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Civil Servants and Their Constitutions

John A. Rohr

March 2002
216 pages, 6 x 9
Studies in Government and Public Policy
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1163-8, $19.95



Book Cover ImagePublic administration as an American profession originated in the early twentieth century with urban reformers advocating the application of scientific and business practices to rehabilitate corrupt city governments. That approach transformed governance in the United States but also guaranteed recurrent debate over the proper role of public administrators, who must balance the often contradictory demands of efficiency and politically defined notions of the public good. Currently the business approach holds sway. Legitimated by Al Gore's National Performance Review, the New Public Management movement promotes entrepreneurs over civil servants, performance over process, decentralization over centralization, and flexibility over rules.

John Rohr demurs, arguing that the movement goes too far in downplaying the distinctively American challenges arising from the separated powers principle. Consequently, the NPM alienates public management from its natural home--a nation-state established within a constitutional order. According to Rohr, "nothing is more fundamental to governance than a constitution; and therefore to stress the constitutional character of administration is to establish the proper role of administration as governance that includes management but transcends it as well."

This is not a novel argument for Rohr, who was recognized in 1999 by the Louis Brownlow Committee of the National Academy of Public Administration for his lifetime contributions on the "constitutional underpinnings" of public administration. But this new version of his rule-of-law critique directly addresses the NPM's excesses, framed convincingly as a comparative study of cases found in four countries spanning three centuries.

The first half of the book examines the linkages between constitutions and administrations in France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The second half of the book examines American cases in three categories: separation of powers, individual rights, and federalism.

American administrative law, Rohr concludes, has structured safeguards to protect the integrity of administrative decision-making while also holding it accountable. He summarizes his findings from the case studies by saying that the constitutional role of American civil servants comes not only from specific American experiences but also from the very nature of civil service.

"Relying on a breathtaking range of scholarship, Rohr definitively shows how and why public administration is inevitably and strongly bound up with constitution-making and constitutional governance. This book should forever change mainstream public administrative thought in the United States."--David H. Rosenbloom, coauthor of Constitutional Competence for Public Managers

"Rohr brings us back to the constitutional basics in the United States and elsewhere to help us appreciate his provocative perspectives on contemporary public administration issues. In the process he not only informs current debates, but he sparks new ones in his sophisticated, very readable, and engaging way."--Phillip J. Cooper, author of Public Law and Public Administration

JOHN A. ROHR is professor of public administration at the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A recipient of the ASPA Distinguished Research Award, he is the author of six other books, including Public Service, Ethics, and Constitutional Practice, Founding Republics in France and America: A Study in Constitutional Governance, and To Run a Constitution: The Legitamacy of the Administrative State.

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