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Fellow Spotlight: James P. Pfiffner

Fellow Spotlight

What encouraged you to pursue a career in the field of public service?

My commitment to public service stemmed from my education, scholarship, and experience with the American government.

As I went through high school and college, I became intrigued with the idea of governance. Humans have done incredible things to improve our health and economy. However, dictators have killed millions. It became evident that to improve economic and social progress, some power must be delegated to those who govern and make decisions for the rest of us. But at the same time, that power must be constrained so it is not abused.

That insight led me to look at constitutions and the rule of law, particularly the U.S. Constitution and the executive branch's role, which is the home of federal public administration.

I was struck by how people become frustrated by red tape and bureaucracy, which all of us have experienced at one time or another. Yet a modern economy cannot exist without an administrative state that provides the infrastructure, transportation, communications, business law, etc., without which an economy cannot thrive. So, in graduate school, I studied public administration and discovered that bureaucracy is crucial to governance and entrepreneurial economic progress.

I observed the workings of bureaucracy up close when I was in the Army and as a special assistant to Jule Sugarman in the Director’s office of the Office of Personnel Management in 1980, which was tasked with implementing the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

But just as the chief of executive power must be constrained, so must bureaucratic power be constrained and humanized. Bureaucratic power, when exercised effectively, is constrained by rules, regulations, and hierarchy.

One of my areas of interest has been the presidency and particularly the way that presidents relate to career civil servants and the military. Policy execution is mediated through White House staffers, presidential appointees, and other political appointees, such as non-career SES and Schedule C appointees. This chain of relationships is crucial to effectively administrating the laws and carrying out public policies.

So, my professional career has focused on imparting these insights to undergraduate and graduate students. Public administrators will inevitably face ethical and moral dilemmas in whatever capacity they serve. In my courses, I strive to help future public administrators be aware of the ethical imperatives of their profession.

What does the future of public administration look like to you?

Democracy and public administration in the United States are fragile. The biggest threat facing the United States today is the erosion of our democratic/constitutional order due to the polarization of American politics.

Political polarization presents a direct threat to the merit system, upon which rests the economic, social, and moral basis of governance. Without the merit system, the effective administration of public policy would fall apart, as we found out during the era of the spoils system in the 19th century.

The line between politics and administration is blurry in the real world of governance. But the principle that elected political leaders make policy and public service professionals must strive to carry them out in good faith (providing they are legal and ethical) is central to the field of public administration and the merit system.

Recently, much talk has been about the “deep state.” Still, public administrators, when doing their jobs faithfully, strive to be apolitical in the execution of their duties. In a recent article, I argued that whatever career resistance to President Trump there might have been, it paled compared to resistance to his directives from the “shallow state” of his own White House and cabinet appointees.

In your career, what has been most rewarding, and what are you proud of?

What I am most proud of are the students I have taught over the past five decades who have served the public in important ways at the local, state, and national levels. My students have served in domestic federal agencies and the military, defense, and intelligence services.

One of the highlights of my career was working as a staff member of the National Commission on the Public Service (the Volcker Commission) in the late 1980s. I staffed the Task Force led by Elliot Richardson, which focused on the relationship between political appointees and career civil servants. We used data collected by NAPA to dispel the myth that career professionals were not responsive to their politically appointed superiors. Our recommendation was that responsiveness to political direction was undermined by the large number of political appointees, and their numbers could be reduced without hindering the responsiveness of career professionals to presidential direction. The US has more political appointees than any other democratic system, and our advice to reduce that number is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

What are two or three books that stand out to you and why?

Frank Fukuyama, in The Origins of Political Order, examines the history of social/economic/political institutions and argues that the essentials of governance are the capacity to provide security and deliver services (public administration), the rule of law (non-arbitrary rule enforcement), and accountable government (democracy).

In one of Fukuyama’s other books, State Building, he presents an excellent argument for the centrality of public administration to governance. Fukuyama argues that to provide effective implementation of public policies, bureaucrats need a certain amount of autonomy to carry out their duties effectively without partisan political interference. But they cannot be so autonomous that they ignore the legitimate directives of political leaders.

I also recommend my former colleague Hugh Heclo’s book, A Government of Strangers. This book about strangers (political appointees) and their relationships with career professionals remains a classic. It informed the creation of the Senior Executive Service in 1978, and it contains insights about the relationship between career civil servants and political appointees that are still relevant.

If you want to understand the origins of polarization, Nelson Polsby’s How Congress Evolves is essential. It begins with the political transformation of the South from Democratic dominance to Republican dominance, beginning in the 1960s.

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About Jim Pfiffner

James P. Pfiffner is University Professor Emeritus, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University. His primary areas of expertise are the U.S. Presidency, American National Government, the national security policymaking process, and public management.

His professional experience includes service in the Director’s Office of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (1980-81), and he has been a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside, and California State University, Fullerton. In 2007 he was S.T. Lee's Professorial fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of London. In the summer of 2013, he was Visiting Professor at the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Public Administration and has testified before both Houses of Congress.

He has written or edited sixteen books on the presidency and American National Government, including The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running (University Press of Kansas), Power Play: The Bush Administration and the Constitution (Brookings), and Organizing the Presidency (with Steve Hess, Brookings). He has also published more than one hundred scholarly articles and chapters in books.

While serving with the 25th Infantry Division (1/8 Artillery) in 1970, he received the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism (with “V” device) in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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