November 2011

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Administrative Democracy?,

or a

Democratic Republic Based on “We the People“?


How can we “take back” our government if important decisions are increasingly made by unelected officials -- popularly (often derisively) known as “bureaucrats”? A little known book, THE POLITICS OF TRUTH, tried to answer this question 40 years ago and, in so doing, demonstrated how citizen participation is as important in the unelected as the elected arena of our government. The book’s author, Holtan Odegard, asks the key question at the outset:


Can the people rule in an administrative state in any meaningful sense?…Some sort of democracy in administration must be a genuine option…(but) What can be done to make administration democratic?” (pp.10-11)


His starting answer is still a challenge to us today: “In place of the vast…effort to manipulate…is to be envisioned a democratic, self-governing, self-controlling reorganization, with participation and scientific-experimental development…” (p.5)1


The urgency of articulating and implementing such a vision is underlined by the steady growth of our federal government, its over-centralization in Washington, D.C., and by the accumulation of power in the Office of the President and other parts of the executive branch relative to the House of Representatives and the legislative branch of government -- tendencies contrary to our federal Constitution.


Reaction to the over-accretion of centralized power began as soon as the Tea Party and activist Republican winners of 2010 elections took their seats in federal and state capital legislative chambers.2 Their efforts were twofold: (1) to remove or dilute agencies’ rule-making powers (i.e., reduce law-making by unelected bureaucrats), and (2) to try to effect severe budget cuts to health, education, finance and other agencies whose officials were set to issue thousands of new rules to implement “Obamacare”, education system reforms, “Dodd-Frank,” Executive Orders, and other presidential initiatives.


Major proposed budget cuts from the new, Republican-dominated Congress, for example, focused on the U.S. Departments of Education and Health, and agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At the state level, the NH House passed bills to:


government under the Constitution.


At both levels, there has been renewed emphasis on “constitutionalism,” as illustrated by the nullification movement. Oldegard viewed this as originally resulting from “efforts to curb the unrestrained administrative autarchy prevalent in the 18th century.” Yet, here we are, two centuries later, and in spite of our American Revolution and Constitution, “administrative organization has…become all pervasive and…a way of life (so that) we (now) live in the “administrative state”.”3


So, what can be done to reduce the power of bloated bureaucratic agencies, democratize them, and enable people‘s participation in the making of rules that affect their lives -- rules now made by unelected professional and legal elites?4 It would help to start with conclusions from the POLTICS of TRUTH because Odegard takes a systematic approach to the latter questions that others lack. It’s the IT tools that have emerged recently to effect social networking, “crowdsourcing” and collaboration, however, that can really empower and enable us to play new roles in politics and government. Here is where we need to turn to Steve Clift, Paul Jacobs and Jim Babka, among others, to help us learn “how to.”


Like Unger and Lasch, Odegard diagnoses the deep historical roots of a government that has become overly focused upon “the glory of the Executive.”5 Thus, we would do well to pay more attention to his prescriptions of what’s to be done than those coming from more superficial sources. He puts the origin of Executive-centered “big government” about 100 years ago, when “Cannonism” was overthrown in the Congress. “The Speaker of the House of Representatives was thenceforth a crippled contender for effective leadership of government policy.”6 Add to this a history of other forces weakening the ability of the House to represent “We the People, plus those “deskilling society” and we have a nation populated by “People (who) no longer seem to have the time or the capacity to take care of their own affairs.”7


To begin to put the genie of bloated bureaucracy back into the bottle of a democratic Republic, we need to formulate a vision that is up to the task. Odegard’s vision is grounded on a precept that: “Wisdom has become a function, not of the individual but of the community of men.” This view was both disputable and unrealistic when written. Now, IT makes it feasible. But disputable? Some would still make it so, but consider that we face:



Altogether, these imply that we need to engage a broad cross-section of citizens in problem-solving. As we have already learned the hard way, reliance upon “The Best and the Brightest” does not work. “We the People” need to be more involved if our democratic Republic is to survive and the American Dream to prevail.


To buttress his vision, Odegard states that “the cooperative effort of scientific investigation” has proven to be “the effective way around individual limitations…“ A corresponding vision in the domains of politics and government is that we can “involve men in a politics of truth” -- in a self-governing, self-correcting process akin to an “experimental laboratory organized for the creation of truth.”9


Let us take a closer look at what each element of the above vision calls for [with page references to THE POLITICS of TRUTH]:



Odegard’s conclusions with regard to political participation (hereafter, abbreviated PP) apply to politics both in and out of government. For one: He observes that the social-transactional nature of PP is contrary to the “onlooker fallacy.” His observation: “You cannot see experience without being part of it” applies especially to political participation. We have been led to believe that “being part of it” need not involve direct interaction with others over political purposes, goals, objectives, strategy, tactics and issues. Rather, it requires little more than watching TV political reporting and/or candidates’ ads -- being onlookers of a political game played by “them,” not “us” -- and then getting out to vote, usually for “the lesser of two evils.”


To “them”, our PP means, at most, sitting at a keyboard to “surf the web,” make a money contribution or shoot off a letter to an editor. The person-to-person scope of “it”, including those concerns for political purposes, et.al, cited earlier, is somebody else’s game rather than our responsibility. It is the purview of political “pro’s”, the mainstream media (MSM), and the candidates they serve. We have allowed our role to be simply cast -- as a private citizen, a consumer of politics made by others, an onlooker of an insiders’ game.


The fact that cross sections of concerned Americans – primarily the Tea Party, Occupy Wall St. and The 53 Percent -- have stepped outside the box this game has put them in, refusing to play conventional, political- consumer roles and, instead, acting as producers of a (hopefully) new politics -- this fact is what has brought forth outpourings of negativity from the powers that be and the MSM. Why? -- because the “powers that be” are threatened by movements that undercut their influence.


Odegard writes: “Genuine PP would insist upon content deeper in time and broader in relationship…” (so that) “perceptions, perspectives and points of view are evolved, made, remade” through the interactions of cross sections of so-called “ordinary” people. Such folks thereby come to realize that their notions of “self interest” are growing in scope. They can then be called not only “private” but “public” citizens. Odegard calls this process “criticism of creation.” It could also be labeled, vice-versa: “creation of criticism” that is more thoughtful than mere reactions to the “info-tainment” coming at us through the MSM.


As of 40 years ago, Odegard claimed that “even a semi-formal institutionalization of genuine participation” did not exist.11 Such a claim was arguably mistaken at that time because America’s major political parties were grounded on local political committees who acted as if the promotion of PP was a major goal. Unfortunately, the parties have let their “local political infrastructure” atrophy as they have shifted their focus to raising and laundering big donor contributions for “star” candidates or “big-ticket” campaigns. Neither does the rise of influential private, non-profit political advocacy organizations cited earlier represent “institutionalization” of PP. Thus, Odegard’s claim may be more valid now than when it was published.


His characterization of the nature of the American governmental bureaucracy is also pretty much on target today: “The American welfare state is a decentralized bargaining bureaucracy (and) ambiguous legislative mandates…are formulated to shift the burden from the legislators’ backs.” The qualifier here? -- only that the system is much less “decentralized” than it was 40 years ago. Given this situation, the “ideal of public participation collapses, and public relations practice beckons.” Little “attempt is made to tap the expertise among the citizenry, (and) responsiveness is wrongly taken for participation.” The latter is illustrated by Rep. Frank Guinta (R, NH). His constituent service operation emphasizes “listening to constituents” and convening conventional “town hall” meetings in the state’s 1st Congressional District (NH CD 1). As this author noted during his campaign for Congress, however, “Frank: It’s not enough to just listen”. The town hall meeting model can and should be improved.12


The “bargaining bureaucracy” feature has been documented by Eric Felter in his Heritage Foundation book.13 Federal agencies’ staff interact with Congressional staff over budgets and projects. Both share an interest in getting more money for their constituents. Thus, there are built-in incentives to build government budgets -- to spend, spend, spend, and not waste time involving citizens in debates over funding priorities. This feature surfaced during the 2010 Congressional campaigns as controversy over “earmarks.” The issue of “shifting the burden from legislators” to bureaucrats has also surfaced, as indicated earlier.


When “responsiveness is wrongly taken for participation,” Odegard sees a “dangerous retreat to Platonic Republicanism or…paternalism.“ This is “where PP leads when it is reduced to a question of morale (and) participation is treated as an instrument of the leadership group for attaining goals it has set…” The latter usually involves “engineering of consent…, managing the news, (and/or) public relations jobs for “controlling referenda”.” The “difference between paternalism and genuine participation”, Odegard goes on to write, is like the “difference between identifying purposes and developing purposes”. The latter necessarily involves “fundamental, irreversible change and development (through) values in conflict” that contribute to individual growth as well as to the development of better government policies.


The kind of “genuine” PP that Odegard calls for represents such a major departure from what now counts as PP that it needs somehow to be “institutionalized”. How? Odegard first stresses dangers to be avoided…”of blind faith…of an attitude that there is an objective truth (rather than) social truths…wrought from a particular process…” “Objectivity is finally found in public test(s) according to public rules, processes and procedures… (to discover) social truths…wrought from a participatory process.” Throughout, “institutionalization of PP must honor the nature of human nature…” 14


The public processes to be employed need to be distinguished from conventional interest-group arrangements, which Odegard describes as “aggregates of individuals interacting on the basis of shared characteristics”. In his view, the latter serve as instruments of genuine PP only if they include means of evaluating group actions with respect to their consequences. Indeed, but evaluation is more generally a basic tool of accountability of the actions of any public agency, as we shall see.15


As to the “how to” institutionalize politics inside of government, Odegard cites a number of “administrative devices” that have been employed “to facilitate (government agencies’) responsiveness…and to enlist a broadened taking-part in (their) administration.” He concludes that they are inadequate in light of his criteria. It is remarkable how the list from 40 years ago largely still represents the prevailing state-of-the-art in this area. Consider the following six initiatives:16


1. Decentralized administration through citizen boards selected either on a group-representative basis or from particular occupational groups.

2. Consultation through referenda seeking advice or consent to administrative action(s).

3. Delegation to an organized interest group of initiative to set standards or formulate policy and/or of responsibility for their enforcement.

4. Representation of vocational or interest groups in administrative agencies for functions including standards’-setting, regulation or conciliation.

5. Use of commissions of inquiry employing outside expertise.

6. Administrative consultation of permanent advisory committees that include outside experts or group-representatives.


Add to this set two others: Public hearings and calls for public comment on draft regulations, cited earlier. Both are limited by their usually reactive nature: People are invited to put in their two-cents-worth in reaction to propositions, drafts or events initiated by others. This author was directly involved in one such opportunity when invited by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to testify on the McCain-Feingold bill.17 There is little or no evidence that the testimony of myself or select others had any significant influence on the legislation, which became enshrined as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act [BCRA]. I predicted that this campaign finance “reform” would fail. It did.


An additional insight in Odegard’s book is that -- even up to 40 years ago! -- the business sector had made far more progress towards employee involvement in their companies’ progress than the political-governmental sector had made towards the American peoples’ participation in what should be their politics and government. Odegard writes: “Business and industry have liberally experimented with ways to make the worker feel a real sense of participation in the enterprise he works for.”18 Much later and independently, this insight was put forth and developed by me in WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism, Chapter 7.


Key concepts in this regard are those of “ownership” and “stakeholders”. Odegard remarks: “With each change in ownership relations, the nature of the human self changes.” This is why ESOPs -- Employee Stock Ownership Plans -- have proved to be so important to productivity and performance of business firms. What is the counterpart to ownership in the governmental realm? Do/can people feel that they are “owners” of their government? Are they even stakeholders? -- Do they feel that they have a real stake in the processes of politics or government? Tea Party members say “yes”(they should) -- “Elected officials work for us!” And non-elected officials? -- The so-called bureaucrats?


What is required is a set of genuine institutional innovations, not simply adaptations

of the inadequate ways of enabling limited citizen participation in agencies’ decision-making noted earlier. Post-Odegard, it has become amply clear how several of the mechanisms he cites have invited corruption. One problem with Odegard is that he does not specify “how to”(s) beyond the conventional 1-6 “administrative devices” cited -- specific institutional innovations that would either flow from, or at least be in accord with, his general analysis, judgment and criteria. Unger offers much more in this regard, so we will turn to his recommendations near the end of this chapter.


Notice the adjective “institutional” in the last paragraph. It spells changes in the structure,

behavior, processes and practices of established organizations. The implied attitude towards change does not presume that the only adjective needed is “technical.” The latter presumption has too often been the American way -- technology fetishism -- as if whiz-bang new gadgets suffice to solve our problems. Sure, new tools in the form of technical innovations or new ways of doing things, are instrumental to institutional transformation. Yet, as we experiment with new tools to test their usefulness, we may find their uses suggest desirable changes in the organizations in which we live, work, worship, play and interact. The high and extensive interactivity enabled by IT, for example, is opening up organizations and “flattening” hierarchical structures.


Few people understand this as well as Steven Clift, a leading proponent of e-democracy at all levels, from intra-neighborhood to international. His DO-WIRE service has provided up-to-date information for many years, on ICT (Internet Communications Technology) innovations that enable any and all aspects of e-democracy.19 These include:



So, what have we learned so far relative to loosening the tourniquet of burgeoning bureaucracies on the veins of a democratic republic? Odegard shows that existing means of enabling a role for people to play in executive branch decision-making are insufficient to the challenge of creating a democratic, self-governing, self-controlling reorganization of administrative agencies. Clift shows how the use of ICT can enable “democracy in administration” to some extent. Though there is significant, intergenerational overlap between Odegard and Unger with respect to both diagnoses and prescriptions with respect to the importance of people’s political participation (PP), Roberto M. Unger goes much farther in identifying both the need for institutional innovations (II) and in offering specific recommendations of such.21 Both the need and the specificity, moreover, are more fundamental than the offerings of either Odegard or Clift. They go to the heart and guts of the political changes required to effect any meaningful change. They are also fundamental to changes both inside and outside of government.


Unger’s political and institutional innovations are “proposals for the institutional reorganization” of democratic politics” to:



The proposals? -- To:









According to Unger, the primary “enabling, conditions” for the above changes are:


  1. Avoid extreme inequalities.22

  2. Enhance the capabilities of ordinary men and women”23and “strengthen guarantees” for individuals.

  3. Radicalize democracy…heat politics up” and “raise the level of political mobilization” -- by:


The latter includes: (i) Overcoming inequalities of opportunity for education that would enable many more people who face poor employment prospects to join “the vanguard of society -- advanced, knowledge-intensive firms and schools”, and (ii) receiving a “social inheritance of basic resources” The social inheritance concept, for example, has inspired recommendations for government-provided, $5,000 per child endowments at birth.


Where here are the “structures…to invite one’s own reconstruction”? Recall the re-invention-through-enlargement of “Self” called for by Odegard. This is the fundamental common denominator of Odegard and Unger. Also note the importance of “context” for the behavior of any of our selves. Most of the above “proposals” would relax the constraints of governments at all levels to “invite one’s own reconstruction.” Odegard refers to this as “par-making”, not just partaking of, or “par-giving” to, our Republic.24 Unger calls for us to “wage rebellion against the limits of circumstance …(because) Self is contextual and yet transcendent over context.”25 Note that these pertain both to political activism outside of government agencies and that which would serve to open those agencies up -- to democratization within as well as to transparency and accountability from without.


The dynamics of institutional innovation are simple in concept but always challenging to implement in practice. Again, the first rules are “sustained engagement“ to “start (act in the context of) where you are” and, following Ghandi: “Be the change that you want to see.” So, try to effect change in any of your contexts -- workplaces, churches, schools, authorities of local government and others; and/or with respect to any of your most heartfelt issues of concern. The very act of trying will transform yourself as you confront the barriers and constraints to change in concert with others. First attempts may fail but if, like true entrepreneurs, you learn from your mistakes and enter into the fray again and again, you will become stronger and wiser each time through the lessons of experience. And so, we get the dynamics of a virtuous circle whereby personal change begets institutional change, and vice-versa.26


Don’t wait for nationwide movements like the Tea Party (TP), Occupy Wall St.(OWS) or the “Greens” to arise to show you the way. Recall that the TP and OWS didn’t start national;they began locally and then spread nationally, like wildfire -- as movements can using IT tools. So it is in a “high-energy democracy.” To repeat: “Start where you are.” Light the fires of democracy in your own backyard. Use Facebook, WordPress, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, viral emails and other IT tools to help them spread.


Note that virtually any change in a context improves the enabling conditions for change in some other areas of concern. Thus, let us get down to earth with respect to change in this chapter’s area of concern: government administration.27 Some of the changes we can or should try to bring about include:








Note that these change-agenda items can be adapted and applied at all levels of government. Why? -- Because the structures of local, state and federal governments are similar. We see executive, legislative and judicial branches at all three levels. Many programs are “scalable” (adaptable in size and other features) from one level to another. This means that government agencies fitted to a human scale should be possible.32


When judging what size-scale of government agencies is most appropriate, it helps to have a historical perspective on how many agencies came to grow far beyond any measure that could be considered a “human scale.” Big business corporations and big government agencies are creatures of the Industrial Revolution. Neither is “too big to fail”; rather, either may be ‘too big to succeed.’ They are both ill-adapted to challenges and opportunities of the new ICT economy. The latter case has been made most strongly by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams in their book WIKINOMICS: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. “They believe corporate hierarchies will disappear as individuals are empowered to work together in creating a new era…”33 Similarly, many government agencies may also be abolished, especially those sometimes described as “monuments to some dead Member of Congress.”


One key message of this book, however, is that without active participation of more people in the political process, it would be naïve to assume that Tapscott and Williams are right -- that “corporate hierarchies will disappear” and “agencies may be abolished” without our efforts.

The key question that arises here, therefore, is one that infects this entire book: To what extent are individuals, families and small communities prepared to assume responsibility for their own, self-governing futures? For what the big-business / big government axis has succeeded in doing is “deskilling” us.34 They have done so by taking over the supply of products and services that prior generations were largely able to produce for themselves. We have been complicit our own undoing. The question infects politics and government more than other aspects of American society. For the skills we need to “take back our government” have largely been taken over by political pro’s, career politicians, big government agencies, big business lobbyists, big money donors, professional elites, and others among the politically self-interested.


How, therefore, can we succeed if we have to democratize major government executive agencies and large corporations as well as those institutions that are supposed to be working for “We the People” -- city and town councils, state legislatures and, above all, the Congress of the United States? The challenge seems so overwhelming that we must ask again and again: How and where do we start? The answer is: “Start where you are”-- by reaching out to fellow citizens and showing them how critical it is for them to “get involved.”35


But don’t forget that, due to the Leviathan that we have allowed to grow in Washington, D.C., the critical barriers and opportunities lie there. The Congress is both critical context and enabler (or dis-abler) of our efforts at any level, but especially so with respect to changes in the federal government. Thus, notwithstanding what we can accomplish in our own backyards, we can succeed in building a better future for our children only through a “high energy politics” that effects real change in the U.S. House of Representatives.


1 Quoted from Odegard, Holtan P. (1971), THE POLITICS OF TRUTH. University, AL: University of Alabama Press.

2 Such reactions are not unprecedented, of course. They have a long, distinguished, episodic history going all the way back to debates that precede the Constitution, such as those over the Federalist Papers.

3 Odegard, op.cit., p.7.

4 Note again that the Tea Party and Republican activists did not point to the need to democratize the decision making of governmental agencies. Their focus was on “limited government” -- cutting the size of government. Also note that the federal rule-making process usually calls for public comment on draft rules that appear in the FEDERAL REGISTER. This form of public participation in the process is inadequate.

5 Those who think the quoted phrase too strong should come to New Hampshire as the presidential primary fetish engulfs NH politics two years in advance of 2012 elections.

6 Odegard, op.cit., p.5.

7 Reference here Ivan Illich’ DESKILLING SOCIETY, and Odegard, op.cit., p.6.

8 Understanding the real meaning of true leadership is a major sub-theme of the book from which this article is drawn. A true leader is a “servant leader” who seeks to inform, engage and empower others.

9 At this point, one should recognize that the incorporation of the individual into a group seems to overlook the importance of leadership, entrepreneurship or heroism. Indeed. The tension between individual and group via “the group paradox” also needs to be faced. Yet, as noted earlier, the larger scope of “self” set forth by Odegard is remarkably similar to the view of Unger, and such scope is essential to leadership. Or, as Lasch has written: (Democratic) “citizenship implies a whole world of heroes.”[Lasch, op.cit. p.89]

10 See Palmer, Parker J. (1990), “Leading From Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership.” Washington,. D.C.: Servant Leadership School.

11 Odegard, op.cit., p.154

12 Find a “Better Model of Townhall Meetings” in www.peterbearseforcongress2010.com.

13 Felter, Eric (1999), THE RULING CLASS: The Imperial Congress. Washington, D.C., Heritage Foundation.

14 Recall earlier remarks about how the major political parties have dropped the ball on political recruitment. Ideally, the parties can and should be the major institutional vehicles promoting and effecting participation in politics outside of government.

15 “Public” is the only adjective used here, given the political context; yet, the author’s experience extends to accountability of private organizations through provision of “business intelligence” via performance benchmarking. As the growing role of 527 and 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations in campaign finance reveals, accountability of these, private organizations should also be rendered.

16 Highlighted, shortened and paraphrased from Odegard, op.cit., pp. 157-58.

17 See Bearse, Peter (2005), Testimony before the F.E.C., Washington, D.C., Federal Election Commission (January 28).

18 Odegard, op.cit., p.156.

19 See newswire@groups.dowire.org or write Steve at clift@e-democracy.org.

20 For a “Global Study on Participatory Budgeting”, see http://bit.ly/pbworldstudy.

21 See Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2008), THE SELF AWAKENED: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

22 On this, see Bearse, Peter (2011), “On the Economics and Politics of Inequality,” THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE [www.spectacle.org] (March).

23 Unger, op.cit., pp.171-172.

24 Odegard, op.cit., p.151.

25 Unger, op.cit., p.148.

26 Here’s a personal example: I went to see the “Customer Service Manager” in a branch of Peoples United Bank because their system of banking-by-computer had levied $35 penalties per check for a set of three checks that overdrew my account. He agreed that the penalties were too large. So, I asked: Have you recommended to higher-ups in the bank that they change their policy?” His answer: “No.” If and when he does, I will not be the only person to benefit from the change.

27 Note that, with respect to most large corporations, the public/private distinction regarding change practically disappears. Why? Because large “corporations are bureaucracies and managers are bureaucrats. Their fundamental tendency is towards self-perpetuation. They are…resistant to change.” [quoted from Murray, Alan (2010), “The End of Management.” WALL STREET JOURNAL (August 21). Sound familiar? Yes, and so many of the ways we discover to change government agencies can be adapted to big business (and vice-versa).

28 As outlined by Bearse (2010) in the “Program for the Empowerment of People” put forth during his 2010 Campaign for Congress in NH CD 1.

29 As proposed by Alan Kay (1998), LOCATING CONSENSUS FOR DEMOCRACY. St.Augustine, FL: Americans Talk Issues.

30 See, for example: Case, John (1995), “The Open Book Revolution,” INC Magazine (June).

31 See U.S. Government, Department of the Treasury, “Performance Measurement…” Washington, D.C.: Financial Management Service (January).

32 These two features, self-similarity and scalability, characterize what have been called “fractals.” See Bearse, P.J. (1999), “The Fractal Revolution,” for more, in THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE (www.spectacle.org, September).

33 Quoted from Murray, op.cit.

34 See Illich, Ivan (1970), DESCHOOLING SOCIETY. New York: Harper & Row.

35 Radio commentator Ray Masters, however, hit the nail on the head during his Monday, March 28, 2011 broadcast. He remarked that the failure of the American electorate to rise up -- to at least demonstrate -- to protest Obama’s failure to show his birth certificate (up to May, 2011) revealed that most Americans have become “weak schmucks.”