Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
doi: 10.1111/padm.12125
The public value framework, with its call for more entrepreneurialactivities by public managers, has
attracted concern and criticism about its implicit breaching of the politics/administration dichotomy.
This article explores the role of political astuteness not only in discerning and creating public value,
but also in enabling public managers to be sensitive to the dichotomy. We employ a conceptual
framework to identify the skills of political astuteness, and then articulate these in relation to iden-
tifying and generating public value. Drawing on a survey of 1,012 public managers in Australia,
New Zealand, and the UK, and in-depth interviews with 42 of them, we examine the perceptions
and capabilities of public managers in producing value for the public while traversing the line (or
zone) between politics and administration. We conclude that political astuteness is essential to both
creating value and maintaining allegiance to democratic principles.
The ‘politics/administration dichotomy’ – the principle that politicians should not inter-
fere with public administration and appointed public servants should not encroach on the
realm of politics – has waxed and waned as a topic of interest in public administration (see
Aberbach and Rockman 1988; Campbell and Peters 1988; Svara 2006; Peters 2010). How-
ever, the emergence of the public value (PV) framework (Moore 1995) has reanimated
the debate in recent years, most particularly in its call for public managers to be more
entrepreneurial and strategic, which implies some degree of discretion in activities under-
taken and goals pursued, a need for public servants to operate with a degree of political
‘nous’ or astuteness.
Twoissues run through this debate. One is the extent to which public managers actually
are ‘political’ in their work; the second is how legitimate it is for them to be political in their
work. These issues have a long history,but seem to have resisted resolution, partly because
the empirical evidence has been fairly modest. In this article, we shed light on these two
issues with both conceptual and empirical contributions based on empirical data from a
survey of 1,012 public managers and from in-depth interviews with 42 of them in three
countries (Australia, New Zealand, and the UK), and across a range of governments and
We argue that political astuteness is a valuable set of capabilities – skills, knowledge,
and judgement (Boyatzis 2006) – that helps public service managers to discern and create
public value through their work. Drawing on the public value framework (Moore 1995),
we examine the activities of public servants in the ‘political’ space, suggesting that their
efforts to create public value are underpinned by political astuteness. The apparent para-
dox is that the greater the political astuteness of public servants, the more capable they are
of recognizing and working within the acceptable ‘zone’ between politics and administra-
tion – and therefore not being ‘too political’.
Jean Hartley is at The Open University,UK. John Alford is at the University of Melbourne, and the Australia and New
Zealand School of Government, Australia. Owen Hughesis at RMIT University, Australia. Sophie Yatesis at the Australia
and New Zealand School of Government, Australia.
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (195–211)
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
The politics/administration dichotomy has been the subject of periodic contention since
Woodrow Wilson (1887) rst formulated it (see also Weber 1922). Historically, it has had
strong normative force, founded in afrmation of the principle that unelected bureaucrats
should be subordinate to elected politicians (Goodnow 1900; see also Shafritz and Hyde
1987). However, a long line of scholars has argued that the pure dichotomy rarely holds
in practice. In reality, they contend, the line between the two domains is rather blurred,
and often crossed by politicians and/or bureaucrats in their work (Waldo1948/84; Mosher
1968; Aberbach et al. 1981; Aberbach and Rockman 1988; Campbell and Peters 1988; Krause
1999; Svara 2001; Demir and Nyhan 2008; Carboni 2010; Demir and Reddick 2012; Hughes
2012). A recent variant posits a complementarity between the two domains (Svara 2006;
Miller and Wright 2011; Zhang 2014).
More recently, the debate has been reanimated by Moore’s (1995) public value model.
Its critics charge that public value theory implicitly violates the dichotomy, casting public
managers as ‘platonic guardians and arbiters of the public interest ’ (Rhodes and Wanna
2007, p. 412), and thereby encourages them to ‘usurp the democratic will’ (Rhodes and
Wanna2009, p. 180; see also Stoker 2006; West and Davis 2011). This critique clearly frames
managerial involvement in politics, broadly dened, as illegitimate.
While there is much heat in the politics/administration debate, the light is less intense.
Svara (2006, p. 970) notes that ‘the topic has often elicited commentary unencumbered by
data’. The available empirical research suggests that public managers vary in the extent to
which they venture into the realm of the politicians (Stocker and Thompson-Fawcett 2014),
but those who do so are more prevalent (Aberbach et al. 1981; Peters 1987). While politi-
cians tend to dominate the setting of the policy agenda, career public servants exercise
predominant inuence in generating alternative options and in modifying policies in light
of operational feedback (Kingdon 2011). Bureaucratic inuence may be more likely in
situations where politicians’ leadership is weak (Zhang 2014). Surveys of city managers
by Demir and Nyhan (2008) and Boyne et al. (2010) did not nd empirical support for
tendencies predicted by the dichotomy (see also ’t Hart and Wille 2006). Despite these
contributions, further evidence is sorely needed.
Parallel to this political science literature, the generic management eld is also home to a
debate about the role of politics in management, though deploying different frameworks.
This literature, which has tended to focus more on ‘micro’-situations involving individual
pursuit of self-interest or small group machinations, has traditionally viewed manage-
rial political behaviours as ‘politicking’, which distorted the rational, evidence-based
skills and judgements of managers. It was manipulative, self-promoting and ‘Machi-
avellian’ (Ferris et al. 2002; Vigoda-Gadot and Drory 2006). Those subscribing to this
‘dark side’ view of politics conceptualized it as both dysfunctional and illegitimate
(Mintzberg 1983).
However, a growing literature adopts a more constructive view of organizational poli-
tics – in particular, that it is not solely a matter of conict and contention, but also of efforts
to bring actors together to achieve constructive outcomes for the organization or for soci-
ety, including ‘those activities used to advocate for and reconcile multiple interests and
goals’ (Smith et al. 2009, p. 430; see also Butcher and Clarke 1999). Rouleau and Balogun
(2011, p. 956) note ‘increasing evidence fromresearch on both senior and middle managers
of their need to be “politically able”’. Madison et al. (1980) and March (1984) argue that as
a manager moves up the hierarchy, objectives become more ambiguous and conicting,
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (195–211)
© 2014 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT