Training your political acumen: working on the edge of politics

By Sophie Yates

July 15, 2016

chess pawn going forward to the attack

In public administration theory, there’s a concept scholars argue about a lot called the politics/administration dichotomy. It was famously first articulated (although not in those exact words) by Woodrow Wilson in 1887, and has been a subject of contention ever since.

My colleagues John Alford, Jean Hartley, Owen Hughes and I have added a little colour to the debate with a paper titled Into the Purple Zone: Deconstructing the Politics/Administration Distinction.

Put simply, the idea is that politicians on one side of the dichotomy listen to the will of the people, determine what is best to do, and set policy (with all the political jockeying that entails). On the other side, administrators — ie. public servants — are neutral, non-partisan, and give advice that is scientific or relies on technical expertise. Their activities relate to the gathering of information, the smooth running of government agencies, and the practical implementation of policies and decisions made by politicians. Public servants are responsive to the directives of politicians but don’t engage in politics, and politicians don’t interfere in the administration of their policies.

“…and at that point I realized I’d significantly politically misplayed the situation.”

But of course, most people agree it doesn’t really work like that. Empirically, the central argument is about whether a line between the domains of politics and administration actually exists. People argue about whether there’s a complementarity, or a subordination, or take your pick of a number of other terms. The majority, although not the exclusive view, is that the dichotomy is theoretically and empirically questionable – that is, it probably doesn’t make much sense in the first place, and both politicians and administrators often breach it in practice.

Others argue that it is a useful fiction, and that ideally it’s desirable to strive for a separation between the two realms. After all, we elect politicians to do the politics, and public servants are not accountable to the people in the same way.

Why do public managers need to be political?

Despite the theoretical divide between the two, we argue that several factors have increased the importance of political activities for public managers in recent decades. These include the rise of network governance, which makes non-government actors more prominent in policy-making and service-delivery — and thus means managers need to interact with them as stakeholders and partners. Then there’s the 24-hour news cycle and hyper-connectivity, demanding very fast responses by governments and keen appreciation by managers of the media implications of policy issues. There’s also the rise of wicked problems that can’t be addressed by siloed working, requiring public managers to be more attuned to the shifting politics of alliances between government, the NGO sector and the private sector.

So the literature is full of contending positions, and largely involves scholars arguing about binary choices or pursuing one-size-fits-all constructs: is the interface between politics and administration typically a clear line, is it a blurred line, is it a shifting line? We add to this pile of concepts the notion of a “purple zone”, where the red of political activity overlaps with the blue of administration. It was not our idea originally, having emerged in New Zealand in the mid 1990s, but not much empirical or theoretical work has been done with it since then.

The ‘purple zone’ interface of politics and administration
The ‘purple zone’ interface of politics and administration

In particular, not much empirical work has been done with senior public managers (those who are most likely to operate in the purple zone), asking them what they actually think and do when they are straying into politics — although see this interesting ‘purple zone’ article about the encroachment of politicians into traditionally managerial spaces. We conducted 42 interviews with middle and senior managers in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, covering state, national and local governments, as well as both central and line departments.

Obviously, a central issue is what we mean by ‘politics’. Drawing on our earlier work on political astuteness, we say politics is:

“about mobilising support for, and consent to, action in the context of diverse, and sometimes competing interests and may involve either collaboration or competition depending on purpose; that politics can be legitimate as well as illegitimate; that it can be about pursuing either or both of self-interest and organisational interests; and that these activities can take place externally or internally to the organisation.”

Our data show that public managers often feel they need to use politics not only to get their jobs done, but also to create the best value for the public they serve. Depending on context, they sometimes encounter a fairly clear line between the two domains, and (more often) a zone where the boundaries aren’t clear.

For example, one manager’s minister had said to him “I’ll leave you to run the organisation, but when it comes around to the policy direction, that’s what government — and that’s what I’ll be responsible for” — but he’d had “a run of ministers under the previous government” who were not quite so clear about that line, leading to a more political role when he worked under those ministers.

Another mused: “Look I think over the years it’s become more and more unclear, you know the whole Westminster principles and the Westminster system and the stuff that you sort of learn in government 101 when you first start, has got very blurry.”

Here’s a taste of some of the political activities our interview participants engaged in.

Political sense-making

One theme that came through strongly was a role managers felt they had in sense-making for their political masters. A UK participant explained: “There’s a kind of marketplace of ideas and advice … I think the astute official operates in a way that draws in evidence, ideas, views from elsewhere, recognizes that the politician will be doing the same, and then what I think the astute official seeks to do is to find a way of synthesizing all of this noise from the wider environment and bringing it down into a digestible form that the politician might use.”

Sense-making is of course an inherently political act, as it requires foregrounding some things and backgrounding others, crafting the information in such a way that it tends to a particular purpose.

Sense-making also involves being aware of the political constraints, so that the options you give your political masters fall in the realm of what’s politically feasible. A UK participant:

“I always say that my role, when I am at my best, is to be able, within the political parameters of the party politics, to lay out a series of options that will allow them to get to the outcome they want … The more nous, the clearer I am about the political constraints, the clearer I can be about the options and the advice I can give in terms of how to move forward.”

So being aware of the politics and crafting your advice to fit that situation is crucial.

Implementation — not so simple

Another theme we commonly found was that implementation, typically thought of as the dry job of the apolitical public servant, was rife with politics. One Australian manager told the story of trying to implement a Cabinet decision with a large department who, it turned out, were rather uncooperative and said to her:

“‘We’re the Department of [X]. There are over 100,000 people working for us. We’ve ignored Cabinet decisions in the past, we will ignore them into the future, so you coming in here with your little ‘Cabinet told me that we have to do it’ thing is just not going to cut it, it’s not good enough’. And at that point I realized I’d significantly politically misplayed the situation.”

She’d made the mistake of thinking that party-political support was all that mattered, and hadn’t built the bureaucratic support before trying to implement the decision.

A New Zealand manager ran into a similar problem with external stakeholders who were up in arms about a seemingly vanilla policy change and refusing to comply. Fixing that problem involved going behind the scenes to figure out what was actually bothering the stakeholders, and eventually changing the policy, “because it was obvious that this was going to hurt the Minister big-time”.

So although implementation is commonly seen as separate from politics and policy, the experience of our participants was that often it was hard to draw a line between them. Often apparently administrative matters would burgeon into political ones.

Is it OK for public managers to do politics?

I hope we’ve given you at least a taste by now of the ways in which public managers need to be political to do their jobs. But in case you are concerned about power-hungry public managers usurping the domain of their duly elected political masters, here are a few thoughts from our participants about how they reflect on their political activities and keep their desire for influence in check:

  • From New Zealand: “I don’t think you can have too much political astuteness, but you can be too political. You can move from that sort of linesman on the ground putting the flag up to running on the field and kicking the ball… I don’t think that’s the role of the public servant.”
  • From Australia: “I’ve said this to my own team, if you’ve always got that voice in your head that says ‘now you know you’re influencing this person, so be very careful how you influence this person, because you don’t want to influence people just because of what you want. You want to influence people for the greater good.’ And I said ‘if you’ve always got that voice saying that, you generally shouldn’t go wrong. You know you’re not going to get so partisan about something, because you’ve got that voice that’s always questioning you.'”

Our participants reported that they did not engage in political activities lightly or for the sake of personal advancement (and perhaps more importantly when self-report bias is considered, they also did not report that their peers engaged in “dodgy politics”). They acted politically because it helped them do their jobs — either by gathering support for a particular policy, program or project, or by helping enlist other actors to contribute to the achievement of the public purposes in question.

The challenge for public managers is to judge how far they can venture into the purple zone without breaching democratic norms. Fortunately, we think political astuteness can help public managers with those judgments as well.

Politics (broadly construed) infuses every stage of the policy cycle — even the implementation stage, after it seems like all the politics is over — and we will all need to get better at the soft skills of influencing, coalition-building, and getting buy-in from people who are not under our authority.

Click here for an open-access look at the broader “political astuteness” project.

This article was first published on the Power to Persuade blog.

The ANZSOG Annual Conference 2016 — August 1-3 in Sydney — will combine the latest research from international scholars and the insights of leading practitioners to explore how public servants can better serve citizens and government in the midst of great change. More details at the conference website.

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