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ASPA President Discusses Role of Third Party Government

Wendy Kirkpatrick-Hamlet, Charles E. Menifield

Paul Posner, outgoing ASPA president, was the featured speaker at the Inaugural James R. Carruth Lecture at the University of Memphis on Thursday, March 25, 2010.  Posner’s presentation entitled “Get the Government Off of our Backs, There Ought to be a Law:  Reconciling our National Ambivalence About Government” was well attended by Memphis Mid-South ASPA members, students, alumni, and faculty members.

While the Posner’s theme was clear, his lecture was split into sections highlighting: the recent accomplishments of the federal government, the poor state of the economy, the role of academics and practitioners working together, rebuilding government management infrastructures, and the role of public administration education. Posner jumped right into the heart of the subject matter by discussing how government reform is still possible as evidenced by the passage of health care reform. However the current state of the economy has caused many Americans to be angry with the public sector. He posits that the government is the engine of the economy and it is the job of the government to solve many of the social ills that plague us today despite the dominant role of the private sector in the past.  With that said, he stated, “While we ask government to do ever more, we limit and constrain them at the same time. The following commonly accepted duality in American politics reflects the dilemma–get the government off our backs; there ought to be a law.  This best embodies our cyclical and very ambivalent view of government.”

Posner perceives that despite the fact that the government has managed to deliver services in a fairly efficient and effective manner over time with competent managers, they have fallen short of dealing with the daunting task of stabilizing the market and building stable societies in vulnerable regions. One of the reasons that he cites as a problem in remedying these issues is the “many hands problem.” There are too many actors with too many agendas required to solve the issue in an equitable manner. In fact, he argues that there has been an agenda explosion (obesity, smoking in public places, housing prices and foreclosures, and quality of schools) and governments are not capable of managing all of the issues when citizens are not in favor of increased taxes. Hence, he argues for third party governance. That is, accept the fact that “individual jurisdictions are not capable of fixing problems on their own. Instead, they must work collaboratively across boundaries to match the boundaries of the solution with the expansive boundaries of the problems. Failure to do so will condemn governments to a spiral of ineffective solutions that will surely be undercut by others.”

Collaboration however does not come without its own set of problems. At the forefront is a lack of agreement on interests and values between managers and politicians. One example is the foreclosure crisis. The government has partnered with the private sector to manage the housing industry, but despite the recent debacle, they are dependent upon this industry to get us out of the crisis that they caused.

In order to solve these issues, Posner argues that it is the job of competent public managers to design policy tools that make sense and monitor their implementation. More specific to third party government, it is necessary to have “managers who understand third party incentives, risks, and who can ensure that accountability is one of the outputs of these arrangements.”

A case in point is the banking and finance industry. Everyone knew that it was not sustainable, but there was a void in anticipation and foresight to staying ahead of the curve. The costs associated with waiting are substantial. Thus, policymakers in conjunction with managers and the private sector must develop a learning strategy to head off these sorts of issues.

Posner concluded his lecture by discussing the increasing role of public administration education. He argued that we are charged with providing a pool of talented public servants who have the daunting task of solving problems that will require collaboration and a high aptitude to understanding the long term implication of public policy. We need people to “put their hearts and minds where their mouth is.”

At the end of the lecture, Posner was asked several questions by the audience. Referencing his comments on looming problems, Jason Sonnenfelt, an instructor in the MPA program, asked “Why isn’t the message getting out to the public?” Posner commented on the role of partisanship and how it has hindered progress. As a result the government has been less fiscally responsive. Governments need money to operate and this is not the time to cut taxes or extend previous tax cuts. More comprehensive strategies can enable us to control large scale future problems by preventing them from growing into crises. The risks of delay are greater than the risks of taking actions to forestall known and growing problems. He further added that nonpartisan organizations could play a pivotal role in educating citizens on the severity of the crisis.

ASPA member Wendy Kirkpatrick-Hamlet is a graduate student in the MPA program at the University of Memphis. Email: [email protected]

ASPA member Charles E. Menifield is an associate professor in the Division of Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of Memphis and President of the Memphis Midsouth Chapter of ASPA. Email: [email protected]

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