Democratic Innovation in Public Administration

Back to Fall 2018: Volume 107, Number 3

Albert W. Dzur


(Editor’s Note: This article, the first in a National Civic Review series on democratic innovations in communities, was adapted from a chapter in the author’s upcoming book, Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places, scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in December 2018.)1


Introduction: The Definition of Insanity

In the last two decades, Brooklyn Park, the sixth largest city in Minnesota, experienced a dramatic increase in crime, especially violent crime. The Police Executive Research Forum did a study in 2007, which discovered that about a third of all the crimes committed in the community were being perpetrated by youth and that about a third of all the victims of those crimes were young people as well. So, in 2008 city government staff began focused enforcement in problem neighborhoods.

While not strictly modeled on New York City’s enforcement strategy, their approach utilized the same data-driven practices to identify crime hot spots and strategically allocate resources. But despite some early success, violent crime remained a problem. After homicides involving youth as victims and perpetrators rose in 2008 and 2009, the mayor and city council members sent a clear message for the police chief and city manager:

“This is like the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It isn’t working. We’ve got to completely rethink what we’re doing.”

Brooklyn Park City Manager Jamie Verbrugge heard the message and took it as an impetus to shift from a “transactional” to a “transformative” relationship between city government and citizens. “Transactional,” for Verbrugge, is a citizen who thinks that paying taxes means getting services; government is in the service delivery business to taxpayer clients. This kind of civic identity may have been encouraged, in part, by managerial-minded public administrators in the past, but in Verbrugge’s view it had led to a dead end on problems that require collaboration, or “transformational” relationships to solve. Violent youth crime, he came to see, was just such a problem for Brooklyn Park:

We had a lot of neighborhood disinvestment. We had a rapid growth in the number of single-family residential properties that were converted to rental properties within neighborhoods already facing the destabilizing factor of rapid demographic change. You no longer have the association of long-time neighbors, and then there is this new element of different races and different cultures and different ethnicities. That doesn’t engender trust. Then you also had transient populations moving into these communities who lack the motivation of pride of ownership. So, you started to see a greater increase in code enforcement cases. You started to see the properties going into disrepair—such as chipped or peeled paint, broken windows. Those are the sorts of things we focused on in the beginning. We gridded the community based on highest incidence of crime and code enforcement. We focused on the twenty worst quadrants for a couple of years through our neighborhood action plan and it was successful. It dramatically affected those areas. But what we discovered was that the relationship between the city and the service provider and a service responder was transactional. What we were trying to get to was a transformational rather than a transactional relationship between the communities and the neighborhoods and the city staff. Rather than calling the city and expecting us to solve all their problems, the idea was to empower neighborhood communities to become problem solvers on their own. And because of that breakdown in the social compact within neighborhoods we had to rebuild relationships. And that’s why we started the more community-based effort, to get people away from having the city be the problem-solver for everything.2

Verbrugge, working in tandem with the police chief, developed a collaborative process involving planning and implementation committees composed of equal numbers of city government staff and residents recruited through community cafes and other public events. After intense deliberations, the collaborative group developed a set of core values, a mission statement, and a set of concrete goals related to youth and diversity, including funding a teen recreation center and social activities to target the crucial hours between when schools let out and parents come home from work. “We really put together the playbook for how we were going to proceed,” says Verbrugge.

“One of the critical pieces was to say that we are going to do it in partnership with the community. We would have action teams that were equal part city staff and community members. We would have implementation teams that were equal part staff and community members.”

This pattern of one-for-one community advisory bodies grew over the following years to include diversity, budget, and long-term-improvement committees.

Brooklyn Park’s experience reflects a perplexing challenge for contemporary public managers: even when “top-down” management cannot work to solve problems such as youth crime and would not be normatively acceptable to constituents, city managers like Verbrugge are nevertheless held accountable for service failures. So, public engagement turns out to be crucial for sharing information about administrative practice and about the limits of agencies and officials working on their own without community collaboration. “We have too often told citizens…that we could supply any service…handle all problems at once—and all without raising taxes,” says former city manager Valerie Lemmie. “If there is one aspect to engagement that can lessen tensions and mitigate frustration all around, it is the recognition that we must have priorities in public policy, that we cannot ‘do it all’ and all at once.”3

As Lynchburg, Virginia City Manager Kimball Payne observes, “it’s not the city and the citizens or versus the citizens or serving the citizens, it’s all of us working together here.” We’ve got to do this together because we’re not given the resources to do this kind of top-down city work. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate anyway. So, we want them to be involved.”4 Public administrators such as Payne and Verbrugge desire a broad form of civic education that can take root in a community and help lay citizens to routinely think and act like a city manager—if only periodically. Mere public relations efforts are insufficient for raising awareness of the limits of governance and the complexity of most major problems.

Democratic Innovation on the Rise?

In the last decade experiments in democratic innovation have flourished across the country in city and local government agencies in every region, catalyzed by administrators committed to a more active citizenry. On issues such as crime prevention, affordable housing, urban planning, land use and conservation, utility and service provision, and even general budgeting, public participation is actively welcomed in to the work of government. Scholars estimate that thousands of events designed to foster dialogue, generate civic awareness, or make use of community knowledge take place every year in the United States.5 In the same period, public administration professional organizations have bolstered such commitment in their core statements of purpose, in conferences, and in sponsored research. The National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association, to take two examples, conduct workshops on democratic governance and civic engagement at their annual meetings and disseminate best practice studies and related information. Unlike related professions such as criminal justice and K-12 education, commitment to participatory innovation in public administration is overt not covert.

While this increase in democratic innovation is encouraging, it has to be put into context. Even reform-minded advocates admit that the dominant mode of professionalism in the field can still be captured by Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 characterization in his “The Study of Administration:” “The ideal for us is a civil service cultured and self-sufficient enough to act with sense and vigor, and yet so intimately connected with the popular thought, by means of elections and constant public counsel, as to find arbitrariness or class spirit quite out of the question.”6

Wilson was trying to sketch the place of the trained administrator within a democratic constitutional system committed to the principle of popular sovereignty and embedded in a political culture chronically suspicious of government authority. This place was one of the social trustee: the manager earned the public’s trust by being “cultured and self-sufficient” and by acting in the public’s interests. “Sense and vigor” would be nurtured in professional training where the administrator could acquire specialized knowledge. Responsive to citizens via regular elections and structured public hearings, the administrator was also to be insulated from demotic, factional, partisan, self-interested, short-term pressures of the moment.

Call this Wilsonian social trustee professionalism “managerialism” in order to contrast it with a more substantively democratic model we can label “collaborative.”  Note that managerialism is not necessarily undemocratic, at least in spirit: it aims to serve the public and pursue common interests, values, and purposes. But the practical means managerialism conceives to serve public interests are, in fact, undemocratic, favoring skilled, knowledgeable, and electorally accountable management over enlisting citizens in collaborating in any way in the work of government. The managerial professional may experiment with the kind of civic innovations emerging in the last decade but will be reluctant to bring them in to the work of local or municipal government in any significant way.

Reform-minded public administration scholars Larkin Dudley and Ricardo Morse report a persistent “imperative of managerialism” driving public administrators to assume control of situations, take responsibility for certain outcomes, and promote an image of competency.7 This imperative has three main components, captured in Table 1. First is the strict limit placed on transparency: the good public administrator does not share a major problem with the public until he or she already knows the answer to it. 8 Limiting transparency is not just about hiding mistakes, deflecting potential embarrassments, or propping up the image of competency, it is about doing one’s job: absorbing the stress and strain of complex issues facing a community, finding a path through conflicting positions on a problem, and working out solutions.

A second feature of managerialism is its attitude toward citizens, which is really a working theory of what citizenship entails in a complex society: citizens are clients and voters but not agents in any other respect. Low turnout for local elections? The same familiar faces volunteering for school boards, advisory commissions, and committees?  Empty chairs at city council meetings? The managerial standpoint sees these not as signs of any dysfunction but of a community at least modestly satisfied with the performance of its city government. Conflict, controversy, angry citizens showing up by the dozens at public meetings, on the other hand, are signs that some agency, or department, or person is performing poorly. Lay participation in general should be managed so that it turns into support and trust rather than controversy and instability.

Managerialism is characterized, third, by a faith in professional knowledge and training to address administrative problems. This assumption is the foundation of every major professional training program in public administration. Curricula of mainstream programs stress core competencies in budgeting, personnel management, and administrative theory. Community engagement coursework is rare and concept-rich courses demanding critical thinking about democracy, citizenship, and participation, if offered, are set far off on the periphery of the regular curriculum as electives.9 Reform-minded faculty at eight leading universities with strong public administration programs were interviewed about institutional commitment to democratic professional ideas. Their narratives are sobering. While democratic citizen engagement enjoys some “few pockets” of support, the faculty reported that mostly “we’re on the margins.” Worse still, public administration programs appear to be retrenching their managerialism by distancing themselves from democratic symbolism: “Many PA schools used to have words like ‘citizenship’ and ‘public’ in the titles, and they’ve taken them out,” one reformer points out. The major accreditation body, National Association for Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, in no way requires training in citizen engagement for accreditation.

Clearly, such faith in managerial professionalism serves the self-interests of programs that must attract fee-paying students—frequently people already working in the public sector but seeking promotions to positions with higher status and greater responsibility. Notice, however, that this faith also follows from personal and institutional commitments to a socially relevant vocation. “I entered public service,” remembers Lemmie, “because I believed in the power of government to solve society’s problems by redistributing resources and stepping in to correct injustices. I couldn’t wait to fix problems, ensure good government through improved efficiency and economy, and help people get on with their lives.10 To gain special knowledge and useful skills that can help others’ lives go better is an objective transcending self-interest; achieving such a vocation is a powerful motivator for many who make sacrifices to study, attending night seminars in budgeting, personnel, and organizational structure after a regular eight-hour workday.

So, though there is a lot of surface motion trending toward collaboration with citizens, strong currents pull most practitioners back to the status quo, safe harbor of managerialism. As Tina Nabatchi puts it, “Although there has always been (and may always be) an inherent tension in public administration between democratic and bureaucratic ethos, the field has tended to favor and embrace the latter.”11 “When it gets right down to it,” Morse echoes, “the old, traditional public administration professionalism ethos tends to still win out more often than not.” 12 What we need to explain, then, is this complex dynamic in which there are pressures driving high levels of interest in collaboration, but which only go so far.

Forces of Change

Two driving forces of change in particular stand out, and they both threaten the administrator’s traditional vocational identity as a social trustee who takes care of public business. The first has to do with what administrators now do, and the second how they communicate with citizens about what they do. The last generation has experienced massive shifts in how governments operate, a time of deep structural reform, shrinking budgets, multifaceted social problems, and changing citizen expectations. In the same period rapid and far-reaching developments in social media and communication have exploded. These forces push administrators toward experimentation, but they also create a kind of conservative pragmatism intensely insecure about efficacy and trust. 

Grasping for Efficiency in the New World of Governance

Those entering public administration today encounter a radically different set of institutions than the previous generation occupied. In the 1980s, neoliberal reforms aimed to transform government by shifting a number of traditional agency tasks and public services over to private contractors and, more generally, by broadly and deeply applying market measures of efficiency. These were followed in the 1990s by less radical, but also transformative “new public management” and “new institutionalist” reforms utilizing budgeting and management techniques borrowed from the private sector. Valerie Lemmie’s career spanned this transformative period of neoliberalism and new government reforms: “As a practicing city manager, the literature I read and the professional development training I attended focused almost exclusively on managing city government more like a business, establishing performance measurements and creating an environment for competitive service delivery and treating citizens like customers.”

The upshot was a mode of “governance” that was less hierarchically organized, relied on nongovernmental civil society groups and for-profit private firms to accomplish traditional tasks, and exerted authority via the coordination of horizontal networks of interested organizations and actors. As Mark Bevir puts it, “contemporary government increasingly involves private- and voluntary-sector organizations working alongside public ones. Complex packages of organizations deliver most public services today. The resulting fragmentation means that the state increasingly depends on other organizations to implement its policies and secure its intentions. Further, the state has swapped direct for indirect controls. Central departments are no longer invariably the fulcrum of policy networks. The state sometimes may set limits to network actions, but it has increased its dependence on other actors. State power is dispersed among spatially and functionally distinct networks.” 13

Scholars of public administration are ambivalent about the results of the last quarter century of reforms, using terms such as “decentered” and “fragmented” to describe government institutions that are no longer on top and no longer hierarchically organized, but now join a number of relevant actors who must coordinate to achieve results. Indeed, such results have been mixed. As Bevir claims, “Neoliberalism may have created a new governance, but it was one characterized less by the emergence of properly functioning markets than by the proliferation of networks, the fragmentation of the public sector, and the erosion of central control.” 14

Yet there is a positive side to this decentered and fragmented government landscape. “When the state withdraws—entirely or in part— from the direct provision of a good or service,” notes Bevir, “space for democratic innovations sometimes emerges and substantial forms of collaborative governance and citizen self-organization take root.” 15 Indeed, this point should be made with a slightly different emphasis. It is not simply that self-organizing citizens are scrambling forward to occupy the hollowed-out husks left by retreating government agencies. Rather, in some cases proactive democratic professionals are developing new modes of governance within their agencies because they recognize the need to collaborate and help citizens organize to take care of old and new problems. Archon Fung puts this point well, noting that citizens are being brought in to the work of government by public administrators “to address pressing deficits in more conventional, less participatory governance arrangements.” 16 Administrators realize they are “somehow deficient,” says Fung, lacking in “knowledge, competence, public purpose, resources, or respect necessary to command compliance and cooperation.” 17 As social trustee managerialism breaks down, a more democratic form of professionalism begins to look more appealing.

The concerns of working administrators closely reflect the massive shift in the meaning of government in the last generation. Managers today are soberly aware of the fiscal limits on their range of action and feel constant pressure to justify their practices in cost-savings terms. As Lemmie notes, “I was being called upon by elected officials to improve government performance, to do more with less and to make our government more customer-service friendly.” 18 This pressure hits hardest in urban America, in which city managers “are expected to stimulate economic growth in the face of dwindling federal financial assistance, an eroding tax base, middle-class flight to the suburbs, high rates of poverty and crime, underperforming public schools, aged infrastructure, a precipitous decline in unionized manufacturing jobs, citizen apathy, and elected officials running against ‘the bureaucracy.” 19

Managers are also cognizant of the fluid nature of the challenges they face. Their training and knowledge may equip them to handle some aspects of “wicked problems” but they realize they have to collaborate with other professionals, citizen organizations, and active agents with relevant specialized and practical knowledge. 20 “Citizens didn’t care about best-management practices,” says Lemmie. “They simply wanted their children to play safely in front of their houses…They couldn’t understand why what seemed like such a simple thing didn’t get done.” 21As Chris Plein, a professor of public administration at the University of West, Virginia, has pointed out, public administrators must frequently take up the role of “skilled intermediaries” rather than independent problem-solvers. Issues such as rural poverty require close collaboration over time with both people from different professional backgrounds and citizens from affected communities. 22

Rebuilding Trust in the Social Media Era

Just as their institutions have undergone major shifts, so has the political culture in which these are embedded. Public administrators today operate in a very different civic landscape than the previous generation, one less connected to the business of government and warier. Administrators have fewer dependable handholds to get a grip on public interests. Civic engagement in community meetings, local affairs, and neighborhood projects, as well as more formal political participation, has been on a steep decline in the United States since the mid-1970s. Trust in institutions and in fellow citizens—what scholars call vertical and horizontal trust—are at critically low levels.23 Officials in local and urban government are also impacted by the collateral damage caused by toxic Darwinian national elections with their breathtaking campaign expenditures, nonstop fundraising, and highly structured and negative debate.

Posing additional challenges to trust are the commercial and technological changes in media and communications. Rising costs and declining patronage forced a wave of consolidations in the 1980s and continue to press American news-media organizations toward leaner operations with fewer reporters. To remain competitive, news-media favor coverage of fast-breaking stories, dramatic events, and personality-rich narratives over slower news stories about policy issues and official decisions or in-depth investigative journalism. Further applying pressure to old media such as newspapers are rapid developments in new online media: aggregators culling—and often mixing—traditional journalism, opinion, and lay information from global sources, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others. Not only do people have exactly the information they want when they want it, they have the ability to share their own information and opinions with others, everywhere, instantly. As with the world of government, the new media world is decentered and fragmented, but it has also opened different and sometimes surprisingly robust ways of connecting officials with citizens. As Nabatchi observes, “although citizens have withdrawn from traditional civic and political activities, the advent of the Internet and other digital technologies has stimulated new citizen attitudes and engagement capacities.” 24

Declining citizen trust produces instability and unpredictability for city managers. While more secure in their offices than their elected colleagues, political upheavals can threaten managers by disrupting continuity in planning and policy implementation. In this negatively charged political environment, new media innovations have both empowered and agitated citizens. The civic playing field today is incredibly “touchy” and sensitive to things going wrong. In the “good old days,” observes Kim Payne, “you just have a formal public meeting and then make the decision you think is best for the community and move on. But with today’s social media and instant communication, I think you really need folks in the community who know what is going on, are involved, and feel like they’re part of the process.”25 New media are viewed as a goad, on the one hand, but also as platforms to reach out and tell people the city manager’s side of the story, to listen but also to educate. When he began work as a public administrator, Payne notes, “I did not have to deal with Facebook or Twitter or any of these social media (platforms). When someone comes into city hall … and has a bad interaction and they walk out the door and tweet and put it on Facebook, now a thousand people know about it. The world has really changed on us. You have to listen to these folks; you have to treat them with respect; you have to help them to understand where they just misunderstand, but you really need to have these conversations.”26

We Do Not Have All the Good Ideas

Public administrators are becoming more aware they are part of the problem they are suffering from. The managerial imperative has fed distrust by claiming, for generations, professional ownership of public problems: crime, social order, public health, housing, and educational opportunities. The new governance model has forced managers into practices that make it obvious that they do not own these problems: they must use private-public partnerships and other network approaches to do their work. A hands-off approach to the public is no longer possible, yet the habits of managerialism and the cultural expectations for efficient professional problem-solving persist.

The democratic managers I have interviewed seek to rebuild trust by, first, frankly admitting they do not have all the answers and, second, conveying to citizens that they have responsibilities to shoulder if they want good government. As Decatur city manager Andrea Arnold observes, “we believe strongly that our citizens should be involved, and we want them involved in problem solving, decision making, making planning decisions, and ultimately having them take some action to make improvements in the community. It is not just they vote to elect someone and then we carry it out.” Arnold’s perspective is a mixture of civic idealism and hardheaded pragmatism: “I think it’s okay for us to say that we in city government do not have all the good ideas,” she says, insisting, “we would be remiss in not tapping into the resources in our community. We could have the resources, the brainpower, of two hundred city employees or we can have that collectively at twenty thousand people. We have some amazing volunteers out here who have an expertise in development, storm water, trees, traffic, engineering—a wealth of experience and knowledge that we could not otherwise pay for.”26

Albert W. Dzur is a professor of Political Science (with a joint appointment in Philosophy) at Bowling Green State University.


1Excerpted from Albert W. Dzur, Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

2 Interview with Jamie Verbrugge.

3Valerie A. Lemmie, Democracy beyond the Ballot Box: A New Role for Elected Officials, City Managers, and Citizens (Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press, 2008), p. 55.

4 Interview with Kimball Payne.

5 Tina Nabatchi and Lisa Blomgren Amsler, “Direct Public Engagement in Local Government,” American Review of Public Administration 44 (2014): 69.

6 Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration,” Political Science Quarterly 2 (1887): 217.

7 Larkin S. Dudley and Ricardo S. Morse, “Learning about Deliberative Democracy in Public Affairs Programs,” in Deliberation and the Work of Higher Education: Innovations for the Classroom, the Campus, and the Community, ed. John Dedrick, Harris Dienstfrey, and Laura Grattan (Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press, 2008), pp. 165-190.

8 Interview with Larkin Dudley.

9 Matt Leighninger, “Teaching Democracy in Public Administration: Trends and Future Prospects,” in The Future of Public Administration Around the World, ed. Rosemary O’Leary, David M. Van Slyke and Soonhee Kim (Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 2010), p. 238.

10 Lemmie, Democracy beyond the Ballot Box: A New Role for Elected Officials, City Managers, and Citizens, pp. 5 and 7.

11 Tina Nabatchi, “Addressing the Citizenship and Democratic Deficits: The Potential of Deliberative Democracy for Public Administration,” The American Review of Public Administration 40 (2010): 381.

12 Interview with Ricardo Morse.

13 Mark Bevir, A Theory of Governance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 9.

14 Ibid., p. 151.

15 Ibid., p. 196.

16 Archon Fung, “Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance,” Public Administration Review (2006) (December: Special Issue on Collaborative Public Management): 74.

17 Ibid., p. 67.

18 Lemmie, Democracy beyond the Ballot Box, p. 8.

19 Ibid, p. 14.

20 On “wicked problems,” see Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (2) (1973): 155–169.

21 Lemmie, Democracy beyond the Ballot Box, p. 31.

22 Interview with Chris Plein.

23 According to the Pew Research Center, “Only 20% of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right ‘just about always’ (4%) or ‘most of the time’ (16%).” “Public Trust in Government Remains Near Historic Lows as Partisan Attitudes Shift,” Pew Research Center Report (May 3, 2017).

24 Tina Nabatchi, “Why Public Administration Should Take Deliberative Democracy Seriously,” in The Future of Public Administration around the World, p. 163.

25 Interview with Kim Payne.

26 Ibid.

27 Interview with Andrea Arnold.

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