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ASPA: Rising to the Challenge

Please see link in the Related Articles box at the end of this article for a reader response to Posner’s piece.

Paul Posner

As this issue comes out, ASPA will be convening our annual conference in San Jose. As we do so, it is time to take stock of our field and our association together because they are inextricably bound together. When I came to office last year this time, we seemed to be on the verge of a new dawning of possibility for the public sector, grounded in a renewed appreciation for the public values and the role that an effective public sector can play in improving the life of the nation. The advent of a new Administration marked a seeming inflection point in our recent history, where we seemed to embrace government as the solution and not just the problem.

Many of us posted our new President’s inaugural remarks on our walls and refrigerators–it’s not a question of right or left, but what works. That’s our calling card. We are the people to turn to–ASPA, public service and the networks of organizations working on public values and goals–when you want to deliver programs that matter to people.

In the short space of nine months, we went from what was heralded as an era of hope to one of seeming despair and public anger. The irony and paradoxes are everywhere we look. The day after we passed the most important piece of social legislation since the Great Society, an article appeared in the Federal Times entitled “Feds Alarmed by Anti-Government Movement.” A man named Joe Stack flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX. Facebook groups praised his actions. A federal courthouse was the scene of a shooting in Las Vegas. The IRS reports that threats against its facilities increased by 11 percent in the past year. A November Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of Americans have a positive impression of the federal government, even though 60 percent report a positive experience when they interacted with a federal employee. Only 6 percent of Americans agree that the Obama stimulus has created new jobs, even as CBO and other economists generally put the number of new jobs created at 2 million.

The persistent recession plays a role, but I would argue today that these incidences have roots in our deep ambivalence about government. We have a growing appetite for public services, even while we keep taxes at a lower share of the economy than nearly every OECD?? nation. We turn to government to solve all manner of private troubles, whether it be obesity or housing prices, yet are perennially disenchanted with government and public servants who are necessary to deliver on political leaders’ bold promises.

While we ask government to do ever more, we limit and constrain them at the same time. The following commonly accepted duality in American politics reflects the dilemma–get the government off our backs; there ought to be a law. Whether it be political leaders or the broader public, we all subscribe to both of these values and seem to persist in believing there is no contradiction between the two!

This is the environment that makes our work as stewards of public values and the public trust so challenging. The cruel fact is that we will be both more prized and more damned at the same time. As epitomized by the health care reform just enacted, the kinds of problems we are taking on have higher stakes, involve many more actors who are independent of the state and are difficult to control through government action alone.

Those of us in public administration have to fall back on John Kennedy’s memorable words. We enter our profession not because it is easy, but because it is hard. When the going gets tough, it is our business to rise to the challenge. The battering of the public sector from the Great Recession is instructive. As the only port in a terrible economic storm, public sector programs and staff have become more critical for many Americans out of work and out of luck. Once again the public sector has performed its time honored role of saving capital markets from their worst excesses. As they fill the critical gaps in our economy, thousands of public servants themselves must persevere through deep budget cuts, furloughs, and painful program reductions.

The worst of times in fact are the times when we excel, when we rally around our common obligation to promote public values. And fortunately for ASPA, it is a time when our own organization is more appreciated, and necessary, than ever before. Many nonprofit organizations are suffering with large drops in memberships and painful cutbacks in services. Some have had such severe reductions that they have had to cancel their conferences. We at ASPA eyed these trends with some apprehension this year. We were particularly worried about having a national conference in the region of the nation that has suffered most severely from the economic downturn.

Much to our delight, this has not been a down year for ASPA. Our membership has held its own. Our San José conference is on course to meet or exceed attendance records established during better times. We have a lineup of speakers and events that signal we are again the crossroads for the public service. The presence of Paul Volcker, David Walker, John Berry and Norm Mineta reflect that we are viewed as an important audience for national leaders.

The fact that we are also joined by the executive director of the National Governors Association, the president of the National League of Cities, as well as budget and human resource directors of major government agencies tells us our conference will constitute a rich networking experience. The presence of leading academics and practitioners in our field shows that we continue to fly the lonely flag of the pracademic–one of the only destinations welcoming both academics and practitioners under the same roof. This year we supplemented our traditional call for papers with a new call for best practices to more fully engage our practitioners, who still constitute a majority of our membership.

Thanks to dedicated leadership by so many of you, we have made our organization more relevant to our members. This year alone, we have begun several important initiatives

• A Policy Engagement Process, which has already borne fruit through ASPA’s involvement with high level federal officials on human resource management issues and a new white paper that will be vetted by our membership during the conference. We in the process of institutionalizing a new process to involve our members in setting our future policy issues agenda. In addition, I testified before the Senate Budget Committee on performance budgeting in my role as ASPA President.
• A new webinar series where we are providing our members with up-to-date presentations of key public administration issues by national leaders in our field.
• A new student representative added to the National Council who will better position us to serve our young members.
• A PA TIMES initiative that will gradually move our monthly publication to an online version to provide members with up-to-date information more timely and efficiently.
• Resurrection of a number of dormant chapters–our principal link to many of you who can’t participate at the national level.
• The formation of a new nonprofit sector initiative within ASPA to link to this vital segment of our field.
• The development of new collaborative relationships with key organizations in our field, including the National Forum of Black Public Administrators and the Young Government Leaders.
• The expansion of ASPA’s engagement with international partners, as reflected in our membership in the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS).
This is a partial list to be sure. Those of you attending the conference will hear more about our new organizational membership initiative, our new linkage with the certified public managers programs, and emerging relationships with public administrators in Mexico and Korea, among many other nations.

Our continued vitality as an organization reflects the hard work and dedication of people too numerous to mention. Much of our accomplishments bear the strong imprint of our officers. Many of these efforts have a long history. Don Kligner certainly deserves much credit for working tirelessly prior to my term to keep the pressure on to move ASPA forward. And Meredith Newman, our new president, and Erik Bergrud, our president-elect, have been valued partners in all of these activities.

Finally, there is one group that deserves far more recognition than they commonly receive–ASPA’s staff. Under the energetic and inspired leadership of Antoinette Samuel, they work tirelessly–and patiently–with all of us to make us look far better than we deserve. They care deeply about ASPA and take the initiative to work proactively with the officers and members to move us forward as an organization. Recently, they have been soldiering on under even more duress, as the staff has had to absorb a furlough to sustain our membership services in difficult economic times. Significantly, they have sacrificed so that our programs and member services could continue to expand. Like all public servants on the firing line these days, they have risen to the challenge. It would be good for all of us to acknowledge their efforts in our own ways at the San José conference this year.

ASPA member Paul Posner is the Society’s president. He is also a professor and director of the MPA program at George Mason University. Email: pposner@aspanet.org

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