A political question attached to every decision and baked into every system of governance is the question of centrality. The center of the political system can be thought of as the legislative body that creates the laws or the administrative body that designs rules and regulations within the laws and is responsible for implementation. For every law and every program, fidelity to the intent of the decision-maker is important, but also in conflict with the ambiguity required to pass legislation and the flexibility needed by street level bureaucrats to implement policy. There is no one answer that tells us how centralized decision-making and implementation should be for any given issue or solution. Another factor that makes it difficult to determine the appropriate level of centralization is where power is located. Strong leaders may be able to demand more oversight and adherence to policy, while strong unions or popular street level agents may be able to shape policy from the periphery.
In Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the dynamics between centralization and power within congress and within our national political parties. Rauch is critical of some of the power grabs of congressional leaders and argues that increasing power through centralization does not always lead to improved governance. He writes,
“Similarly, centralizing a machine is not at all the same as strengthening it. A corporate CEO who concentrates decision-making in the C-suite while hollowing out the divisions might expand her authority at the expense of her effectiveness. In much the same way, House leader’s centralization of power over the past several decades and their weakening of the committee system and regular order seem to have diminished their governing capacity more than it increased their personal authority, weakening them on net.”
Centralization, whether within government or within a corporate structure as Rauch demonstrated, has the appearance of bringing more power to the lead decision-makers, but may lead to less creative solutions, less productive and effective systems and organizations, and weaker long-term performance. Rauch would argue that political power and centralization are tools to use to set agendas and push forward the most important items, but should not be used for every decisions in every context. Taking authority away from those who are responsible for the bulk of policy implementation can weaken the system overall and demoralize those who can provide creative solutions, innovative and effective design, and do the tough implementation work. Our country often gets into arguments about centralization as if there was a clear answer, but the right level of centralization for any given issue is always fluid. The right level of centralization is contextual, with influence from who holds power to how the public thinks about a given issue and about government more broadly.