Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Listening Bureaucrat: Responsiveness in Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Listening Bureaucrat: Responsiveness in Public Administration

Article excerpt

Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participation. (John Dewey in Levin, 1989, p. 29)

In public administration, "responsiveness" is a problematic concept. Democracy would seem to require administrators who are responsive to the popular will, at least through legislatures and elected chief executives if not directly to the people. Yet administrators and scholars alike tend to treat responsiveness as at best a necessary evil that appears to compromise professional effectiveness, and at worst an indication of political expediency if not outright corruption. Rourke's recent assessment is illustrative:

The growing demand for responsiveness in government policy-making puts the survival of a professional outlook characterized by independence of judgment and indifference to political pressures increasingly at risk in the corridors of American bureaucracy (1992, p. 545).

The most common strategy for dealing with the idea of responsiveness is to treat it as an aspect of responsibility. This approach was evident as early as Woodrow Wilson's "The Study of Administration," which advocated "ready docility" on the part of administrators to "all serious, well-sustained public criticism" (1887, p. 222), but argued that, in order to be expert and efficient rather than partisan, the administrator should have a "will of his own in the choice of means for accomplishing his work. He is not and ought not to be a mere passive instrument" (p. 212). Although literal responsiveness was problematic, bureaucrats could be considered responsive because in choosing business-like, apolitical methods they were fulfilling their responsibility to the public. Wilson's scheme backed up the individual's sense of responsibility with a structural mechanism: a chain of command with a constitutional officer at the top. In his view, Americans could rest easy about the power of administrative expertise because "clear-cut responsibility" would make it "easily watched and brought to book" (pp. 213-214).

Over the years, emphasis has increased on trust in the administrator's personal sense of responsibility, what Friedrich called "the actual psychic conditions which might predispose any agent toward responsible conduct" (1940, p. 12). Drawing on John Gaus's idea of the administrator's "inner check," Friedrich maintained that bureaucratic responsibility consisted of technical knowledge and responsiveness to popular opinion; the former would be judged by professional colleagues while the latter would become operational as bureaucrats anticipated political responses to their actions and crafted strategies accordingly.

In answer, Finer (1941) argued that responsibility was a mirage unless the public and its representatives defined the public interest and punished administrators who defined it differently. In other words, he made responsibility a subset of responsiveness, rather than vice versa. Although a few observers have continued to argue in favor of assuring bureaucratic responsiveness by means of stronger laws and procedures that constrain discretion (e.g., Lowi, 1979), most locate the primary roots of responsibility in the expertise and morality of the individual bureaucrat (e.g., Cooper, 1990; Burke, 1987). This position is clearest in arguments for professionalism in public administration; Rourke's (1992) is only one of a host (e.g., Kearny and Sinha, 1988; Stever, 1988; Nalbandian, 1990).

Dictionary definitions give us a hint as to why there may be so much more overt support for responsibility than for responsiveness. "Responsive" means "quick to respond or react appropriately or sympathetically, sensitive" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986). Synonyms include "sentient, answering, passible [capable of feeling or suffering], respondent, reactive" (The New Roget's Thesaurus, 1964). "Responsible," on the other hand, means "liable to be called on to answer; liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent; being the cause or explanation; able to answer for one's conduct and obligations; trustworthy; able to choose for oneself between right and wrong; politically answerable" (Webster's, 1986). …

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