: facilitation (helping), entrepreneurship (creating), and coercion (enforcing).
This array of power, structure, and activity have lead some scholars to conclude that the bureaucracy is a problem. Such scholars focus on ways to control the bureaucracy, and worry that it is out of control. To the contrary, Holden believes that the real problem facing bureaucracy is less the need to control it than to enable its practitioners to function effectively in the public interest. Bureaucracy functions more often by bargaining than by command. Instead of being insufficiently constrained, bureaucracy is sometimes constrained too much. Two important sources of such constraints are public opinion and the press, on the one hand, and the Congress, on the other hand. These are addressed in Holden's second and third lectures.
In addressing the relationship between public opinion and the administrative state, Holden offered several propositions, some controversial. Viewing public opinion as the "hydraulic force" that moves the bureaucracy, Holden finds that today public opinion too often tends to a form in which debate is angry. Culture is a dominant factor in shaping public opinion, and the political culture in the United States has, for at least the past decade if not longer, been acerbic and partisan. Public opinion places demands on government even while undermining tolerance of government. Formal instruments for assessing public opinion, such as surveys, have proliferated. Today government officials always have reason to think they know what the public's opinion is. This provides an incentive for administrators to try to shape public opinion. As public opinion becomes an arena in which various and competing interests (inside and outside of government) compete, democratic ideals can be undermined. The deep penetration of public opinion into the normal operation of bureaucracy is among the reasons why Holden is more concerned about the government being too responsive rather than not responsive enough.
Accountability of administration in a democracy comes about primarily through congressional oversight. In his third lecture Holden identified four aspects of legislative oversight of administration that can be arrayed on a continuum from the least intrusive to the most intrusive: intermediation, oversight, legislation, and punishment. Intermediation is the process by which Congress, its members, and their staffs massage the relationship between citizens and their government. Casework, a perennial congressional function, serves to facilitate communication between the bureaucracy and the citizens whose interests it is supposed to serve. Effective intermediation is usually informal, often effective, and relatively unintrusive. Indeed, Holden believes that intermediation makes for better government and fosters positive relations between citizens and government and between the Congress and the bureaucracy.
Oversight is the process by which Congress reviews programs, considers reauthorizations, and reviews funding requirements. It involves hearings, face-to-face interaction, reports, and, occasionally, investigations. This is a critically important congressional function fulfilling the legislature's obligation to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed in accordance with congressional intent. Again, the oversight process can on occasion be adversarial but is most often cooperative. Agencies have an incentive to be responsive to the Congress. If they are not, then legislation is the congressional alternative to oversight. Enacting laws or provisions thereof, or threatening to do so, is a powerful tool with which Congress can seek to affect the behavior of bureaucrats. Legislation is, of course, more difficult to obtain than the informal process of intermediation or the more formal processes of oversight. Laws are hard to pass. Still, the potential to directly intervene in the affairs of the administrative state by statute is the foundation upon which all other forms of legislative control of administration rest.
Holden reserved his final fire for what he labels "punishment" as an increasingly common yet disturbingly problematical form of legislative control of administration. Punishment, as Holden defined it, arises in the context of oversight but has different aims. Oversight aims to improve government, to ensure accountability. Punishment aims to destroy government or at least its current occupants. The tools of punishment are investigative oversight and the leaking of information to the media (often anonymously done). Punishment is designed to intimidate. It frequently approximates political warfare. It usually focuses on personalities rather than policies. Examples include, notoriously, the impeachment of President Clinton, but also the hounding of many cabinet and subcabinet officers of the government. Punishment is the most intrusive form of legislative control of administration. It is corrosive of the relationship between Congress and the bureaucracy and eventually corrosive of government itself.
Matthew Holden's three lectures at the University of Oklahoma will be revised and extended for publication by the University of Oklahoma Press. Readers of that book will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of the role of administration in American government and the challenges it faces today. They will learn that administration is an avenue for power, but that it is also a mechanism for effective government. They will be asked to consider the relationship between the administrative state, the public, and its representative institutions. And they will be asked to choose the kind of culture within which a powerful, effective, and accountable bureaucracy might be able to do the public's business.