1 People doing politics 1 People doing politics

Public officials

Council planner

The architect was asking for some significant changes to plans for a company headquarters which was to be built on a former school playing field. After some discussion, the Planning Officer suggested they proceed by informal consultation with councillors and others, rather than make a renewed application. Later that day, he had to address the failure of his office to process an application in good time, which involved talking to managers to work out the source of the problem, and calling the applicant to apologise and explain.

The administrator is a co-ordinator of effort in continuing activity.

Harold Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics, 1930

In both instances, the ACPO had to draw on his knowledge of the technicalities of planning, but also of administrative procedure, of the political dynamics of the council, of the people and personalities involved in each case, and of what might count as a normal and appropriate way of resolving them. These are meshed together as he talks to those he’s engaged with, each interaction offering an account of what’s at stake both in his own eyes and in those of each meeting’s ‘nonpresent participants’. In this way, ‘Communicative acts are the atoms of the ideas that mobilize the flow of resources and the realization of rules’.

The planner’s work is to figure out ‘who gets what, when, how’, in Lasswell’s famous phrase; it is a form of governing. It consists in much more than designing, drafting, measuring, calculating and budgeting, for these technical and professional things have to be realised and sustained in a series of communicative political acts. In planning, in practice, ‘talk and argument matter’.

Immigration official

Judy works at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, in the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service. One day a group of 56 asylum seekers arrived from Slovenia, some of them having been refused entry to other European countries. According to the regulations, they could neither be admitted nor immediately returned, so the solution was to create temporary holding accommodation for them in terminal D.

That is something that you have to create out of nothing. In such cases you have to make agreements with Immigration lawyers, with the Immigration Office, with the police, with all parties involved. And you have to inform the people themselves of course. You need to arrange for translators who can tell those people what is going to happen.

I didn’t have to do all those things myself, but we, as the policy implementation unit have to give the policy input. The people at the airport they have to coordinate with the translators, immigration officers, and the police, who are all there. And they have to coordinate all this with us, what is possible policywise, and we have to, within the head office, coordinate with our lawyers, our process unit, our street-level workers you could call them, and with our director, if we can do it this way, for you are basically creating something new, about which you should wonder if it is feasible. I mean, which story will hold before the judge, what kind of legitimization do you have. It shouldn’t be dead on arrival in court.

Judy, in Hendrik Wagenaar, ‘Knowing the rules’, 2004

Her work is not simply about applying the rules, which we might think of as the ‘quintessential administrative task’. It is much more about working out which rules might apply, and whether and how to apply them. And that depends not just on knowing the rules, but the context in which they might be applied and the agencies and individuals who might apply them. This is how she must make the rule real.

Bureaucrats are the Einsteins of society. They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable.

Bruno Latour, Aramis, or the Love of Technology, 1993

She thinks of it as creative activity, though the arrangement she makes isn’t quite made ‘out of nothing’. She has an incomplete, less than fully formed sense of the situation in front of her, but knows she needs to act. She does so in consultation and collaboration with others, as they develop a shared sense of what might be done. They learn, together, what that is by trying to do it. Administrative work of this kind is as much collective and pragmatic as it is individual and instrumental. ‘What Judy knows is not held in memory, but instead embodied in the actions she engages in… Confronted with the complexity and overwhelming detail of everyday work situations, administrators have to turn the partial descriptions of such situations, as exemplified in formal rules and procedures, into concrete practical activities with acceptable and predictable outcomes’.

Political officer

Michael Barnett worked at the US Mission to the UN in 1993-1994: ‘Among my duties as a political officer were reading cable traffic on my issues, writing talking points for the U.S. ambassadors, hosting various Washington officials when they visited the UN, covering the Security Council when my issues were on the agenda and then writing cables on its proceedings, and generally acting as a conduit between Washington and the UN’. Writing memos or ‘reporting cables’ was particularly important.

In this way, his ability as a member of staff lay in his understanding of administrative and organisational process and routine rather in his knowledge of the problem it was to address. Expertise, in his job, was less a way of knowing, than of responding to uncertainty. His task lay in understanding the relations between organizations, and in representing those organizations to each other in such a way as to maintain and reproduce certain kinds of relations between them.

Cables are political documents. As political documents, cables are expected to provide a narrative that weaves together various perspectives that derive from personal, bureaucratic, and US-centered positions.

Michael Barnett, ‘The UN Security Council’, 1997

Permanent secretary

There had been press reports the day before that a government agency had failed in some way. Officials now gather in the Permanent Secretary’s office, some of them having just seen the minister on his way out to another meeting. The minister wants action, right away. It’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or what the affected agency’s statement about it really means. The substance of different conversations which take place in the course of the morning is about ‘getting the story straight’: the PS will have to account for what’s going on to the minister when they meet later, and to other Permanent Secretaries when they get together shortly for their weekly meeting.

Permanent secretaries spend their time communicating, not thinking, meeting people not writing papers or developing strategy.

Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes, ‘Everyday life in a ministry’, 2006

The Permanent Secretary is the senior civil servant in a Whitehall ministry. He or she has a combination of managerial and policy roles, and is the principal link with the Minister, an elected politician. Permanent Secretaries are mostly to be found in meetings, both scheduled and unscheduled, from a quick chat with a colleague, to a consultation with the minister, to a full-scale appearance before a parliamentary committee. There’s paperwork too, more reading than writing and often done outside office hours, on the way to and from work.

Both Minister and Permanent Secretary have private offices to support them. The work of the private office is exciting, in the sense that it’s at the centre of things, but also routine, in that its function is to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible; in a way, its work is precisely to take the excitement out of any given situation. What matters is that the Minister and the PS are ‘in the right place at the right time and with the right papers’.

Most policy managers have hectic and high-paced working days, but tangible results are hard to see — and they are hard to see daily. Public policy managers work long hours, including evenings and weekends. During these hours, they have many meetings and deal with a wide variety of papers. They attend scheduled meetings, have unscheduled encounters, and do desk-work. They channel a continuous stream of written and spoken texts through these episodes. Policy managers contact people, welcome visitors, sign papers, attend conferences, prepare political debates, watch meetings in Parliament, and organise site visits. They advise ministers, discuss newspaper articles, think of plans, introduce new words, and present formal standpoints. The value of these episodes, however, is difficult to determine. ‘Real’ events in outside worlds are often far away and real change only comes slowly and indirectly.

Mirko Noordegraaf, ‘Men at Work’, 2007

The planner is the focus of Patsy Healey’s (1992) ‘A planner’s day: knowledge and action in communicative practice’, Journal of the American Planning Association 58 (1) 9-20; ‘Communicative acts…’ is p 11, and ‘talk and argument…’ is cited p 9 from John Forester’s, J ‘Listening: the social policy of everyday life’, in Forester, J, Planning in the Face of Power, Berkeley: U California Press, 1989

‘The administrator is a co-ordinator of effort…’ is from Harold Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics, New York: Viking Press, 1930, p 127

Judy’s work is explored in Wagenaar, H (2004) ”Knowing’ the rules: administrative work as practice’, Public Administration Review 64 (6) 643–656; quoted material appears pp 645, 649 and 650-651

‘Bureaucrats are the Einsteins of society…’ is in Bruno Latour, Aramis, or the Love of Technology, trans Catherine Porter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, p 181

Michael Barnett’s account of his time as a political officer is published as Barnett, M N (1997) ‘The UN Security Council, indifference, and genocide in Rwanda’, Cultural Anthropology 12 (4) 551-578; ‘Among my duties…’ is p 554 and ‘Cables are political documents…’ p 556

The PS vignette appears in ‘Everyday life in a ministry’, chapter 7 of Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes, Governance Stories, London: Routledge, 2006; ‘Permanent secretaries…’ is p 113 and ‘in the right place at the right time…’ p 123

Mirko Noordegraaf’s ‘Men at Work’, is in Rod Rhodes, Paul ‘t Hart and Mirko Noordegraaf (eds) Observing Government Elites: up close and personal, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 and the quotation p 78