Useful tips for the senior bureaucrat
February 5, 1991
In a government town like Springfield, the hiring and compensation practices of the State of Illinois are issues of public consequence. Such things matter to Illinois citizens everywhere else, or ought to. Here I was happy to quote at length from James Nowlan’s small book, Inside State Government, which I recommend. I was a little surprised, looking back, to realize I never reviewed it.
I don't understand why, but when this piece debuted it was titled Combat Pay and its subtitle promised an essay on public pay.
Reviewed: Inside State Government: A Primer for Illinois Managers by James Nowlan, University of Illinois Institute for Government & Public Affairs, 1982
A friend called the other day with a suggestion. He's a senior official in one of the lesser state agencies, and was fretting because the new director expected to be appointed by Jim Edgar had not yet been named. "You should apply," he said. "They'll give you a car and a car phone and a great parking space, and you're probably the only person they can get who'll work for less than $70,000."
I reminded him that I had been rude in print about the new governor's hair-do and thus was automatically banned from the administration of a governor who places a premium on good manners. Still, I won't be surprised if the telephone rings. It's getting harder and harder for a governor to find the dozens of department directors and commission chairmen and other senior managers he needs to run an administration. The money's not so hot, and most of the jobs require spending a lot of time in Springfield. It got so bad under Thompson that he had to advertise state directorships as entry-level jobs and fill them with kids whose previous work experience was organizing fraternity rush weeks.
There are state agencies and there are state agencies, of course. Nobody really cares if Mental Health or DCFS are run well, but it is important that they not be run so badly as to embarrass a governor. Some agencies, like DOT or the Board of Education, are controlled by permanent bureaucracies beyond the power of any director to shift. Then there are the regulatory agencies that are run by people outside state government, and several others such as the Department of Conservation with mandates so contradictory that they can't be run at all.
Obviously we need decent and capable people to run a system that by itself is neither. But the work rather militates against them. Cynics suggest that all a person needs to be a successful agency director is a sound bladder (all those meetings) and the ability to recognize a useful idea in time to excise it from any official reports or recommendations. But while some agency positions required specialized expertise—to be top man at the Department of Conservation, for example, one had to be able to shoot ducks—most director candidates in the old days were considered qualified if they were politically loyal and kept their pants on in public.
The successful agency directors I have known more recently seem to be of a type. They are content (often against their initial expectations) with life in Springfield. Their vanity is on a smaller scale than that of politicians; their ambitions usually don't extend beyond a parking space next to the door, and being home by 5:15 so they can watch Gilligan's Island with the kids. They are smart and often funny people, and to the extent they tried to do a good job they usually ended up miserable, and their smartness and humor ultimately was used less to do the job than to survive it.
Perhaps this is why agency directorships that are career stepping stones almost never are career launching pads. Most conscientious directors get so badly bruised that they leave state service looking not for challenges but for rest—a nice quiet job with a professional association, perhaps, or some part-time lobbying that includes lots of lunches.
Or teaching at Knox College, which is what Jim Nowlan ended up doing. Nowlan has been a governor's staffer, a state lawmaker, and a gubernatorial candidate, but during the Ogilvie administration he also headed the state agency that regulated horseshoers, among other professionals. In 1982 he wrote an article that was published as part of a handbook titled, ”Inside State Government.”
Nowlan interviewed more than 70 present and past top administrators in the Walker and Thompson administrations and distilled their experience into a series of helpful tips for neophyte managers. The result was a sort of Miss Manners column for the uncertain bureaucrat. With the kind of frankness that probably doomed his hopes for high office, Nowlan offered hints on how directors might avoid public criticism, curry favor with lawmakers and lobbyists, and suck up to the media.
Above all, Nowlan wrote, a good agency director must "keep calm and develop a tolerance for turmoil." More than in the past, much of that turmoil will come from inside, not outside the agency. Today's agency professionals are likely to be younger, better educated, and more committed to their work than they used to be. They may want to actually clean the air or save the bunnies or protect kids from abusers. Such ambitions either cost too much or piss off the powerful or leave the public confused, all of which are at odds with the larger aim of government, which is to not offend.
Rather than invigorate the permanent bureaucracy, in other words, agency directors these days more often have to restrain it. This is not always bad; the good directors act as mediators between anxious governors and their own staffs, protecting each from the zealotries of the other. Most directors, alas, act only when obliged to by events or the General Assembly, and then they do so as slowly and ineffectually as possible, short of provable malfeasance. The system has the happy effect of keeping public expectations of government so low that they pose no burden for elected officials, which is why those leaders are loath to change it.
The one place where the interests of the director and the permanent bureaucracy overlap is that of protecting the agency budget. Status in Springfield is not entirely a function of the size of a department's budget; Public Aid spends a lot of money but since it is given to poor people and not highway contractors or politically-placed banks it buys little clout. But a big budget is still more to be proud of than a small one. Increasing one's budget means taking on programs that one's department may be incompetent to administer, even not interested in administering, which is why the exercise so often is done at the expense of program integrity or efficiency or common sense.
This is one big reason why the cost of running state government goes up while the quality of its services goes down.
Even so, institutional politics are not as corrupting of agencies as electoral politics. Of course, politics has always been a part of public administration in Illinois. (A veteran complained to Nowlan about having to solve problems in "the context of a political Arab bazaar.") Nowlan's respondents reported that they spent only about 21 hours of every 50 to 60 hour week actually running their agencies. The rest of their time was spent in diapering the governor's staff, telling legislators what to think, pandering to the press, squeezing nickels out of B[ureau] O[f the] B[udget], mollifying interest groups, and making speeches.
In theory, an agency director is chosen by a governor to implement the latter's policies, but that becomes a trap when the governor has no policies save staying in office. As Nowlan describes it, the successful director must be keen to work within his governor's political agenda, giving him credit for what goes well and taking blame for what doesn't, and displaying loyalty—in short, protecting the boss's ass. No doubt the truth of their situation troubles men and women of conscience; I suspect that the higher and higher pay they demand in such posts is the bureaucratic equivalent of a soldier's combat pay—extra compensation for having to endure humiliations and dangers that the ordinary civilian is spared. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture