A process perspective on legitimacy for public administration: refocusing the national long-term care policy debate

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Virginia Tech

Attacks on public administration are commonplace in today’s anti-bureaucratic approach to government. The legitimacy of public administration has long been questioned. Public administration is not one of the three branches of government explicitly formed by the Constitution. Further, public administrators are not elected by the people.

Numerous attempts have been made to develop an idea of legitimacy that is grounded in the Constitution and that renders public administration consistent with the representative character of American government. A recent attempt presents public administration as an institution of governance that is derived from, and grounded in, the Agency Perspective. This perspective provides a new foundation stone for the legitimacy of public administration. Central to the perspective is public administration’s ability to evoke dialogue in a way that takes into account the public interest and brings about communities of shared meaning.

This literature, however, does not provide a specific enough perspective, i.e., a perspective that has been given a practical specification. Simply exhorting public administrators to evoke dialogue is not sufficient. Public administrators who are encouraged in this general manner will have no choice but to look to what they know: interest group liberalism. Public administration needs a more specific alternative to interest group liberalism and a new methodology from which public administrators can work.

In the research at hand, a new methodology is developed and demonstrated. The outline of the new methodology can be seen through the lens of principled negotiation. This literature maintains that negotiation from the positions of the various parties involved in a conflict, as is characteristic of interest group liberalism, is inefficient. Principled negotiation, on the other hand, recognizes that vital interests, not positions, are the key to creating consensus and achieving collaboration. The difficulty with this approach is that people, either as individuals or as role occupants in organizations, typically are unaware of their vital interests. Therefore, it is the task of the negotiator or, in this case, the public administrator to help surface these deeper interests.

The new methodology is grounded in the literature of structuralism. Structuralism is a social theory and a method of inquiry (Gibson, 1984:2) that provides a means of looking beneath the surface of events or issues to identify patterns of meaning that are not evident at the surface. The work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure served as the basis for modern structuralism (Sturrock, 1988:6). Working from Saussure’s writings, Claude Levi-Strauss "treats all forms of cultural expression as language and he assumes that like language it is all [structured] by unconscious laws that constitute a grammar for each" (White, 1983:12). In a similar vein, the structuralist undertaking in this research views the vital interests of the related groups and role occupants as the "underlying grammar" that structures the various approaches to policy formulation.

This research employs a case study design to which the theory of structuralism and the technique of structural analysis have been applied. The case study is that of national long-term care policy. Role occupants from 23 national organizations involved in long-term care policy were interviewed. The role occupants are key people involved in long-term care policy formulation for the organizations for which they work. The organizations' long-term care position papers were obtained. Using a process of structural analysis, the position papers and interview transcripts were analyzed to identify vital interests. An analysis of linguistic elements such as metaphors and other figures of speech, justifications, preferred meanings, and recurrent terms was conducted. In addition, content analysis was carried out with the aid of a computer program. The vital interests identified through these analyses served as the basis for the development of a strategy to shape the national long-term care policy debate.