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Choosing a Career in Public Administration: The Lessons of History

By Frank Woodward

For the past three years, I have enjoyed the opportunity to study and reflect on the work of public administration as I complete my DPA degree. It has been fascinating to consider how the work of early 20th century pioneering scholars and practitioners in the field took shape around such an immense range of issues including education, civil rights, environmental protection, social welfare and many more.

Reflecting on the past is important, of course, but so is preparing for the future. As ASPA celebrates its 75th year in 2014, I wonder who in 1939 could have possibly imagined the immense social and technological changes that public administration would face in 2014 and beyond. Could Luther Gulick or Louis Brownlow have ever imagined a future in which municipal districts would tweet status updates to the public? Or could F. W. Willoughby have envisioned a time when public officials manage 24-hour news cycles?

Perhaps not. And yet, for all the vast changes in technology, communication, transportation and so many other areas, the lessons of history remind us that there are more similarities than differences across time. I believe these lessons offer a valuable perspective for the work of public administration in the 21st century and they also inform the question that is raised this month: why choose a career as a public administrator?

To answer this question, I want to take one more step back in time. Over one hundred years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, Frank J. Goodnow published a volume called City Government in the United States. Goodnow was a professor at Columbia University, and would later become president at Johns Hopkins University. In this work, Goodnow outlines a remarkably clear and direct presentation of the nature of city administration and authority in the United States. In his work, he expressed strong concern about the degree to which cities depended on state legislatures for permission to enact most things necessary to the functioning of the city.

What was emerging in the United States, as Goodnow saw it, was an overly complicated legislative maze of special actions and bureaucratic hoops that would result in local municipalities suffering as a result. Managing this situation, he wrote, was “a mystery even to the experienced.”

What I find most fascinating about Goodnow’s work, however, is his sensitivity to the relationship between a city’s citizens and its administration. He observed that “so little interest is felt in matters of local business that in almost every city in the state it has fallen into the hands of professional politicians.” Yet, by the end of his book he reasoned that if cities could be empowered with more local control and more efficient administration, then in his words “it would certainly be easier for the urban population to see more clearly than they now see what city government means to them.”

To see more clearly what government means to them. What a clear challenge, issued over one hundred years ago, for those who work in public administration to consider in 2014 and beyond.

Woodrow Wilson called public administration “government in action.” No matter how cynical or jaded one might be with the political process, I suspect there are a few who can still be inspired by the insight that it is not only policy, but people, who make a difference at all levels of government.

This truth really hit home for me when I first read Michael Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. Lipsky describes street level bureaucrats as “public service workers who interact directly with citizens in the course of their jobs.” The essence of Lipsky’s thought is in the fact that for most people, abstract public policies are generally experienced at the point at which they engage directly with the public servant, at the “street level.”

Citizens experience the education policies of their state not in the abstract, but by experiencing public education themselves, or by having children enrolled in a local school. Because of this, students experience the policy implications of No Child Left Behind directly as a part of their relationship with a specific teacher in a specific school. All day, every day, teachers (as public servants) are embodying the policies they are charged with administering.

For me, this reminder that public policy is carried out by people is powerful. What does this mean for those who are considering the field of public administration today? For one thing, it means that each encounter with the public is an opportunity to deliver effective services and to learn from those times when things work poorly in order to implement change. If, as Lipsky reminds us, policy really only happens on the ground, it could be argued that so does policy improvement!

This is not, however, to view public administration through rose-colored glasses. Lipsky also observes the risk of abuse due to the imbalance of power between public servant and citizen. Too often, citizens are treated merely as categories in public programs, and are in effect trained to be “good participants” rather than being treated with the dignity and attention they deserve. Abuse, wastefulness and incompetent management can emerge in these cases.

However, you might say that this is all the more reason for talented, motivated people to choose a career in public administration today. So many local communities desperately need this help today. Whatever the many imperfections of our public agencies, local and state governments and non-profit organizations, the success of their operations truly depends on the commitment of people who have always been willing to step up and make a difference.

In essence, no matter what form public administration takes now or in the future, one thing remains the same. The underlying constant is that it is a discipline that works for the public interest.

This, I believe, is the enduring reason to choose a career as a public administrator, and it is just as true today as it was a century ago. In fact, I would argue that those who choose public administration today are every bit as much pioneers as those who came before. The rapidly changing world we live demands new talents and perspectives at every level of public administration. It is not an understatement to say that the future of many of our small towns and cities truly depends on it. Many challenges lie ahead, but each one is a chance to make the world just a slightly better place. Perhaps that’s reason enough to choose a career as a public administrator.

Author: Frank Woodward serves as assistant vice president for university advancement at Lincoln Memorial University. He is also completing his dissertation for the DPA degree at Valdosta State University. His research interest deals with performance-based funding policy in public higher education. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @fwwoodward.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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