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Civic Literacy and Effective Public Administration

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 24, 2020

Most entering public service work in a specific discipline such as social work, education or transportation. They are selected for technical competencies, and on-the job training and employee development tend to focus primarily on these. While this supports more effective and efficient service delivery, challenges can occur if those in public administration are unfamiliar with the framework of government.

We might expect everyone in public administration to have a basic understanding of government in the United States, but this is not always the case. Surveys on civic literacy are conducted periodically, and the results suggest many in the population lack a fundamental understanding of government. Our workforce is drawn from this population, and this has the potential to hinder policy development and implementation.

We see similar concerns arise in MPA programs, where learners enter public service to provide a technical function, with undergraduate degrees representing a specific discipline such as finance, information technology or engineering. In preparation for meeting the challenges of leadership-management positions now or in the future, these individuals seek an MPA to gain knowledge of public sector administration. At the beginning of their program, a lack of understanding of government in the United States might prove problematic.

The following are examples of findings from civic literacy surveys conducted by the American Bar Association (2020), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (2019) and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute American Civil Literacy Program (2011):

  • 54% believed governments should be able to suspend Freedom of Assembly without limit during a crisis.
  • 18% reported the President held authority to order statewide quarantines, not governors. (4% thought the authority was held by the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force).
  • 11% believed the “Rule of Law” meant the law was always right, not that it applied equally to all (with 16% believing obeying the law was only required of citizens).
  • 15% believed the three branches of government are separate, but the executive is superior to the other two (12% held the judicial branch is superior).
  • 20% believed the Electoral College was a government training institution for potential presidential candidates (4% believed the number of each state’s votes in the Electoral College is based on campaign contributions to presidential campaigns).
  • Only 16.25% could describe a free enterprise system.
  • 18% believed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, authored The New Deal.
  • By a 2 to 1 margin, more people knew Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than knew Abraham Lincoln wrote of “…government of the people….”
  • In the 2011 survey, 71% of the population failed a test on civic literacy, with a mean score of 49 (elected officials scoring 6 points less).

There is an old adage stating, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Similarly, if one is educated and trained only on technical competencies, every challenge appears to be a technical one, requiring a technical solution. If those in public administration do not understand the structures or systems of government, or the limits of their agency’s authority, their ability to deliver services will be hindered. If they do not appreciate the challenges and opportunities created by a federal system of local, state and federal governments, each with its own authorities and responsibilities, they will be unprepared to develop intergovernmental approaches. If they fail to understand the overlapping and concurrent interests of multiple agencies, multiple disciplines and multiple sectors in relation to complex social issues such as homelessness, poverty, crime or the opioid crisis, they are likely to founder, seeking to approach issues in isolation. Public sector leaders must take active measures to avoid these circumstances.

In MPA programs, the challenge is addressed through courses in intergovernmental relations or public policy analysis, introducing learners to these challenges and how to approach them effectively. Public sector agencies are unlikely to take such a formal approach, but they have the ability to achieve the same outcomes. Some do this well, with strong mentoring programs or team-based approaches, introducing employees to means of identifying and navigating complex issues of governance. However, other agencies, often less resourced ones, might find they are assigning programs and projects based on the technical expertise of employees, not on a knowledge of government, and this might contribute to failure.

There is no single solution to this challenge but there are two steps essential to begin to resolve it. Public sector leader-managers must be aware of the challenge, and they must take direct, active measures to prepare their employees for it. This will make them better prepared to capitalize on the opportunities presented through multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary and multi-governmental approaches, contributing greatly to increased levels of organizational performance across the board.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO is a core faculty member in Capella University’s public administration programs. Prior to this, he served in local government for over thirty years. He is President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [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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