Steven Kelman's Making Public Policy: A Hopeful View of American Government
Steven Kelman's 1998 book on politics is entitled Making Public Policy: A Hopeful View of American Government. This is a brief but accurate summary of the central thesis of Kelman's philosophy of what enables the American system of government to function as well as it does. Perhaps because of the contentious nature of the modern media, discussions of the American governmental system and political process tend to focus on criticisms rather than on praises of its ability to address social ills. However, it is this stress upon the functionality, rather than upon the disfunctionality of American government that drives the structure, arguments, and philosophy advocated by Kelman's book.
In his introduction, Kelman states that he wishes to "evaluate how well the policy-making process works in the United States." In other words, Kelman wishes to rate the efficacy of the American government system in addressing the problems presented by the changes in American society. Can government adequately keep pace with the challenges posed by the complexities of modern social life? Kelman states that he "evaluate[s] the policy-making process against two standards -- the ability to produce good public policy and the less tangible effects of the process itself...[in] promoting our dignity as people and molding our character."
Kelman does not argue that the American system is without flaws. However, because of the nature of American democracy, he stresses that the type of discussion and debate fostered by the American system allows public policy to be highly responsive to the immediate needs of the public. However, the American system still has the adequate checks and balances within the system so it does not become hyper-conscious of the whims of the public. This is in direct contrast to, for instance, the Parliamentary system in England, where a single party wields control of the majority of the government, and has almost absolute control over the policy passed while that party is in power. Kelman suggests that because Americans do not always compare their system of government against previous or even current European models (Italy being an even more notorious example of disorganized government) they have a sense that their government works less well, rather than better, than it actually does. ("Parliamentary System" World Book Encyclopedia Online)
One reason the system works so well, according to this optimistic author, is that the system is founded upon the need a sense of public spirit in the character of policy-makers and those whom elect these policy makers, namely the American populace. "I argue that for the policy-making process to work well, high levels of public spirit on the part of participants in the process are necessary," he stresses. Unlike European systems of government, American government was founded not out of a particular historical tradition, but as an organized, constructed experiment in elected authority. Individuals in this democratic system, according to the system's founders, have to give of themselves, of their time and effort, to enable the system to function over a prolonged period of time.
Unlike a system based on royal succession there is no outstanding authority in America that continues to exert its authority, whether the current populace are active in government or not. ("Monarchy" World Book Encyclopedia Online) The American people, through election and voting of representatives, and by serving as representatives themselves, have to make an investment of time and effort to ensure that the machinery of their government works effectively to both protect them physically and protect their rights to be free.
This sense of public spirit at the heart of the policy making process has ensured that there is a level of altruism woven into the very fabric of the Constitutional system of America. Because of this, representatives must have a sense that they are functioning, not simply in the service of a specific Republican or Democratic Party ideology, but to advance a larger American ideal of what is good. This also means that voters must vote in favor of representatives and senators who simply serve a local interest, but also advance a larger American ideal.
When people try to achieve good public policy, the result tends to be good public policy," the author says. This simple statement, apparently a statement of the obvious, has profound implications because it suggests that elected representatives must strive to achieve something beyond that of the immediate goals of serving their constituents or the will of the public expressed in opinion polls. They must strive to achieve a larger social good.
Part 2: A Critical Look at 'Public Spirit'
Over the course of his book, Kelman breaks down the different American branches of government individually. His book contains chapters on the Presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court and the Bureaucracy. This type of breakdown, although the author does attempt to analyze these parts of the government more holistically in his introduction and his conclusion, tends to make these parts of the government seem more perfect than they actually are. It makes it seem as if they are functioning 'in a bubble' or as part of a graph of the governmental process, rather than in a real political system.
It seems almost a courageous effort in cynical times to write a book that stresses public spiritedness, as is core philosophy. But frequently, Kelman's statements, for instance that good public policy can be produced when civil servants are objective and efficient seems too easy. Theoretically, according to Kelman's analysis in his chapter on the Bureaucracy, the modern civil service is an ideal system. Rather than being appointed, civil servants enter the system based on their ability to pass an exam, not for political favors they might have done. Only the most qualified should pass such an exam, and only those interested in devoting their lives to public service would desire to apply themselves to such an exam, correct?
Although this idea is appealing in theory, Kelman's unwillingness to grapple with the modern day problems of corruption, inefficiency, and bureaucratic red tape that even the most casual reader has come in contact with, makes his book sound as if it is operating in a vacuum. Kelman, despite his considerable qualifications as a professor of public police at Harvard University, seems to view things from an 'ivory tower' perspective, at best. He even seems naive at times, in his confidence and belief that because something should work, then it will work, provided people go about things with the proper public spirit. If, for instance, civil servants or elected representatives are not functioning as they ought to, why not? If they do not exhibit this sort of public spirit that requires American government to work, it is not simply enough to assert that they must acquire this spirit. One must examine how the spirit was lost or if it ever truly existed, according to the Founding Father's theoretical conception of such a spirit.
Kelman, throughout his book poses the debate in the American political process between good and bad or as he phrases it, between selfishness and the public spirit. This sort of simplistic moral dilemma also gives his book a sense of a 'textbook,' written and sanitized in content for, well, college students of public policy. Without many specific and concrete examples from the real world of politics, the reader gets a sense of being 'talked down to' rather than being treated as an equal, or at very least, as an intelligent and aware student of American government. Of course, a system based on rational principles should work if all participants behave in a rational fashion. But since this does not occur, does this mean that simply asserting that people should behave in a more rational, public-spirited fashion is enough. Better to accept the messy nature of the political process…