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Choosing a Career as a Public Administrator: Are You Ready?

By Tosha Wilson-Davis

Many of us pondered about our future careers during our childhood, adolescence and even during our young adult lives, trying to narrow down which occupation(s) we want to pursue. Some of us can even remember talking with our parents as children and teens telling them something to this effect, “I want to be a teacher/firefighter/policeman/doctor when I grow up.” Many of our parents would probably nod their heads; they would agree with our premature notion regarding our future career. I can hear my parents saying, “Sounds like a good plan honey.”

twd2All of the above-mentioned occupations are considered public service careers and are very valuable and meaningful to communities around the world. Consequently, choosing a career as a public administrator can serve many purposes from testing the ground on your management skills, fine tuning your research and analytical skills, being involved in controversial public policy issues that not only affect you and your family, but also your friends, co-workers and neighbors alike. Others may feel a career as a public administrator is a duty to help and serve others.

But don’t be misled as there is hard work involved especially for management personnel. Yet, choosing a career as a public administrator takes great motivation, commitment and is quite rewarding. Human relation theorists like Abraham Maslow and Elton Mayo have long recognized that people are the principal component of social organizations. Each organization must create a clear and defined mission and foundation to ensure a smooth operation and maintain efficiency.

Many employees would not say that they are happy with their jobs. Why not? This is a question for the leaders and managers of an organization to answer and delve into so that they can find meaningful solutions. This is a daily task for public human resource managers. For an employee to perform his or her job well, the employee must know the job title, be presented with a clear position description that details its duties and requirements and feel “loved” by his or her employer. Love here does not equate to affection yet concern and compassion (the humanistic side of being a boss). This is where timely performance appraisals and evaluations come into play, and they are an integral part of not only the employee’s success but also the organization’s success.

Furthermore, for an employee to be happy with his or her position and the organization the employee must be motivated and feel a sense of attachment for the organization. Again, administrators are responsible for facilitating such motivation. Lastly employees, particularly those in federal agencies, must have a sense of ethics. Why? Because, they are representing taxpayers and it is the right thing to do! Ethics involves honesty, integrity and honor. Administrators must be conscious of providing ethics training, holding ethics seminars and exemplifying ethical behavior to ensure employees are following the yellow brick road and are able to genuinely say they are “happy” with their job.

Performance appraisals are used to evaluate how well an employee is performing their job duties. It can also be used to ensure that the employee and his or her supervisor have a clear understanding of the job and its duties, and in this case, it can be viewed as an accountability measure or tool. Pay-for-performance (PFP) is generally offered to employees who receive a met or exceeded performance rating and is normally directly linked to how well the job is done. It may be in the form of a bonus or pay increase. In a book titled, The New Public Personnel Administration, Lloyd Nigro, Felix Nigro and J. Edward Kellough mention some of the advantages associated with PFP which include “improved attractiveness to highly qualified and hard-to-recruit college graduates, increased probability that superior performers would feel valued and equitably compensated for their efforts, and encouraged supervisors and subordinates to communicate clearly about goals and expectations.”

Monetary incentives or performance pay is not always the answer for many personnel challenges but in certain situations, they are appropriate for enhancing employee motivation, productivity and output. In any event, what employee turns down a pay raise or a bonus? Not many. Despite its advantages, PFP may have many drawbacks, especially in criminal justice agencies. Over emphasis of pay as an incentive may decrease organizational motivation, lead to a lack of team spirit and intimidate other workers who do not receive incentive pay and may decrease their productivity level. Nigro, et al agrees as they assert that, “an over-emphasis on external material rewards such as pay may undermine intrinsic sources of motivation such as self-esteem and contributions to organizational achievements.” In other words, if an employee is motivated only by material rewards such as pay, how does this affect the organization and the service to its clients? The employee is ultimately impeding teamwork and organizational goals may be compromised. For instance, an employee who knows he or she will be rewarded based on individual performance is less likely to be a team player and may overlook organizational missions and goals to achieve a high performance appraisal motivated by money.

PFP may also create bias. You may be asking, how so? Who determines the performance level? Well, in a most shallow example, Employee A may believe that his performance is worthy of a pay incentive as well as Employee B, which may increase conflict in the workplace. Consequently, public service organizations must employ a variety of motivational factors to improve employee performance not just pay. Public administrators must ensure that employees are motivated by their service to others, the organizational objectives and the quality of their work. All of the above should equal to and/or exceed any monetary or extrinsic motivation. It is at this point that employees have truly found their niche.

In my opinion, public administrators are change agents, leaders with compassion and above all, humans. Therefore, human relations and interpersonal skills are imperative for any public service leader. They must provide opportunities that build a commitment to integrity and convince employees that ethics certainly matter. Implementing training sessions that involve role-plays, case studies and scenarios would be effective in highlighting the importance of ethics. Hypothetical scenarios and role-plays can help to determine the presence or lack of moral vision that the criminal justice agency possess. These sessions could be done on a monthly basis and the employees should be required to write a statement or answer survey questions on what they learned and what ethics mean to them. This will help reinforce the material and measure the ethical comprehension levels of the employees. In addition to the above suggestions, ethics should also be an ongoing effort with intervals of monitoring and evaluation. So go ahead and ask yourself, do I have what it takes to be the next public administrator?


Author: Tosha Wilson-Davis is an adjunct professor of political science and faculty mentor at Georgia Military College. She is also an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Bainbridge State College. She has served as a faculty mentor for over a year at Georgia Military College and an adjunct professor both classroom and online for over three years. She is currently finishing her second masters degree in criminal justice at Troy University. Tosha also served as a former Civilian Contract Specialist (GS-11) for the Department of Defense at Robins AFB where she worked on several spares and services acquisitions, was selected to work a GSA Unique Large-Dollar acquisition and a Firetruck Overhaul Source Selection.  She was nominated for and received the Notable Achievement Award at Robins AFB in 2011 and a 10-Hour Performance Award in August 2013. She holds a Masters of Public Administration with a Government Contracting Specialization from Troy University and two Bachelor of Arts degrees, one in Sociology and the other in Criminal Justice. She has been an ASPA member since 2010. To contact Tosha, email her at [email protected] or[email protected]

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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.

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