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Adding Value to Public Administration: The Residency of Public Service

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

By Lisa Saye
April 11, 2022

Public service is a life-residency that reveals its purpose when we are open to growth and transformation. It is the direct mechanism for citizens’ access to promised government assistance. Time has shown democracy to be a sturdy ideology. It operates most efficiently within a civilian-governance model, within a public service that cannot be postponed and within a public service that can set a curfew, but never works within one itself. Public administration is a large boat and as there are many holes in the bottom of the boat—its biggest hole is the confusion surrounding our tasks in serving the public. To begin with, our citizens are not others, they are us.

As long as I can remember, peace has never been as consistent as discussions about democracy. We sit in an enviable position—those of us who write about stable government. We find a quiet corner or desk or mantle or floor and extol the benefits of choosing a public administration that operates in a democratic structure of inclusion and equal representation. We excitedly add our voices and examples to the existing narrative, yet often neglect to chastise a system that ignores many of its own failings. There are steps to good government and there are steps to good public management, just not the ones we’ve been using.

When public management becomes a search for better and shorter how-to lists, the essence of service becomes lost or forgotten. For citizens, public administration must be a daily connection and a real connection to the results they seek. Articles, blogs, short summaries and other evidence shows that only when we resist the old dependencies on status quo and bravely move the markers of service, will equal and real representation become meaningful public service.

Public administration is designed to make sure that history does not repeat itself because it is self-correcting in both its planning stage and throughout its implementation stage. Public administrators are not actors in a Webisode and our citizens are not props on a stage. Rather, we are the guardrails of integrity and the warehouses of governmental input in the resolution of a myriad of problems and concerns that we call public goods.

Public service operates within a system of laws and statutes, but to be sure, public service is not a legal situation. It has always been the practice of helping the needy and whenever we have forgotten that mission, the public has never failed to remind us. This necessary tension allows our citizens to see our offices and halls for the buildings that they are, as they place the real value in what we accomplish in helping to make their lives better. Administration is paperwork and budgets and debates. Public administration is the social situation that manages the paperwork, the budgets and the debates.

How we resolve and address citizens’ concerns and issues is directly tied to the type of environment that public administrators create or allow to continue to exist in government. When we create a more inclusive environment, we create a direct relationship with our citizens. When we fail to do so and instead allow the same exclusionary environment to exist, we invert management’s sincerest efforts to value each and every citizen. Exclusions in government have no place in the vocation of public service. Moreover, exclusionary creations are neither feasible nor probable when it comes to the dissemination of public goods.

Democracy, once introduced, leaves its mark on institutions, public administration and citizens. It acts as the glue for the positive results of government. We are not in the final episode of public service no matter who wants to believe that we are. Service does not come with an expiration date. Light always breaks and when it does we will rally and we will overcome because we have to. For us to do otherwise would lead to a drastic decline in our collective morality.

It is too cliché to say that as public administrators we will continue to make mistakes, but we will. We will error in our timing. We will error in intent and reason. But, we will remember that confusion lies in the distance between us and our citizens, so we should rush forward to decrease it. And if we are wrong to serve, if we are wrong to work for peace and if we are wrong to work to widen the tent for diverse capacities, then know that it is an error in which we should rejoice.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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