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Smart Practice and Focused Public Service at Work

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Christine Gibbs Springer

Today, public administrators are increasingly focused on smart practice. This involves focused preparation, recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve and positive emotions and connections that help improve habits and add new skills so as to sustain excellence. To do so, requires self-awareness, understanding the bigger context, mindfulness and directing the attention of the team toward where it needs to go.

By self-awareness, I mean an essential focus that attunes administrators to subtle feelings within themselves that help guide them through life by managing what they should do and should not do. By the bigger context, I mean a cohesive set of lawful and organizational patterns that are complex and require recognition and understanding for successful navigate and avoiding adverse consequences. By mindfulness, I mean allocating a public administrator’s attention to the issue at hand and disengaging mental attention from issues that are only distracting. By directing the attention of the team, I mean a focus of the leaders and the team with the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time, recognizing trends and emerging realities and seizing opportunities.

Self-awareness allows public administrators to have a strong inner compass steering them through life according to their deepest values and purpose. As Steve Jobs said when speaking to a graduating class at Stanford University: “Don’t let the voice of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice, and most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” Our mind deploys self-awareness to keep everything we do on track. Meta-cognition is thinking about thinking and lets us know how our mental operations are going and adjusts them as needed. Meta-emotion does the same by regulating the flow of feeling and impulse. In the mind’s design, self-awareness is built into regulating emotions as well as sensing what others feel. At least three sub-varieties of attention are at work when self-restraint is imposed upon instant gratification:

1. The ability to voluntarily disengage focus from an object of desire that grabs our attention.

2. The ability to resist distraction and stay focused elsewhere.

3. The ability to stay focused on a goal in the future – this all adds up to willpower.

It also all boils down to retaining the individual power to choose between selective attention, which allows individuals to focus on one issue and ignore all others, or open attention, which allows individuals to take extensive information in from the world around them and within them and identify the issues that would otherwise be missed. Self-awareness is important to public administrators not only because of public service but because it defines who they are and how they fulfill their job requirements.

The bigger context amounts to the detection of not only what internal and external environments exist but also the systems mind at work providing the ability to identify with ease the detail of a complex array of lawful and organizational patterns that need to be read, understood and navigated.  Throughout human history, systems awareness – the detecting and mapping of patterns and order that lie hidden within the chaos of the natural world – has been propelled by an urgent survival imperative. There are no neural systems dedicated to understanding the bigger context of systems, which dictate the realities of our lives. Typically, they are understood indirectly through mental models and the more grounded in data, the more functional those are while the less grounded they are in data, the less effective they tend to be. A lack of awareness of the bigger context amounts to system blindness which contributes to policy, program and professional failure.

Mindfulness is about attention. Much like a muscle, if it is used poorly, it can deteriorate. If used well, it grows. In an era of unstoppable distraction, it is important for public administrators to sharpen their focus if they are to contend with and thrive in a complex world. To do so requires focused attention and preparation, recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve and positive action that help us improve habits, add new skills and sustain excellence.

Directing the attention of the team requires focused leadership. Attention within organizations and individuals has a limited capacity because core functions usually include finance, human resources and statutory compliance. Signs of flawed attention in organizations include making flawed decisions due to missing data, trouble getting the attention of decision makers and an inability to focus when and where it matters. Leaders capture and direct the collective attention of everyone in the organization by focusing their own attention, attracting and directing attention from others and getting and keeping the attention of decision makers, employees, peers and clients.

Organizations that do this well tend to refine their current operations not explore radical changes. They separate each strategy into units with very different ways of operating overseen by a leadership team that keeps an eye on the balance of inner and outer focus. The well-focused team pays attention to the needs of employees, surfacing issues and being intentional about setting norms that help. The team’s empathy applies not just to the sensitivity among members but also to understanding the views and feelings of other people and groups that the team deals with. Team focus often involves three things:

  • Whom in the wider organization to help.
  • Where to get the resources and attention that teams need to accomplish their goals.
  • Learning what the concerns are of others in the organization/ jurisdiction who can influence the team’s capabilities and outcomes. 

In the final analysis, it is all about leading for a long future and checking in personally and answering three important questions that the Dalai Lama has suggested as an important self-query : “Is it just for me or for others? For the benefit of the few or the many? For now or for the future?”

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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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