Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/September 1912/The Real Problem of Commission Government




THAT no problem has laid a severer tax on the political genius of our people than the perplexing problem of city government every student of our political experience knows. Ever since James Bryce called attention to "the one conspicuous failure of the American people"—the failure of the city governments—our publicists and statesmen have been searching restlessly for the model system of government which was to rescue the cities from inefficiency and misrule. Incidentally, a certain class of politicians has exerted itself with equal vigor to render ineffectual the efforts of these workers for a new municipal era.

To say that the new forms of government which constitute the fruits of this reform quest have been complete successes in practical operation would be as far from the truth as to say that they have been complete failures. Practically all of the new forms of city government launched during the past thirty years wrought some sort of improvement in municipal conditions; but, with one exception, it can not be said that any one of them proved so efficient as to give promise of becoming the prevailing municipal system in the United States. Each new plan was set in motion amid brilliant prophecies for the future city government; but in due time the charm which had brought the initial success wore off and the prophecies went unfulfilled. The tale was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

A striking exception to the usual reform tradition is apparently revealed in the story of the commission plan of city government. About ten years ago a great tidal wave swept a substantial part of the city of Galveston, Texas, into the Gulf of Mexico, and the necessity arose for supplanting the notoriously inefficient aldermanic government of that city with a government which should be equal to the task of restoration. A plan was devised by which all municipal powers were intrusted to a single body of five men, each one of whom was given supervision of one of the city's departments, for the proper management of which he was held responsible. The new system, which came to be called the "commission plan," proved unusually efficient and was adopted by several other Texas cities. To-day more than a hundred cities located in all parts of the country are being admirably governed under this system, which is in a fair way to becoming the prevailing form of municipal government in the United States.

The story of the commission government was recently made the subject of an address in the senate of the United States by a member who was convinced that the new system was such an important discovery in popular government as to warrant calling the attention of the whole nation to it. Well may it be said of this, as of the other new municipal systems, that its early story has been "full of sound and fury." Is it also to be a tale "signifying nothing"? Is the dream of a new municipal era which has been aroused by the wonderful success of this new instrument of democracy destined to vanish as the former dreams have vanished?

Any significant answer must come from an inquiry into the efficiency of the new system—an effort to find out whether the principles underlying the new government are sound in the light of our municipal experience. Of course, many people believe that municipal efficiency is not to be found in any form of government, that it is the type of men in charge of the government and not the form of government that determines the character of the administration. Excellent administration, these people say, has been obtained under a poor system, and poor administration under an excellent system; therefore

For forms of government let fools contest
What's best administered is best.

The protest is itself an admission. If the form is unimportant, why such violent opposition to a change in the form? As a matter of fact, although the character of the public officials is an essential factor in the success or failure of a municipal administration, the type of political organization under which the officials work is also important. That inefficient officials will fail to give good government, no matter how excellent the system under which they work, is plainly borne out by American experience; and it is equally apparent that efficient public servants will not be able to secure the maximum of efficiency, and, indeed, will be very apt to obtain a minimum of efficiency, if handicapped by a system of government which is ill-adapted to the work to be performed. Moreover, the system exerts an important influence in determining the character of the men who are attracted to the public service. If it is so organized as to discourage the candidature of able men, an inferior type of elective official will result, and the subordinate administrative service will suffer accordingly. The inquiry into the efficiency of the commission plan, then, may be resolved into two questions: (1) Will the new system serve to attract efficient men into the elective offices? (2) Is the new system conducive to the application of approved methods to the public administration? In other words, is it so constructed as to provide for the performance of the actual administrative work by men of technical training and experience?

That a higher grade of municipal official has been secured under commission government is obvious from the higher standard of public service which, even opponents of the new government concede, has obtained under the new plan. It would be difficult to assign any one cause for this. No doubt the method of electing the commissioners at large, instead of by wards, has been largely responsible; for the municipal election is thereby made less susceptible to control by the ward boss. Thus, under election at large, the political leader who is known and recognized by the general electorate has an immeasurable advantage in the election over the ward leader who is without support outside the confines of his own ward—an advantage which tends to eliminate the latter type from the contest. Log-rolling is commonly regarded as the pernicious accompaniment of the ward plan of election, but log-rolling in itself is a lesser evil than the ward type of municipal candidate: the domination of the election by the ward politicians has frequently shut out the higher type of political leader from municipal politics.

However important a factor the general ticket plan of election has been in bringing a better grade of men into the city's service, the conspicuous character of the commissioner's office has probably been more important; for, if the elective officer under the commission plan had been wrapped in the same obscurity which gathered around that provided by the ordinary American city charter, it is extremely doubtful whether the character of the public official would have been perceptibly changed. On this point the experience of American cities speaks decisively. Nothing has been more influential in keeping competent men from the public service than the curtailment of the powers of municipal officers which took place during the latter half of the last century. In some instances these powers were juggled by the state legislature in the interests of the dominant party in the state; in others they were distributed among a number of newly created officials no one of whom was conspicuous for his power to accomplish results in the public service—a change which was likewise dictated by party interests. The result was the same in either case: whether the powers were usurped by the state legislature or divided among numerous municipal officials, the individual office became less important and the type of incumbent less efficient. Thus, the experience of these years proves that the character of a public office rises or declines according as the powers associated with it are increased or curtailed. It is this fact which furnishes the key to the success of the commission plan of city government.

In the commission government the public official has not been made conspicuous so much because of any cession of power to the municipality by the legislature as because of the concentration in a small governing body of the powers already possessed by the municipality, and hitherto exercised by a large number of officials. The distinction which attaches to the commissioner's office, together with the consciousness that due credit for individual achievement will not be divided among a number of officials, gives to the position an attractiveness which is all the more effective because allegiance to the ward machine is not necessary to obtain it. "I should never have presented myself as a candidate for city office under the old government with its divided powers and doubtful honors," declared one of the commissioners of a New England city to the writer. Such men are not anxious to hold office where positive achievement is so difficult and credit for whatever is accomplished goes to nobody in particular.

It must not be inferred from what has been said that the popular political leader has been eliminated from municipal government under the commission plan. This mistaken inference has been the ground for much faulty reasoning about the new system, and has probably done more than anything else to obscure the real issue in the movement for commission government. Thus honest political leaders and their followers are frequently prejudiced against the new system because of their belief that its object is to banish the popular leader from municipal politics and to substitute for him the so-called "high brow," or "silk stocking," type. Government by real representatives of the people is to be superseded by government by the "intellectual" members of the community. The same opinion is reflected in comments upon those commission government elections in which a popular political leader or ex-official has been successful; the result in nine cases out of ten is regarded as a "reaction," a sign of the decay of a hitherto promising new system.

It can not be too emphatically stated that the assumption of those who believe that commission government means the elimination of the popular political leader is as mistaken as their fears are groundless. Everywhere the elections in commission-governed cities bear testimony to the fact that the political leader will be elected under a system of universal suffrage regardless of the form of government. The most widely known and most successful of the new governments have been in charge of men of this type. Thus the people of Des Moines, in the first election held under the new charter, rejected the slate of the reform element which had been back of the charter movement, and placed the new government in charge of popular leaders who had been opposed to the new system. The people of Houston in the last election, placed on the commission two popular politicians. A majority of the members of the Haverhill commission are political leaders who have served under the old government in that city. These cases are sufficiently typical. Commission government has drawn its elective officials from the class of sympathetic political leadership as well as from the "reform" or "intellectual" elements of the community. It would perhaps be accurate to say that the new system has generally meant a higher grade of politicians in the public service. "All this goes to show," writes a Houston citizen, "that such a thing as lifting municipal government from the level of politics is an iridescent dream." Perhaps it is best that this should be so; if commission government can make the popular leader a careful, responsible supervisor of the city's business, it will do what the aldermanic system has never succeeded in doing.

The logical result of the persistence of this political habit of the people to elect the popular political leader to public office has been usually the intrusting of the commission governments to men of sound but ordinary ability. Here again we encounter the mistaken impression which has had wide currency among those interested in the new form of government, that the commission governments have been run by men of extraordinary personal powers, by experts in administration. A review of the personnel of the new governments does not reveal the grounds for this assumption. Even the commissions which have had the greatest success in administration—for example, Galveston, Houston, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Haverhill—have not been made up of men of unusual attainments.

An appreciation of the deep-rooted tendency of our voters to place their cities in charge of men of ordinary ability has led some practical students of the question to assert that the commission plan is foreordained to failure because it provides for the popular election of the city's administrative department heads. "The rock upon which American cities have split is the popular election of administrative officials," a critic observes. The objection touches on the vital problem of the commission government—what the exact function of the elected commissioner should be. But, in the present stage of the development of commission government, it is not possible accurately to designate the commissioner's function as uniformly supervisory or administrative. In some cities he is in effect an active superintendent devoting his entire time to the details of his department; in the majority of cases, however, he acts in a supervisory rather than administrative capacity, and the actual work of the department is carried on by subordinate officials of technical training and experience. The varying charter provisions, some requiring the commissioner to devote all of his time to the work of his office, and others permitting him to devote but a part of his time, show plainly that the real nature of the commissioner's function is not yet clear even in the minds of the proponents of the new system.

Still it is eminently important to the success of the new system that the nature of the commissioner's function as head of one of the city's administrative divisions should be clearly defined and understood. This necessity results from the experience of American cities with the problem of administration. The method, prevalent in every American state, of selecting municipal administrative and technical officials by popular vote, has been a stumbling block in the path of our unfortunate cities. The most vicious legacy which Jacksonian Democracy bequeathed to American politics, profoundly influencing the political ideas and methods of our people during the first half of the last century, was the belief that the selection of administrative officials by appointment and for a permanent tenure meant the growth of a class of office-holding bureaucrats, and that the democratic doctrine of equal opportunity demanded that all should have a turn or a chance of public office. This then novel application of the democratic principle, exemplified in the federal service by the spoils system, led, in the state and local governments, to the popular election for short terms of purely administrative officials. It is a curious fact that the state governments, which imitated the federal system in most respects, have always departed from it in one of its most important features—the centralization of the administrative service in the hands of the chief executive.

In application this principle did not lead to the expected results. Experience proved that to exercise intelligence and discrimination in the selection of numerous officials was beyond the power of the voters; especially was a wise selection of expert administrative officials impracticable in view of the natural inability of the ordinary voter to judge of the technical qualifications of the different candidates for the place. The logical result followed: the voter, in his confusion and helplessness, came to depend upon the party organization, which now assumed the selective function supposed to be exercised by the voters—an excellent illustration of the soundness of the political maxim that a system of government which gives to the voters a power which they are not able to exercise takes from them that power. Popular selection meant party selection in such a case, and party selection was based upon considerations of availability, not of efficiency. The best candidate for the office requiring technical skill and training was, from the point of view of the politicians, not the man whose experience fitted him for the place, but the party worker whose usefulness to the "Organization" might be conveniently recognized and retained by giving him the office. Essentially, the failure of the Jacksonian political builders in thus modifying the earlier political system was a failure to distinguish between political functions and functions of a purely administrative or technical nature: in its willingness to sacrifice efficiency to democracy, the method secured neither; effective popular control of public officials became as impracticable as administrative efficiency.

The municipal needs of the present day are stronger than ever in their demand for a system which will insure administration by experts. The increasing social and economic complexity of modern urban life has entailed burdens and obligations hitherto unknown to local government, and if the work of meeting these needs is not carried on with the assistance of permanent experts the cities must fail in their obligations. At the same time it is plain that government by experts alone is undesirable and out of harmony with American political ideas. A staff of permanent officials which is out of touch with the electorate tends to develop into a professional bureaucracy, tied up with red tape and unresponsive to the popular will and needs. It is therefore necessary that the expert should be under the constant supervision of the layman, who will thus form a connecting link between the professional staff and the people. In this way the permanent official will be brought into contact with the needs of the people, and the people, through their elected supervisors, will possess the means of controlling the permanent official. As President Lowell, of Harvard, put it at a recent meeting of the National Municipal League.

The current management and, for the most part, the suggestion of improvements ought to lie with the expert, but he ought to work under the constant supervision and control of unprofessional men representing the community at large. The expert ought to devote his whole time to the business and receive a salary high enough to pay for the whole time of a man with the capacity required. The person who oversees him ought to be expected to give far less of his time. If he gives much it is because he undertakes to do himself what had better be left to experts. . . . His duty is not to administer, but to supervise and direct the administration.

It is precisely this adjustment between the professional and lay elements in the government which has been responsible for the marked success of the English borough governments. As in the commission plan the legislative and administrative powers of the English borough are vested in the council, which is the sole governing authority. The actual work of administration is carried on by a permanent staff of experts acting under the supervision and control of standing committees of the council. As the commissioner of police overlooks the police department in the commission-governed city, so the watch committee supervises the police administration of the English borough. In the same manner the library and school boards of American cities have been for several years supervising with distinct success the permanent corps of experts in charge of the public libraries and schools. Thus we are not compelled to subscribe to any new or untried principle in advocating municipal administration by a permanent staff of experts working under the direction of elective laymen.

The principle underlying the organization of the commission system of city government is clearly in harmony with what American and English experience has shown to be the most effective working principle that may be applied to the government of cities in a democracy. The commissioner, being an elective official, can not be expected to be an expert official. Indeed, experts will never accept an office of such uncertain tenure as that subject to the fluctuating influence of politics. The commissioner may be an efficient unprofessional, supervisory official, however, acting in the same capacity as the English council committee: and in such a capacity he will reach his maximum efficiency. Under this clearly defined distribution of functions between the elective and the permanent official each official will exercise that kind of function for which he is best fitted. This proposition, clearly understood, settles the crucial point in the problem of commission government.

If the commissioner's function is defined as supervisory with respect to his relation to the administrative service, the question may arise: Will it not now become necessary to have a permanent expert department head working under the supervising commissioner? This question must be decided with reference to the character of the commissioner's duties. In the small city, where the affairs of the different divisions of the department are left to the charge of the subordinate officials, these duties would be comparatively light, and only the general direction of the activities should rest with the commissioner. Under such circumstances the commissioner would be able to direct the work without the aid of a permanent head. It is probable, on the other hand, that the work of directing one of the great departments of the very large city would be too onerous and too complex for the layman to discharge without the aid of a permanent administrative head, in which case it would be found necessary to institute the permanent official.

When it has become definitely understood that the proper functions of the commission are legislative and supervisory, and not legislative and administrative, charter framers desiring to construct upon the commission model will have a well-understood basis upon which to work, and questions which frequently perplex them at the present time will take care of themselves. For example, one of the mooted questions at present is whether the commissioner would be required to give his whole time or only a part of it. If by the charter expected to spend his whole time in the public service, obviously he is to become an active superintendent, attending to the numerous details of his department, so that any other occupation than that of the city would entail negligence and inefficiency.

With the development of the commission plan into a more distinctly supervisory character, the American people will have worked out a system of city government which does not differ in essential principles from that with which they started out, the council plan. The machinery of the commission government is more centralized and more responsive, but the relation between the elective official and the permanent administrative staff is common to both systems. . It is upon these principles that the permanent efficiency of the commission government must rest, just as it was contempt for these principles that caused the failure of the reform municipal systems of the past thirty years. If the commission plan conforms strictly to these principles, there is reason to believe that it will not become the subject of a tale "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."