Public servants shouldn’t get servants’ wages
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.
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 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—in the old days most director candidates were considered qualified if he was politically loyal and kept his pants on in public.
The successful agency directors I have known more recently seem to be of a type. They are happy (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 they are loathe 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 uninterested in administering, which is why the exercise so often is done at the expense of program integrity or efficiency or even 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 50-60 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. ■