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Like Brand New: Revitalizing a Pro-Government Culture in the United States

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 2 of 14. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online.

Erica Copeland

“Americans suspect their government is both ineffective and inefficient.” Numerous scholars of public administration have evaluated and supported this same assumption: the government is failing to meet public expectations. The pessimistic proposition suggests the need for the government to overhaul and to rebuild its relationship with its citizenry to inspire mutual trust. However, improving how Americans see government requires solutions that avoid contrasting ‘the public’ with ‘the bureaucracy’ as if either group is monolithic or entirely distinct from the other. In fact, citizens of diverse backgrounds and beliefs shape the public interest just as public agencies with unique and, at times, conflicting priorities constitute the whole of government. Environmentalists set different priorities than do industrialists similar to how the Environmental Protection Agency may advocate policies that contrast with those promoted by the Small Business Administration.

Beyond the variety that exists within each group, the boundaries that delineate the distinction between each cluster have been and are becoming increasingly fluid. Career public servants, for example, are “multifaceted [they] must attend to law, community values, political norms, professional standards and citizen interests.” Moreover, in response to the New Public Management’s mantra of “running government like a business”, government departments have begun contracting out the administration of public services to nontraditional partners in the private and nonprofit sectors. As a result, the government’s societal influence has become more pervasive and the division between government and civil society less clear.

Given the complexity that characterizes citizen and government actors, this essay’s leading statement seems overly simplistic and incomplete. Analysts must further examine which segment of the public believes which part of government is ineffective and inefficient. This question allows for a more accurate description of the relationships and perceptions formed between and within both sides. Not surprisingly, the resulting answer detects such subtleties; the locus of anti-government sentiment can be found both outside of and at multiple levels within government.

A five-point strategy can be utilized to address the major external and internal barriers that undermine the prospects of a pro-government culture taking root in the United States. Each point is represented by a letter that helps establish, figuratively and literally, the key element that is lacking, to some degree, in intergovernmental and government-citizen relationships: T.R.U.S.T.

Transparency: Make the First Move. If public administrators are to build strong relationships with external actors within and outside of the government, they must be willing to make the first move and open the lines of communication through transparent action. Fortunately, transparency has become a buzz word within public administration practice and aptly is a priority of the Obama Administration. Its importance to bureaucracy within a democracy can be shortly paraphrased: “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”

Beyond government-citizen ties, transparency is a seldom prescribed but a highly effective solution to help fortify intra-governmental relationships, especially within Congressional-bureaucratic affairs. Although the benefits of appeasing Congress, the keeper of the federal purse, may seem clear, historically, executive-level bureaucrats have resisted Congressional oversight to their own detriment. The Reagan Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Anne Gorsuch, provides a trademark lesson reinforcing the need for bureaucrats to support and practice the principles of open government, especially with their Congressional colleagues. Gorsuch failed to understand that “information is a commodity on the Hill”, resisted a Congressional Committee’s appeal for information, and was eventually found in contempt of Congress, despite her support from the President. Practitioner Grace Cummings studies the tensions between Congress and bureaucracy that manifest when “political appointees find themselves caught in the cross hairs between the legislative and executive branch authority.” Her suggestions include “avoiding partisan politics,” “recognizing legislative oversight as a necessary check on executive authority,” and acknowledging Congress members as mutual stewards in democracy promotion.

Responsiveness: Know What the Public Expects of Your Organization. To reverse public perceptions of civil servants being “inefficient, negative, bored, impolite, and unhelpful to citizens,” office-bound public managers should seek out information that provides them with what frontline service deliverers and their Congressional counterparts already have: a gauge of changing pubic demands. For the head of a local DMV, this may mean providing customer satisfaction surveys to clients as they wait to be served. But collecting this information is not an end in itself. Instead, collected survey data should be used to give administrators an idea of improvement areas and to help them decide which performance measures would best evaluate the organization’s effectiveness. Performance management can be used for a variety of purposes and address the agency’s need to evaluate and control organizational operations; to budget for more efficient output production; to motivate internal employees to perform; to promote and celebrate department success with the public; and, to learn from past failure. Ultimately, all of those objectives should lead to improvement. Unfortunately, translating data into organizational change is easier said than done. Agencies may suffer from the DRIP syndrome—being Data Rich, but Information Poor. The National Academy for Public Administration further notes that measures alone cannot guarantee improvements actually occur. Rather, public leaders must approach this process with an end in mind; with an idea of how they can implement performance lessons and results. Creating a strong feedback loop with citizens, in other words, would be a futile effort for administrators if their departments lack some mechanism of internal evaluation to inform them on how to better align their mission with public needs.

Uniting Government Action: Remembering the Big Picture. “United we stand, Divided we fall.” This adage captures the democratic values cherished by the United States government and its people. It is a phrase that implies that mutual interests can override special interests; that commonalities can be found in our diversity. President Obama recently expressed that “in this democracy, government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another.”

Yet, the ideal of ‘oneness’ can be elusive within the field of public service. It is often replaced by intra-governmental rifts between workers who lose sight of one increasingly relevant trend: “most of the nation’s major problems—immigration, global warming, pandemics—are complex by nature and cannot be solved by one unit.” Donna Shalala offered managers proven approaches to improve intra- and inter-departmental associations during her supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services. Among her recommendations were building lateral channels of communication between senior executives to share budgetary priorities and goals with one another during a conference to help them gain a better understanding of and respect for the projects of other departmental bureaus. Although the cost of collaboration, primarily seen in the loss of unilateral managerial control, may be more apparent than the benefits in the short-term, agency heads should engage, nonetheless, in long-term planning. This means supporting efforts to reduce interagency competition for fiscal resources, to avoid duplication and to improve inter-agency coordination of public services.

Stakeholder Networking: Making Policies Reflect the Public Interest. Given that 21st century problems cannot be properly addressed through unilateral action, savvy managers should look to building a stakeholder network and begin identifying the appropriate people to engage. The case of study of the New York Port Authority’s attempt to engage business and civil society in the plans to rebuild the World Trade Center illuminates the complexities of selecting appropriate contributors and finding common goals among a cacophony of voices. Ultimately, this case raises more questions than answers. Some citizen engagement is necessary, but the extent to which bureaucracy should engage citizens remains unclear.

Tenacious Promotion of Success: Shaping Public Perceptions. Although citizens depend on government-provided services, the public servants who help to build and maintain those services remain largely nameless and faceless. What is more, the media does not hesitate to broadcast government failures and scandals. Maintaining an open government is no longer enough. In a democracy, public officials must also accept the responsibility of keeping the public informed through public reporting in annual reports, through public hearings to involve citizen participation or through public service ads. Cohen and Eimicke recommend that administrators approach the media in a way that will give them greater control over the message they send to the public. Each employee, then, should have some training on media relations in order to help validate an organization’s public credibility.

The paradox of anti-government sentiment is that its origins are multifaceted: found in the beliefs of both citizens and public servants. Thus, any attempts by public administrators to promote a pro-government culture within the United States must be equally multi-dimensional, addressing the rifts of mistrust between, within and without government, at local and national levels and prescribe creative solutions to build a society characterized by a government more united with the needs of its populace. The United States constitutional imperative on a bureaucracy improves the practice of democracy, demands that public servants advance a common goal: the promotion of strong government-citizen ties and mutual T.R.U.S.T.

Erica Copeland is a student at Syracuse University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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