Over 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson wrote A Study of Administration, an essay calling for a more scientific and businesslike approach to running governmental administrative offices. He felt that political corruption could be alleviated if the administrators working under politicians were professionally separated from politics and instead functioned as private sector managers that worked to minimize costs and maximize output within their organizations.
His opinions were formed in the midst of global political change, where European administrations were formed as direct extensions of authoritarian ruling offices that did not value public opinion to the level that politicians did in the States. Wilson viewed this public opinion in American politics as both necessary and meddlesome, as many politically involved laymen were not thoroughly educated in all civic affairs and thus could act as obstacles in the actual administration of policies. Wilson proposed that there be a “science of administration” in which government offices have a rigid, merit-based employment structure that would carry out the policies set by politicians but should not involve themselves in the creation of these policies.
Many scholars have since argued against this essay, saying that public administrations cannot be likened to a private business structure since its input and output cannot be analyzed in a free-market economic context. More so, opponents to Wilson’s opinions say that public administrations cannot be run objectively or apolitically, since the decision to run them as an entity exclusive of the political branches of government is a political act in itself.
Regardless of its merit, Wilson’s sentiment towards administration and political corruption is still relevant today. President Donald Trump ran his campaign on a promise to “drain the swamp”, a term he used to describe the messy and contaminated state of government. Although he did not designate the exact locations of this “swamp”, one can infer from his statements that his criticism addresses the public’s distrust of both politicians and the administrative offices that enforce perhaps controversial policies.
We had our first peek into Trump’s attempt to drain the swamp this past weekend when he signed an executive order banning citizens of 7 countries from entering the United States. The roll out of this order was a bureaucratic nightmare, where Customs and Border Patrol Agents, who are employees of a federal administration, had to refer to their new boss, the recently appointed Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, for direction on who exactly would be allowed in. The implementation of this order was chaotic, with some green card holders being allowed in and others detained and deported.
Notably, federal agents continued to enforce Trump’s order even after a federal judge ordered a stay on deportations. This is Wilson’s administration at work – agents working rigidly within the limits of their jurisdiction, implementing orders and keeping personal politics out of it. After all, Trump is ultimately their boss.
So were the actions of these federal agents apolitical? They were, after all, just following orders, just doing their jobs. Additional, under the Hatch Act, federal employees are expressly prohibited from engaging in political activity. But how, as an employee of a politician, can your job be anything but political?
It is easy to say that a federal employee is “just doing his job” when executing his president’s orders. But if the president is taking a political stance on an international issue, and the president issues an order directing action on highly political international affairs, and the president has control over Customs and Border Protect Agents as a result of his political success and the structure of his political office, then these agents are necessarily engaging in political action.
More importantly, we should ask, “what would happen if the federal employee decided not to carry out this executive order?” Likely, he would get fired, because his only job is to follow executive orders; in other words, his job is to follow the politics of the president.
At face value, federal employment does not politicize; no one is asked of their political party when applying for a federal job, and party affiliation is made (by law) to be kept out of the employee’s work. What this really means, however, is that the federal employee is expected to be willing to carry out the President’s orders, no matter what kind of politics they include. To agree is to appear neutral; to disagree is to breach contract.
It seems impossible to really de-politicize government administrations since their actions are ultimately directed by the politics of elected officials. The nature of federal employment complicates this issue. Far unlike private sector workers, federal employees cannot just jump around to different offices to find an environment that works for them. Even on city and state levels, government employees generally stay in a single office or specialty as the work is often nuanced and difficult to translate across fields. Furthermore, government employees generally need to stay in their departments for decades in order to receive their pensions, something that helps justify their lower-than-private-sector salaries. If employees want to reap the benefits of their work, they need to stay on through political administrations that may directly contradict their political identities.
This is becoming a bigger issue than Wilson ever predicted, because the government has grown enormously in the amount of services it provides the public. Although this is a criticism of many traditional conservatives, this does not seem what Trump has been trying to attack; he likes big government, but he wants it run a different way. Instead of “draining the swamp”, he’s just changing the stuff that fills it. The blue swamp is becoming red.
Considering the stringency with which federal employees carried out Trump’s order last weekend, one can assume that many of these employees felt either supportive of Trump’s politics or dedicated enough to their jobs to carry it out without protest. However, compliance is a political act itself, and one may wonder what kind of shove it will take to push federal employees into political resistance. Until then, it will be necessary for the public to consider administrative implementation of further executive orders as highly political acts performed by federal employees.