During the 1960's I had the honor to chair ASPA's Comparative Administration Group, or CAG is it was called -- it paved the way for today's SICA -- Section for Comparative and International Administration. This essay is a semi-autobiographical and retrospective account of what has happened to comparative administration during the past 40 years, including my personal role and thoughts.
ASPA was able to get a couple of grants from the Ford Foundation that enabled CAG, during the 1960s, to sponsor a variety of summer seminars and conferences that led to the publication of almost a dozen books on various dimensions of "Development Administration" (Braibanti 1969, Heady and Stokes 1962, Heaphey 1971, Kornberg and Musolf 1970, Montgomery and Siffin 1966, Riggs 1970, Thurber 1973, Waldo 1970, Weidner 1970). Development administration was on the title of our Foundation grants, in line with its emphasis on development projects in third world countries, mainly the new states formed by the collapse of the modern empires. The premise was that American administrative experience and know-how could be used by the struggling regimes in these states to enhance their ability to carry out development projects. Our focus was to be non-political in the sense that we would not worry about whether these regimes were democratic, autocratic, or chaotic -- we would, instead, focus on their bureaucracies, notably their civil services (excluding military officers) and think about how training programs and organizational methods could be better used to enhance developmental goals.
When foundation support ran out, CAG could scarcely maintain the momentum of special projects and publications that had empowered the movement during the 1960s -- for a summary account of the CAG history and accomplishments see Riggs (1971). Since no new funding could be secured, we then had to content ourselves with no-cost activities -- such as annual ASPA panels and workshops, newsletters and correspondence. ASPA's older and more prestigious International Committee also entered the picture. Its distinguished members had, for many years, coordinated relations between ASPA and the International Institute for Administrative Sciences, primarily by selecting the American participants to join its summer roundtables and advising those who wished to attend its congresses. Ultimately, the two groups were united and renamed the "Section for International and Comparative Administration" or SICA -- it continues to the present day to provide stimulating initiatives within the context of ASPA's regular program. Our primary focus now is on problems of Comparative Public Administration and, secondarily, on the administration of International Organizations, especially the UN and related agencies.
Understandably, there was a sense of let-down among some ASPA members because interesting activities that had previously been supported could not be continued. There was also a sense of disappointment that CAG had never reached any definite conclusions -- if it was a project, should it not have figured out what should be done to promote development administration in the third world or, even more broadly, to establish "Comparative Administration" as a vigorous specialty within the discipline of Public Administration. Various criticisms were brought to a focus in a PAR symposium organized by Dwight Waldo, its editor at that time. Dwight convened a group of younger scholars who had become interested in comparative administration and asked them to write evaluations of the movement. Their sharp criticisms were published in PAR (Riggs 1976) and make interesting reading today. [insert some quotations?]
First, we should have done field research and not limited ourselves to conferences and seminars -- I agree, but I must also point out that we were never able to obtain support for such projects, although we did try very hard to get it. Actually, the original stimulus that led to the CAG project was a design for field research prepared at the Public Administration Clearing House in New York, during the late 1950s, by a task force that I chaired. We used an "outline" of key questions that had been prepared by Wallace Sayre and Herbert Kaufman for use at a PACH conference on Comparative Public Administration, held at Princeton University in [date].
Unfortunately we were never able to secure funding for that research -- the history of this field might not have been quite different had we succeeded. I might add that the reason given us by the Ford Foundation for withholding its support for field research was the consideration that professional societies, like ASPA, could not efficiently manage such operations -- presumably because internal "politics" would vitiate the objectivity and effectiveness of any research sponsored by a membership association. Instead, the foundation restricted its research support to established institutions, mainly universities, and such established bodies as the Social Science Research Council.
Another criticism of CAG was that we encouraged qualitative rather than quantitative research. The behavioral science approach had gained in popularity and our critics said they wanted to see hard facts and numbers, not just opinions and anecdotes. Fair enough. I agreed but felt helpless because the only research we could report in our papers and books was that which our members had been able to do on their own resources, without special funding. Nevertheless, a few quantitative studies were started by CAG members who were able to secure independent funding for their own projects. One of them, led by Blanche Blank, was intended to compare administrative performance in several European countries, using statistical data. In order to do something manageable, members of her group agreed to use the same questionnaire in several countries to identify costs and effectiveness of mail services. The research parameters had to be tightened so much to fit the time/cost framework of available funds that, eventually, it was abandoned as too narrowly trivial to be worth doing.
Another comparative study in several Asian countries, was organized by Richard Gable, my successor as CAG chair. A great deal of work and many international meetings and consultations led, eventually, to the publication of a book that focused on projects in four Asian countries designed to increase rice production. A wealth of comparative data about the technical and organizational aspects of these projects was collected by national study teams in each country. The results can be found in Gable and Springer (1976).
I wrote a preface that links this outcome to the origins of our research ideas at the Princeton Conference, the history of CAG, and some linked activities of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group (SEADAG), the East-West Center in Hawaii, the Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration (EROPA), and the collaborating research centers in each four country, with some help from the Rockefeller Foundation. It was, assuredly, a complex and precarious organizational feat, focusing on a significant though narrow range type of activity in four countries where rice production projects (all done with external assistance) made comparisons quite relevant. Readers will appreciate, I think, how much money, time, and effort was needed to accomplish even these narrowly limited results -- more ambitious undertakings would have required a great deal more time, money and international cooperation than we were ever able to muster.
In my opinion, legislatures play a central role, not only in democratization (political development) but also in enhanced administrative performance. At least, in the U.S. it is clear that Congress plays such a role not only by formulating the laws and budgets which enable agencies to work but also by monitoring their activities, through its General Accounting Office. In countries where bureaucrats, military and civil, are actually the ruling class -- as I had seen them operating in Thailand during my year of field work there in 1957-8 -- no extra-bureaucratic institution has enough power to monitor appointed officials and motivate them to improve their performance. My rationale for seeking AID support for a CAG project on legislatures was to learn more about how legislatures could effectively check abuses of power by appointed officials and motivate them to enhance their administrative performance. Since at that time [date] AID viewed efforts to promote democratization as unacceptably "political," the CAG project to study legislatures and development was viewed with suspicion as dangerously unorthodox or even potentially seditious.
The charge that CAG was ethnocentric is, I think, perhaps the most telling of the criticisms lodged against us, but I'm not sure, even now, that we could have acted differently even if we had understood why we were inescapably ethnocentric. This word usually carries connotations of cultural insensitivity -- as Americans, our prejudices and biases stood in the way of a balanced perception of the accomplishments and challenges faced by non-Americans. I would be the first to agree that, undoubtedly, we are as guilty as everyone else in the world of misunderstanding others and assuming that ours is the best and only way to do things. We need to cultivate empathy, an ability to walk in the shoes of those whose experiences and problems in life are quite different from our own.
However, there is another sense in which ethnocentrism is an even more damaging charge and one that I did not fully appreciate until, just a few years ago, I suddenly realized that my own understanding of the American system of governance was sadly deficient. This deficiency is rooted not only in our cultural presuppositions but also, I must say, it is written into our textbooks -- what we are taught about our own society and system of government now strikes me as so seriously defective that, as a people and a profession, we cannot avoid blinkers that seriously hamper our ability to understand ourselves, including our governmental system as a whole and our administrative practices within that system.
The initial mandate to study development administration that CAG accepted from the Ford Foundation was built on the ethnocentric perception that we had evolved approprate institutions and procedures for implementing public policies and that we would be doing a big favor to any country where we could bring the benefits of our superior knowledge. When we encountered resistance to our ideas and efforts overseas, we assumed it was because of some perverse misunderstandings or capriciousness that blocked the implementation of desirable innovations.
It did not occur to us that, perhaps, our experiences in the management of public affairs were so exceptional as to be utterly irrelevant in other countries -- even more, perhaps, the context in which some things work well in the U.S. is so different from the contexts found in other countries that we should not expect any of our practices to be relevant outside the U.S. Had this idea occurred to us, we might have decided that first priority in the comparative analysis of public administration ought to have involved a clear focus on our own country. Had we put the spotlight of comparativism on America, we might have learned things about ourselves that would have made us far more humble, less eager to teach and more willing to learn, in our overseas activities. In the space that remains for me here, let me summarize a few things I think I have learned about American public administration in recent years.
Given the technical, physical and cultural constraints experienced by the Chinese, my dad realized that they had virtually accomplished miracles -- their ability to feed a vast population on an ancient and widely eroded land, using limited resources, was indeed astonishing. The only way my father could imagine that agricultural productivity in China might be increased involved a close understanding of existing practices and resources and the invention of some new adaptations, crops, materials, facilities that could, incrementally, bring about useful improvements. This experience also taught me great respect for the Chinese and raised questions in my mind about our American "achievements" -- for more details, see (Arora 1992, pp. 1-34).
When I went to Thailand in 1967 for a year of field research, I decided to focus my own attention on the way the Thai government had been organized to administer agricultural development programs -- especially in all dimensions of rice production, processing, marketing and use, both at home and internationally. It was a good approach, I think, because it did not start with any presuppositions about what America had to offer nor about what I would find. I simply knew that rice was the stable food of the country and the main crop grown by its farmers -- and I had seen my father's experiments with rice breeding as a boy so I thought I knew something about the subject. What I discovered was illuminating and unexpected, to me, and helped me to formulate a theoretical framework that I called the prismatic model. Although my latest work has moved into other questions, this model remains at the core of my understanding of the world today.
The basic premise of American technical assistance projects -- and of our ethnocentrism -- arises from a kind of world view in which we saw the third world as "backward" or "traditional," and the Western world, especially in America, as "progressive," "modern," or "advanced." The challenge was to bring the fruits of our experience to the unfortunate people who needed our help so that they could jump onto a moving escalator called development or modernization that would carry them --no doubt after years of struggle and trauma -- to a promised land in which they would all become "like us," partners in an increasingly prosperous and happy land, even a world without history and a world blessed with capitalism, democracy, and efficient public administration.
What I saw in Thailand, however, was a world in which ancient traditions and religious beliefs were deeply rooted and grave suspicions prevailed about the outside world and its political/economic aims and cultural practices. The Thai people certainly did not want to become carbon copies of Westerners. However, they were realistic in their belief that they would have to sway with the typhoons of Western imperialism and change enough to survive. The challenge accepted by the Thai people involved efforts to preserve their most treasured cultural values while importing from abroad whatever they needed to accomplish this goal -- including, no doubt, the acceptance of some objects and practices that would supplement their traditional life style and satisfactions.
The metaphor of a prism helped me think about the cross-pressures or juxtapositions of two contradictory and different ways of life. My first efforts to formulate models of these contrasting life ways led me to articulate the polarized notions of agraria and industria -- see (Riggs 1957). When, subsequently, I went to Thailand for field research, I realized that these two models can be meshed with each other, generating a complex cross-pressured syndrome formed by superimposing an insistent external world on a resistant internal world, by trying to harmonize incompatible values and contradictory pressures. When white light is diffracted by a prism into a multi-colored rainbow, we can visualize a process whereby polarizing impulses are held in unstable equilibrium. The prismatic experience is not a synthesis nor even a stage on a moving belt that advances inexorably from tradition to modernity: rather, it is an enduring dilemma for peoples trapped between two different worlds, a trap that generates its own dynamics, its own inescapable logic and oppressive cross-pressures.
After two years in Southeast Asia, I stopped in New Delhi to offer a synthetic view of the three contexts of traditional (fused), modern (diffracted) and conflicted (prismatic) public administration -- see (Riggs 1961). These preliminary ideas provided the basis for a more elaborated theory of prismatic society (Riggs 1964) which I published during the CAG years although, needless to say, many if not most of our members found it rather complex and unreal. I sought to clarify some of these ideas in a PAR essay (1968) but without much success. Later on, I made another effort to disentangle the snarls but may only have added to the confusion (Riggs 1974). I thought the basic ideas were still valid, but perhaps the rhetoric needed re-formulation -- anyhow, I stopped saying much about the "prism" after that.
The "promoters" of 1932 intended to transform the country from an absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy -- a truly revolutionary goal. However, they soon found that the parliament could resist their ideas as much as the king had. To cope with the ensuing conflicts, they found ways to neutralize parliament -- it became a powerless assembly. Witness a prismatic situation: both the traditional monarchy and the modern parliament existed side by side and powerless while public officials, led by military officers, ran the country. My conclusions about the many dimensions of public administration in a prismatic context are set forth in my book, Administration in Developing Countries: The Theory of Prismatic Society. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1964.
Where would American ideas about public administration fit in this context? We assume the role of appointed officials is to carry out policies established, hopefully, by elected politicians -- or, traditionally, by hereditary kings. In either case, bureaucrats work under the orders of folks who are not bureaucrats -- and Public Administration, as a discipline or field of knowledge, can focus on the non-political functions of implementing policies, managing governance but not running the government. Now put yourself in the situation of a foreign adviser trying to help officials improve their capacity to obey orders and manage projects without asking who gives the orders, and what goals the projects serve. Since AID projects were typically supported by funds for equipment, for travel abroad --including conferences and field visits in America, based on hopes that things would go better and everyone would benefit -- Thai officials typically welcomed these gift-bearing visitors. However, they were quite realistic about how they might benefit from these projects whereas the Americans were always disappointed that the results were quite different and much less that what they originally expected.
Years later, after the CAG experience, I was impressed to see how many other countries in the Third World followed the Thai example -- groups of military officers with support from some civil servants would stage a coup, seize power, suspend the constitution and legislature, and rule arbitrarily. Why was this happening, I had to ask. Initially, I had assumed the Thai experience was virtually unique -- there were few parallel cases and rule by bureaucrats following a coup d'etat was not something traditional.
Domination of a polity by appointed officials was clearly prismatic -- neither traditional nor modern. But it introduced a whole new set of practices, many of which were highly formalistic by which I mean they carried a modern facade and a traditional substance -- appearances were designed to please foreign observers but the reality was meant to satisfy the folks directly concerned. This prismatic attitude applies even to scholarly research: imagine the typical survey situation where someone armed with a questionnaire asks, naively, for objective information. The responses, however, are often designed to please the investigator while concealing contradictory realities. I could not interview a lot of people, but I could try to find out how many countries had gone through a Thai-like transition. I did a small-scale quantitative study -- how many countries had experienced coups and why? The results of my inquiry are reported in Riggs (1993)
No doubt, my survey is highly impressionistic and my codings would be revised by anyone doing a follow-up study. Nevertheless, they convinced me that institutional differences explained coups much more than cultural, environmental, demographic, economic, or other variables that might be considered. The greatest institutional variance involved the kind of political system that existed when a coup took place. Sometimes they replaced a monarchy, repeating the Thai scenario. Much more often, however, coups merely replaced the leaders of one coup with another -- that happened in Thailand quite often after 1932. One general conclusion, therefore, is that bureaucratic domination and rule by military officers is an inherently unstable form of government. Eventually, popular revolts, foreign pressures, disillusioned rulers and historical accidents conspire to lead autocratic regimes to surrender power in favor of a modern form of government, sometimes dominated by a ruling party but also, increasingly, by a democratic regime centered on an elected assembly whose members have been chosen in open competition between rival parties.
Democratic regimes, however, have turned out to be quite fragile in Third World countries. Whether they were established at the dawn of independence by agreement with collapsing imperial powers, or after a period of domestic authoritarianism under military domination, governance based on representative institutions is quite fragile -- during times of crisis when such a regime cannot cope satisfactorily with acute problems, a group of military officers, supported by civil servants and deeply disaffected popular forces, can seize power. Omitting revolts against monarchies and against existing military regimes, I found that the institutional design of democratic regimes correlated significantly with the success of military coups (Riggs 1993). Most surprisingly, virtually every regime that had adopted the American separation-of-powers system experienced at least one catastrophic breakdown, i.e. suspension of the constitution, abolition of the legislature, and rule by appointed officials. Strikingly, the only presidentialist regime never to experience such a breakdown, even during great crises such as civil war, depression, and foreign wars, was the United States.
The significance of this finding hit me only when I discovered that regimes following parliamentary models like those of the European countries survived fairly often, though not always. The only countries that did not experience coups were those dominated by a single party -- Communist regimes could not only dominate their legislatures but also control their appointed officials, but their people had to pay a heavy price. Ultimately, I believe, communist regimes collapse from intra-party demoralization rather than from revolution or coup d'etat -- but that is a different story.
Although the institutional differences involve all components of modern democratic governance -- legislatures, chief executives, political parties, elections, judicial systems, etc. -- one of the most significant involves the bureaucracy and public administration. Because this aspect touches the special interests of APSA members and the readers of PAR, I will focus on it here. My analysis begins with the question why American appointed officials, headed by military officers, have never seized power in the U.S. -- a surprising difference from the experience of almost all other presidentialist (separation-of-powers) constitutional systems.
The answer has both a positive and negative aspect. On the positive side, American public administration, though far from perfect, has been good enough so that it has not provoked the widespread dissatisfaction with government that generated revolutionary movements, ethnonational uprisings, and military coups in other countries. On the negative side, the American bureaucracy, centered in its military elements, has not been capable of organizing a successful coup. Perhaps they never wanted to, and perhaps the regime was strong enough to control the bureaucracy effectively -- and, I might add, to deal adequately, though not well, with the increasing heterogeneity of America's multi-cultural (multi-national?) society (Riggs 1995a). These propositions may be true, but there is also another factor: the structure of the American bureaucracy evolved in such a way that it could not organize itself to seize power.
These propositions sound extraordinary to most Americans because they flout conventional wisdom. Our image of bureaucracy and public administration starts from the premise that appointed officials are non-political, their job is just to carry out public policies in line with decisions made by elected politicians and judges. We do not even imagine that such officials would want to seize power and we assume they could not do so anyhow. By referring to their work as public management we de-politicize it and, it was in this mood, that we thought we could export American administrative "know-how" to other countries.
Our theories about the politics/administration dichotomy permitted us to think about public administration as a non-political process -- it was not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. constitution which focussed attention on elected offices and took appointed officials for granted. We did not even think of the worst case scenario in which administrative performance is so bad that it alienates a population, turning everyone against the government. Yet maladministration is highly political in its consequences, provoking both popular dissatisfaction with government and bureaucratic revolts.
We also do not think about bureaucratic domination, situations in which appointed officials run the government and decide public policies. Bureaucratic politics, in the sense that officials do or should influence the formation of public policies, makes sense only in a context of constitutionally controlled democracy -- see (Rourke 1991). I even put my own spin on this notion in a recent essay that focussed on the American situation: (Riggs 1988). However, our literature in this field continues to presuppose a situation that falls between the extremes of bureaucratic domination and extreme maladministration. It is still hard to talk about these phenomena because we lack the needed vocabulary of concepts and terms -- I'll give some examples below.
This way of thinking is, I think, fundamentally ethnocentric -- and it kept us from taking a serious look at our own system. In order to do so, we need a comparative framework involving a close look at both parliamentary regimes and other presidentialist systems. Such a perspective, I argued in a PAR note, can help us understand ourselves less ethnocentrically (Riggs 1991a) -- subsequently I tried to put some meat on this skeleton by spelling out some of the constitutional constraints that presidentialism imposes on American public administration (Riggs 1994a) -- a more general discussion of the same theme can be found in Riggs (1994b). In order, now, to secure a systemic view rather than just glimpses at isolated aspects of our administrative system, we need to consider both the context and the structure of bureaucracy, taking its constitutional design into account. Let me say something about the context first, and then look at the structure.
To some degree, in practice, such disunity is inevitable in all states, but cabinet governments in the parliamentary model are substantially more unified. Not only does the Cabinet normally coordinate its policies far more than our so-called "cabinet" can do, but since Cabinets are accountable to Parliament -- they are normally part of the Parliament -- the fused power of the legislatures and executive are much more likely to provide coordinated guidance to the whole bureaucracy than any presidentialist government can achieve -- for further details concerning the American system, see Newland (1987). Since Parliament is also the source of constitutional guidelines -- especially when there is no formal Charter, as in the British case -- the judicial branch cannot easily invalidate laws as unconstitutional.
The dispersal of power unavoidably generates confusion at lower levels and aggravates responses such as those manifest in the Blacksburg Manifesto (Wamsley et al 1990) which call for greatly enhanced administrative authority -- perhaps to act like a "Fourth Branch" able to call shots independently of the three constitutional branches. The implicit premise of this initiative is the disjuncture between "politics" and "administration." However, I think that particular myth was an accidental misunderstanding caused by provisions of the Pendleton Act -- it does not reflect the historical interdependence of politics and administration which I have discussed fairly recently in Riggs (1991b).
The continuing and fundamental problems of politico-administrative mal-coordination and the band-aid expedients used to cope with the deep tensions of our dispersed power structure have been discussed by many American writers (see, for example, Seidman 1980). Rarely, however, do they recognize that this problem is not a superficial manifestation of poor leadership, partisanship or bad management -- rather, I consider it endemic to the presidentialist constitutional design.