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Above All, To Serve the Public

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
August 11, 2023

The people’s compact with its public servants is fractured and seemingly beyond repair. A look at the relationship with its closest public servants—locally-elected city councils and corresponding public administrators—shows why.

First, a complex, unclear or rigid bureaucratic process can be demoralizing and appear designed to impede public access to needed services. Additionally, there is a persistent lack of responsiveness to the needs of all the people, especially those from marginalized community groups, which only entrenches their distrust. It is too often the case that the systems and processes of governance are set up to favor the civic participation of those already close or linked to power. This typically includes the monied, those advancing business interests or retired people with free time, groups that skew white, older, male and/or politically conservative. The consequence of this elites-centric model means that policy and programs are less likely to be representative and more likely to be damaging for excluded groups.

Across the country it is a tale of two cities within a city, one burdened with a legacy of redlining, racial violence and other discriminative practices. In St. Louis (MO), for example, the Jim Crow Era “Delmar Divide” has caused unprecedented levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation, which not only continue to produce severe generational poverty, but have limited Black residents’ access to jobs in the areas of welfare administration and education. Long Beach (CA) is several decades past overt redlining, but the ZIP code a child is born into still determines whether that child lives 17 years on average less than a child born in a more affluent ZIP code, as well as the likelihood of associated place-based health, educational and economic inequities. Or take Boston (MA), the city ranks as one of the most segregated and unequal in the country, a situation that’s worsened with stark racial and ethnic gaps in home ownership rates.

Elected public officials may drive policy action (or inaction), but when public administrators execute and oversee that policy, the blame for any negative impacts it creates is shared by both. Distrust and anger experienced by adversely affected community members needs to be publicly acknowledged and addressed. To interrupt and transform the patterns of oppression, public servants need to pursue proactive equity-focused initiatives and/or reconciliation processes that are sustained over time and with appropriate funding. But these efforts must occur with the meaningful participation of the impacted communities.

As Deborah Stone states in her seminal book, Policy Paradox, “Public policy is about communities trying to achieve something as communities.” For Stone, community is the center from which “politics and policy can happen.” According to Stone, it is within community that all involved stakeholders “must bring their own values into the picture.”

Unfortunately, public servants have allowed a hollowing out of our democratic processes by failing to uphold representative bureaucracy—a theory characterized by Samuel Krislov as “all social groups hav[ing] a right to participation in their governing institutions.” Further, from Frederick Mosher’s 1968 book, career bureaucrats must exercise their administrative discretion to ensure that the values and preferences of all people are represented in policy outcomes. Not only that, but Jason Rivera and Claire Connolly Knox state in their August 2022 article that when public administrators are engaged in authentic interactions with the public and use their discretion to represent the interests of the public, this practice becomes true democratic governance.

The American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics provides ample clarity on our duty to the people: “to promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself” while seeking “to improve laws and policies to promote the public good” and “oppos[ing] all forms of discrimination” so to “reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society.”

Yet, the recent escalation of state-sponsored discriminatory policies against marginalized groups, particularly LGBTQ+ people, is alarming because of its rate of acceptance and spread to other states. The ban on some gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth has caused families to flee hostile Southern states for friendly Northern and Western states. But with currently 32.2 percent of trans youth aged 13-17 living in states under bans on gender affirming care, migration is not a sustainable policy nor is it financially accessible to all affected trans youths and their families.

Where was our field of public administration while these callous policies were passed into law? Little has made the news about internal resistance by public administrators except for the Travis County child protective investigators in Texas, many of whom resigned or actively resisted rather than implement the governor’s directive to investigate parents of transgender children. Whistleblowing may also become necessary. Public administrators are responsible for enacting, implementing and overseeing policies, but we do not leave our ethics at the office door. In many ways, public administrators are relied on to be the guardians of good government, and therefore our democracy.

Public administrators must fight against harmful policies and programs. Consider what could happen if the levers of bureaucracy—complex rules, slowness to change and opaqueness—were used in the service of justice and the common good. Such a commitment would renew our duty to uphold the public interest above all else.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is a public sector strategist and equity/inclusion consultant. She served as a technology and innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies an intersectional equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. All views are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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One Response to Above All, To Serve the Public

  1. James A Nordin, DPA Reply

    August 11, 2023 at 10:13 pm

    You continue to impress and inspire me. Thank you.


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