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.
One of my favorite things about growing up in Seattle was Seafair, an annual three-week festival, featuring hydroplane races, ethnic celebrations, beauty pageants, a Navy flotilla on Elliott Bay, and a wild nighttime torchlight parade.*
But for me, the best part of Seafair is the Blue Angels.
The Blue Angels is a demonstration squadron of fighter jets that performs aerobatic shows. They fly over Seattle for several days during Seafair, culminating in a magnificent performance over Lake Washington on the festival’s last day. The pilots execute graceful, death-defying stunts that amaze and astonish. Like thousands of other Seattle kids, I grew up fantasizing about flying a Navy jet on an aircraft carrier. For too many people in this world, the thunder of military jets connotes terror; I’m fortunate to associate that sound with exhilaration.
Thing is, the Blue Angels serve no tactical military purpose; the squadron’s $40 million annual budget and 7-pilot, 17-officer, 100-sailor team is an investment in brand-building. Brands are important sources of profit, and so naturally businesses invest heavily in their brands. But the US Navy isn’t supposed to generate profits, so what’s the point of the Blue Angels?
Why public agency brands matter
Public agencies have brand equity just like businesses do. Agency names, logos, songs, slogans, and other images carry positive or negative associations that make people more or less favorable toward the agency. For public managers, positive brand equity facilitates implementation in lots of ways.
Brand equity can strengthen or weaken morale. Agencies with strong brand equity have an easier time attracting talented employees—which is important because governments often cannot compete for the best employees on salary and benefits alone.
How many kids grew up wanting to be FBI agents after watching X-Files? Or wanting to be motorcycle cops because they liked Ponch and Jon on CHiPs?
Shrewd public managers know that brand equity is a political asset. A strong brand can buffer their organizations from politicians in times of crisis, and help build a coalition in support of expanded or enhanced authority. Leaders of agencies with strong brands can protect their “turf.” Citizens are more supportive of government programs when those programs are explicitly associated with favored agencies, too. My last post reported on a recent experiment that found that support for government management increased when associated with a specific agency’s name. Rhea Graham’s terrific response affirmed my sense that public managers think carefully about their agencies’ brands.
Implications for policy design
We typically think that assignment of implementation responsibility should follow capacity and competencies—that agencies with the necessary human capital and facilities should handle implementation. Brand equity introduces another dimension to the delegation decision. In some highly partisan contexts, it may make sense to assign implementation to multiple agencies in ways that align with their respective brand equity.
The findings in my recent study suggest that the US Army Corps of Engineers might make implementation of water policies easier in “Red” states than in “Blue” states. For the latter, the EPA probably might enjoy greater brand equity even if it lacks some of the USACE’s technical capacity. It’s an idea worth exploring.
*In the 1990s, organizers moved up the “torchlight” parade to daytime in response to worries about crime. Seafair Pirates and Clowns became much less… exuberant. The parade is now a pleasant but decidedly less bacchanalian affair.
Ever notice that people hate government but love certain government agencies?
A couple years ago I was shopping at Target and noticed racks full of NASA-branded merchandise for sale. The idea that bureaucraphobic Americans would pay to wear a garment with a government agency’s logo printed on it startled me. Evidently people feel pretty good about NASA. Corporations work very hard (and mostly fail) to create that kind of brand loyalty, and with good reason: brand equity is a great source of profitability for businesses.
Around the same time I joined a group of researchers at the Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology, and Public Policy (ISTPP) on a big project about the Water-Food-Energy Nexus. ISTPP conducted a national public opinion survey on water, energy, and agricultural policy as part of that effort. Inspired in part by my Target shopping experience, I wondered: would public support for government regulation of water, energy, and agriculture change if it were associated with a particular agency?
In other words, do federal agencies have brand equity with the American public?
To tease out agency brand effects, we embedded an experiment in our survey. We asked a randomly selected 50% of our respondents about the proper role of the Federal Government in managing energy and agriculture; the other 50% of participants were asked about the U.S. Department of Energy or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For water, we split the sample in thirds: one third were asked about the Federal Government, one third about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one third about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Of course, all of these agencies are bureaucracies within the federal government. So qualitatively “Department of Energy” and “Federal Government” are the same thing.
The experimental results were striking. Average public support for government management of energy increased significantly when associated with the Dept. of Energy, agriculture when associated with the USDA, and water when associated with the EPA. The only agency that didn’t generate a positive average brand effect was the Army Corps of Engineers. But it turns out that’s because Americans seem to see…
Brands through partisan lenses.
It turns out that, as with so many things, Democrats and Republicans see things in different ways. Average positive brand effects were stronger for Republicans than Democrats, maybe because the former have negative attitudes toward the “generic” Federal Government. But the most fascinating thing is that the Corps of Engineers had opposite effects on partisans: positive for Republicans, negative for Democrats.
Oh, and I did end up buying a NASA t-shirt for my niece. She’s adorable.