Complementarity of Politics and Administration by James H. Svara — An Extract

Title: The Myth of the Dichotomy: Complementarity of Politics and Administration in the Past and Future of Public Administration
Author: James H. Svara
Publication: Public Administration Review, Vol. 61, No. 2 (2001)

  • The paragraphs are extracts.

Complementarity recognizes the interdependence and reciprocal influence between elected officials and administrators. Elected officials and administrators maintain distinct roles based on their unique perspectives and values and the differences in their formal positions, but the functions they perform necessarily overlap.

James H Svara Complementarity Public Administration

Any of these combinations are possible if the defining conditions are present. The political dominance that results from high political control and low administrative independence is the condition that has been attacked by reformers from the Progressive Era to the present because of their concern for loss of administrative competence and the potential for political corruption.

Bureaucratic autonomy is feared by critics of the administrative state, who argue that administrators are self-controlling and advance agency interests rather than the public interest. In both situations, either the level of control or independence is extreme, and the key reciprocating value is not present: Politicians do not respect administrators, or administrators are not committed to accountability.

One conceptual possibility is the combination of low control and low independence, producing a “live and let live” attitude among officials… The distance between the two sets of officials does not contribute to real control or real independence, but to coexistence. In some circumstances, the limited ability to influence other officials could result in stalemate.

The largest space in the figure is the zone of complementarity. Complementarity entails ongoing interaction, reciprocal influence, and mutual deference between elected officials and administrators. Administrators help to shape policy, and they give it specific content and meaning in the process of implementation. Elected officials oversee implementation, probe specific complaints about poor performance, and attempt to correct problems with performance through fine-tuning.


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