The Political Theory of Reinvention

By deLeon, Linda; Denhardt, Robert B. | Public Administration Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Political Theory of Reinvention


deLeon, Linda, Denhardt, Robert B., Public Administration Review


In 1992, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler published Reinventing Government, putting forward 10 principles through which "public entrepreneurs" might bring about massive governmental reform. The book captured the imagination of thousands of public managers and was widely discussed, debated, and even implemented. What we term the "reinvention movement" has been analyzed from a number of different perspectives (Fallows 1992; Frederickson 1992; Glastris 1992; Kettl 1994; Moe 1994). However, few of these articles have explored the underlying theoretical basis of the movement and its implications for broader issues of democratic governance. For the most part, past critiques have confronted the reinvention movement on its own terms, that is, with an interest in the practical implications of the movement for the operations of government, particularly at the federal level, where it has been given a presidential blessing. Though we draw on these works, our task is slightly different--to inquire into the implications of the reinvention movement for democratic governance, broadly defined.

Before we begin, however, we should address a question that may well have already occurred to the reader: in speaking of the reinvention movement, do we refer to its theory or its practice, reinvention as it is played out? As we have suggested, our main task here is to explore the theory on which reinvention is based. In all political and administrative systems, there is always some discrepancy between theory and practice, for reasons we all understand. For example, vestiges of older systems may remain after new ones have been implemented. Or pockets of resistance may exist where deviants stubbornly hold other theories. Or it may simply be that human beings rarely get anything quite right. We suggest that our portrayal of the theory of reinvention does in fact describe its development in practice reasonably well (see, for example, Thompson and Riccucci's 1998 survey of the reinvention movement's ideology and implementation at federal, state, and local levels of government).

The most basic premise of the reinvention movement is that the accumulation of the narrowly defined self-interests of many individuals can adequately approximate the public interest. By "narrowly defined," we mean the interests of individuals as they privately apprehend them, unmediated by participation in a process of civic discourse. To illustrate the centrality of this assumption to the implicit theory of reinvention, we consider three of its elements--its use of the market model, its emphasis on customers rather than citizens, and its glorification of entrepreneurial management. We then examine the implications of the assumption of self-interest for democratic governance and especially for democratic citizenship.

Administrative Reform as Political Theory

In The Administrative State, first published in 1948, Dwight Waldo pointed out that although the earliest writers on public administration in this country were highly practical people--people concerned, for the most part, with the immediate technical operations of government--their writings implicitly constituted a political theory, a theory of democratic governance. Specifically, Waldo wrote, as the early writers commented on such topics as the good life, the criteria by which decisions are made, who should rule, how to maintain a separation of powers, and centralization versus decentralization, they were, in effect, writing political philosophy. That the resulting body of thought was not intended as political theory made it no less consequential; indeed, this very fact may have made it more so.

In his introduction to the second edition of The Administrative State, Waldo argued even more directly that this process is exactly how most political theories arise. On one hand, it is naive to think that people actively engaged in the work of governing would have the time and energy for theoretical thinking (much less writing).

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