From Human Capital

Public Administration & the Border Crisis

Public Administration Professionalism at the Flashpoint

Presidents issue orders, Congress passes laws, and courts make judgments, but immigration policy really succeeds or fails when bureaucrats interact with people seeking entry to the United States. Immigration policy is what happens when an ICE agent detains an individual (or doesn’t), separates children from parents (or doesn’t), and puts kids in cages (or doesn’t). Immigration policy is what happens when a DHS contractor attends to a wailing toddler, or leaves frightened children to their own devices in adherence to administrative guidelines. In the end, human rights are protected or violated not by politicians, but by the men and women who put regulations into action.

What drives bureaucratic behavior?

Although public attention tends to fixate on laws and rules when trying to understand public policy, decades of public administration research indicates that organizational norms and values determine what public servants do. Public employees from soldiers to teachers to police officers look to their peers for informal guidance on what is honorable, acceptable, or forbidden. Monitoring systems and the threat of disciplinary action turn out to be lousy predictors of public administrators’ actions. When bureaucrats enforce (or refuse to enforce) rules, it’s because their fellow bureaucrats sanction that behavior. Smart public agency leaders do not rely solely on orders, but rather seek to instill systems of ethics and build a sense of mission in their organizations.

Professionalization in public administration is an effort to enhance this kind of peer accountability by building loyalty to principles of public service. America’s military academies are excellent examples: they seek to build within officers not only respect for chain-of-command, but also a system of ethics that defines military professionalism. In the ideal, professions provide an “inner-check,” enforced by social approbation or disdain by fellow professionals, that guides individuals to uphold shared norms and resist unethical orders.

Administration at the border

The agencies at the flashpoint of America’s current immigration crisis give plenty of reason to worry. The main bureau charged with implementation of immigration laws is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which was formed fifteen years ago when the US Customs Service (part of the Treasury Department) and Immigration and Naturalization Service (Justice Department) were consolidated within the new Department of Homeland Security as part of the post-9/11 reforms. Organizational culture and professionalization take time to develop, but this young agency has been charged with implementing some of the country’s most vexing and incendiary policies, even as its nascent culture is still forming. In early 2017 the Trump Administration ordered the hiring of 10,000 new ICE agents. Simply hiring and training that many people quickly is a daunting task; professionalizing and building a sense of mission in each new agent even more so. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provides a useful contrast. ICE and FBI agents each receive 20 weeks of training upon entry into their agencies. But new FBI agents must also be accomplished college graduates, and upon appointment they enter a highly-professionalized agency with thousands of experienced agents, a storied history, and deep sense of organizational identity. It is not surprising that FBI officials have been more defiant, and ICE officials more acquiescent, in their relationships with the Trump White House.

DHS also relies heavily on private contractors to operate detention facilities, and some of the most troubling accounts of child migrant treatment emerge from these privately-operated facilities. If public administration professionalism implies loyalty to professional norms and ethics, then private contracting does just the opposite. A contractor’s livelihood depends upon satisfying a client (in this case, DHS executives), adhering to regulations, and fulfilling contracts. A contractor whose personnel refuse to treat migrant children as specified in a contract is likely to find that contract terminated.

Administrative evil and public professionalism

Governments can do great good and evil because bureaucratic agencies provide the capacity to put policy into action, as Guy Adams has observed. Administrative evil is not a consequence of inefficiency (the usual bureaucratic lament), but rather a result of a technical rationality that is the very hallmark of bureaucracy. Without professionalism, bureaucrats pass accountability for their actions to political superiors. Indeed, a naïve view of democratic accountability would demand dutiful compliance by ICE agents to orders (or tweets?) issued from above. Public service professionalism implies that a federal employee’s primary duty is to the public good, not to the whims of the person at the top of the organizational chart. Without a foundation of professional ethics and systems of accountability to professional peers, the rational administrator can find himself or herself participating in destructive acts.

So long as the United States has borders, it will need an agency to make those borders meaningful. But building a sense of professionalism and peer-accountability to ethical principles is crucial to ICE’s or any other border enforcement agency’s role in a democratic state. In 1952, political scientist Norton Long reflected on the lessons of the Second World War for American public administration:

It is a fortunate fact of our working constitution that it is complemented by a bureaucracy indoctrinated with the fundamental ideals of constitutionalism… In a real and important sense, it provides a constitutional check on both legislature and executive. It is no neutral instrument like the German bureaucracy, available to Nazi and democrat alike, pleading its orders from ‘die hohe Tiere’ as an excuse for criminal acts.

The decency of the agents charged with implementing public policy is a crucial check against government abuse. Professional public servants are the first line of defense and the last best hope for protecting human dignity in times of political turmoil.

Human Capital as Infrastructure

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the recently released White House infrastructure plan.

Release of the White House infrastructure plan triggered a flurry of news about the nation’s ports, dams, water works, sewer systems, rails, and rosenbridges. Little noted in all that coverage was the fourth part of the president’s four-part plan: workforce development.

Human capital shortfall

The human capital—the educated, qualified, and experienced workers who build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure—is suffering from the same kind of shortages that plague physical infrastructure. Infrastructure work is skilled work, and skilled workers are aging out of the labor market faster than they’re being replaced. The return on infrastructure investment will be poor if workers aren’t available to operate and maintain what’s built. The availability of qualified workers has real consequences for utilities. A study I published with David Switzer linked labor market human capital to drinking water safety, for example. The challenge is particularly acute for small utility systems, which often struggle to attract and retain talent. Organizations like AWWA  and Baywork have invested heavily in workforce development initiatives in an attempt to address the shortfall.

Astonishing Part 4

Just as Parts 1-3 of the White House plan are meant to incentivize communities and corporations to invest in physical capital, Part 4 would change federal rules to incentivize individual workers’ investments in human capital.

The White House plan would revise Pell Grant eligibility to cover operator training, reform the Perkins CTE program to facilitate infrastructure-focused training, and expand federal Work Study to include trade apprenticeships. Perhaps just as importantly, the White House plan would push states to harmonize their operator licensing requirements. This last move would liberalize the labor market, which would open up opportunities for infrastructure workers and employers.

Taken together, these changes help make infrastructure careers more attractive. As Joe Kane at Brookings has observed, infrastructure jobs are good for the economy, too—they offer good pay, foster transferable skills, and aren’t easily outsourced to foreign workers. Unlike the plan’s provisions for physical capital, Part 4 is aimed squarely at the American working class.

The prominence of workforce development in the White House plan is extraordinary.

Federal investment in infrastructure is nothing new, and federal investments in human capital have been around for decades. But the White House plan’s Part 4 makes workforce an integral part of its vision for infrastructure. That’s important, and hopefully it marks a deep change in the way we think about infrastructure policy in America.