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A Matter of Character: Politicians seldom ask who is being disadvantaged

Patronage has the potential to be a social good or a social bad in every sector of society where powerful people make decisions about jobs. Often there is a quid pro quo working when hiring decisions are being made, and this may be troubling from an ethical perspective. Patronage, when it is bad, is an expression of character defects in the leaders and administrators who make these decisions. No such accusation is justified when leaders select their policy teams and appoint advisers and staff who will serve at their pleasure. It may be a stretch to call such decisions patronage, but if they are referred to in this way, it seems clear that this is a good rather than a bad.

The arguments against patronage are centered in moral principle and conscience, but these it would seem are powerless in the face of expediency, the thirst for power and greed. These easily trump what is right, moral and fair.

When politicians use their office and its power to advantage someone, they seldom ask who is being disadvantaged. They intuitively and instinctively know someone is, but by not inquiring and by not concerning themselves with the consequences of their decisions, they feel protected by a shroud of denial and ignorance.

For many political and appointed leaders today, greatness is an abstraction, not a reality they aspire to. The qualities that bestow greatness are those that are associated with character — qualities such as goodness, honesty, integrity, morality, fairness and magnanimity. These are the building blocks of character, and no one in all of history achieved greatness without having most of them.

Leaders today who engage in improper or unlawful patronage acts do not do so out of confusion over right and wrong. They know when they are doing something that is wrong. The malady these leaders suffer from is not confusion but infidelity. They are not confused about right or wrong; they are simply not being true to the principles of moral and ethical behavior that they know and understand well.

I am not qualified to speak to the illegality of patronage, but I do feel qualified to speak to the ethical implications of passing out jobs on the basis of relationships rather than competence or fairness. 

In the marvelous remake of the classic movie Sabrina, Linus Larrabee (played by Harrison Ford) is providing his mother (played by Nancy Marchand) with some facts of life about the methods their corporation uses to grow its wealth. He says to her, "Did you think it's pretty? You have never been around to see the faces of the people after we have bought the company they worked for and are now losing their jobs." Ignorant of this reality, Linus' mother could enjoy the wealth and privilege it provides. 

Ignorant of or indifferent to the consequences of their decisions, decision makers can play the patronage game and never be required to look into the faces of the people they harm. It is important to remember that it is distance and separation that insulate the politician and the bureaucrat from the consequences of their patronage decisions.

Charles Frankel, one of our home-grown philosophers, reminded Americans that a decision is responsible only when the decision maker must answer to those affected by it. And this is why most patronage decisions are irresponsible. There is no real accountability for these actions, and the kind that can be imposed by statute is unlikely to discourage the practice. Separation and distance are a reality in Illinois patronage, and this also encourages irresponsible behavior. The philosophers also remind us that power must be balanced with responsibility, and to exercise power without responsibility is an operational definition of a god.

The argument against harmful patronage can be further illuminated by focusing our gaze on a single life. In Illinois state government, one can find dozens of individuals who exemplify the consequences of powerful people making decisions that negatively affect their lives, and those who make patronage decisions nearly always act with no knowledge or concern for the people they harm. In every agency under the governor, one can find many examples of loyal, dedicated, competent and hardworking people who have had their careers and lives disrupted and their morale shattered by patronage decisions. An example would be a man or woman in a state job with 15 to 20 years of service. Many of these people have been following a career development plan that, over time, increases both their value to the agencies they work for and their prospects for promotion. Now consider the impact on employees who see right before their eyes an opportunity evaporate. Perhaps one of these employees had worked in the same unit or bureau for 10 or 15 years and had come to be regarded as the informal leader and heir apparent to the job one notch above in the hierarchy.

Now consider this scenario. You are one of these employees and your boss, who occupies the position you have been preparing for, announces his or her retirement. You have worked hard to position yourself for fair consideration to succeed your boss and be promoted. On a Monday morning, you come to work and are notified that someone has been named to the vacant position. You do not know the person placed in this job as she did not come from your agency, and the "grapevine" informs you that she has no prior state government experience. Over time, you conclude that the person cannot do the job, and her behavior suggests she also knows she cannot do the job. 

These appointees take on the behavior of "cave dwellers," using their offices as their caves, often going through most days with their doors closed. The gusto with which they thrust themselves into political conversations with cronies who also have come to your agency by some mysterious process is interesting, if not amusing. Such people often engage in planning weekend or annual golf outings, and they become involved in the NCAA, World Series or other such pools. They avoid attending meetings where they may be asked questions they cannot answer. Some are brazen and assert publicly that they were not "sent here to do the agency's work but only as a temporary place to wait for the next campaign assignment."

Dozens of Illinois state government employees have experiences like this each year. They feel the frustration and endure the psychological impact of a patronage system when it gets out of control.

Illinois needs to find a way to connect the power of decision makers to accountability for the second- and third-order effects of their decisions. And Illinois needs to take a more enlightened view of how human and organizational performance should be audited. There is no systematic effort in Illinois state government to audit the performance capability and capacity of departments, boards and commissions. This oversight should be corrected, and performance audits would reveal problems that need to be solved and opportunities for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

In every organization, there is a very high reliance on "discretionary effort" — this is what a good employee gives without being asked to. When people become de-motivated and overwhelmed with feelings of unfair and inequitable treatment, they simply withhold "discretionary effort." This drags down organizational performance and creates the need for more people, and again the patronage system responds and the problem worsens.

It may be that state officials would get more out of improving the selection and quality of people placed in state jobs than they would by all of our attempts to reinvent government.

It's worth a try. 

Paul Craig of Springfield is Senior Fellow and director of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs' Office of Public Leadership. He previously held executive positions with the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois State Board of Education and the Teachers' Retirement System.

Illinois Issues, June 2007

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