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A New Administrative Paradigm to Meet the Challenges of Post Modern America?

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

By Michael Abels
October 9, 2017

Moving from the 20th to the 21st century, the United States transitioned from the modern to the postmodern age. Typically, when we consider societal movement from one epoch to another, we view the transition in positive terms, believing each new era represents progress in the human condition. However, movement into the postmodern era may not equate to linear progress.

order chaosThe modern age was an era when information became readily accessible through computers and computer networks. It was marked by the exponential increase in speed and diversity in the dissemination of information. The subsequent postmodern era is recognized by two conflicting components. One component derives from the modern or information age, and confronts society with the exponential speed, unpredictability and nonlinearity of information and change. Reacting to this complex, ill-defined environment, society and societal institutions fluctuate in and out of what can be considered states of chaos.

The second component of this era is the human reaction to first component. It is marked by cynicism, fragmentation of society into tribes, rejection of grand narratives, universal truths and common norms. The human reaction has been a desire to reverse these fundamental changes; a desire to return the country to what is perceived as traditional norms and conditions.

The postmodern era poses a fundamental question to the field of public administration. Has our profession adequately adapted to the structural, administrative and leadership realities presented by post modernism? The complexity of these issues, and the societal chaos generated by them, confronts the field of public administration with many economic, social and environmental challenges. Some example of these include:

  • United States is retreating from confronting major issues such as climate change and gun control.
  • Society has adopted a short-term orientation with deep skepticism of bold approaches to meet the challenges of the future
  • Society separated into isolated, increasingly divergent economic and social strata’s.
  • United States possibly reached its optimum point of creativity and economic growth in the 20th century. GDP growth will not reach the levels, or be as equally distributed through society as that which existed in the mid-20th century. However, world middle class is growing, making America workers more competitive and leading to possibility that outsourcing of mid-level jobs to third world countries will slow.
  • Communities in middle America are being hollowed out with creativity and wealth moving to larger urban areas. However, urban cities are experiencing fiscal distress due to legacy cost burdens.
  • Individualism has become a dominant societal value, replacing the value of collective responsibility which traditionally caused citizens to feel some obligation to the common good.
  • Those in leadership positions are increasingly anti-leaders, being against, not being for.
  • United States trails most industrialized countries in primary education and health care, but is the premier military power in the world.
  • The political system deconstructing public institutions to weaken government.
  • Public education deconstructed to advance the value of individual choice.
  • Devolution of domestic policy from federal to state and local governments.
  • Public confidence in civic institutions below 40 percent. Only 29 percent have confidence in federal government.
  • Very poor civic education; example 70 percent of the public cannot name all three branches of government.
  • Impersonal, negative, overwhelming and often inaccurate social media supplanting valid news sources.

The field of public administration has traditionally approached new epochs by constructing models that address the administrative, management and leadership challenges found in those eras. “New Public Administration,” “New Public Management” and “New Public Service” all provided principles that public administrators have utilized to make American public administration a leading-edge system for conducting the public’s business. However, the dynamic changes previously described compel that we question whether the principles advocated through historical models continue to be effective in meeting the challenges found in the era of post modernism.

Some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Should public administration identify, and address through policy alternatives “big” and possibly politically sensitive issues that address the quality of life Americans will enjoy in the future e.g. climate change?
  • Should social equity and promoting the public interest be maintained as professional values, or should they be replaced with a “customer,” market based service model?
  • Should general tax based revenue systems be subordinated to specific fee for service systems?
  • Should public administration adopt the value of building strong citizenship through assuming a role of reeducation of the public about the basic structure and function of American government?
  • Should citizen engagement be incorporated as a priority in all aspects of administration and policy development?
  • Should governing complexity be addressed by focusing organizational theory less on hierarchical systems, and more on developing collaborative networks that use self-managed, decentralized teams?

The dynamic changes experienced in postmodern America necessitate that public administrators debate questions that could result in fundamental change to the public service administrative/management paradigm. It is incumbent on practitioners and academics alike to identify the areas where fundamental change is required, and, then design new systems that will insure American public administration can respond effectively to the ever-changing conditions found in postmodern America.

Author: Michael Abels, Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Book written by the author titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government was recently published by Taylor and Francis. [email protected] or [email protected]Twitter @abelsmike

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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.

4 Responses to A New Administrative Paradigm to Meet the Challenges of Post Modern America?

  1. Paul j croce Reply

    April 7, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    Good points Mike. A funny thing happened on the way to the wonders of the information age, including fragmentation into subgroups, focus on the short term, loss of public spirit, and fake news. Good to call for keeping the public in Public Administration.

  2. Gary Spivey Reply

    November 16, 2017 at 10:55 am

    This is an interesting article – but it is an Opinion piece and not a scholarly work. I would like to see his claims be put forth with academic rigor thru the logic of critical thinking, and perhaps peer reviewed. He makes some fantastic claims but what is his reasoning and evidence?

    For example, he says we are retreating from the issue of gun control. That claim is a premise that we need gun control. What is the evidence that supports such a claim? There is plenty of evidence that shows gun control doesn’t work, which could be addresses in a well argued paper following the rules for critical thinking.

    Unfortunately, many young public administrators may read this opinion piece (and similar post) and likely conclude the power of persuasion is solely reliant on emotional tugs.

  3. michael abels Reply

    October 11, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I believe a primary function of public administrators should be forming a foundation of hope. However, hope starts by realizing the conditions of the present and then setting a vision for where we as a society want to go to advance the condition of society. I think of President Kennedy and the vision he set to land on the moon within 10 years. Futuristic and visionary. It was that optimistic, positive, can do spirit that made America great.

  4. Darrell Moore Reply

    October 10, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    I’m a bit sad regarding this whole idea of post-modernism. In my view, the very notion implies “lack of hope” which is a dangerous notion for anyone or any society to embrace moving forward. Essentially, we don’t know when time will end. I am a believer in Jesus Christ, but according to the Bible, he doesn’t even know when time will end, but he does represent hope. I think a lot of people have just given up but they don’t want to die so they just exist, which is, once again, a sad state to be in without hope. I think it’s difficult, to govern hopelessness, but it’s not difficult to govern services. The monumental task is to identify true populations who need to be served and serve them.

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