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Civic Responsibility and Public Administration: A Modern Take using Videos

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

By Benjamin Paley
February 20, 2023

For the past few weeks, since the release of body camera footage showing the events leading to Tyre Nichols’ death, the public has been engrossed in discussions regarding police brutality.

This is not the first time the public has been swayed by video footage. A few years back, the Black Lives Matter movement propelled George Floyd’s death to the front page of the nation’s newspapers and forced action. 

In the past few years, public response to perceived injustice has been anything but normal. In fact, I previously have written pieces for the PA Times addressing the public’s great anger and distrust of the U.S. Supreme Court following the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a case that had guaranteed a women’s right to obtain an abortion.

Low Levels of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is important, and I, along with other public administrators, love to see the public so engaged in the political process. Especially when civic engagement has been lackluster for years.

Previous attempts at addressing the root the problems have failed. For example, many public administrators thought the problem’s roots were a matter of access to information. So, efforts were made to provide more information and make the government more transparent.

But even though access to information has improved, public engagement is still low because the government cannot make citizens read the information and become engaged.

The Root of the Problem

In the end, the crux of the issue is that few people want to be involved, except when something tragic or horrific happens, and they see it with their own eyes. This idea comes from the Situational Theory of Publics and was discussed by Linda Aldoory and James E. Grunig in a 2012 article titled The Rise and Fall of Hot-Issue Publics: Relationships that Develop from Media Coverage of Events and Crises. This idea is also known as a hot-issue public, defined by James E. Grunig as a public “active only on a single problem that involves nearly everyone in the population and that has received extensive media coverage.” Other examples of hot-issue publics include the following topics: energy shortage, air pollution, superhighways in urban areas, nuclear power, deregulation of natural gas, toxic waste and acid rain, the Clinton health-care initiative and a predicted earthquake.

A.O. Scott states that “a delicate ethical line separates witness—an active, morally engaged state of attention—from the more passive, less demanding condition of spectatorship.” Videos drive spectators to want to be witnesses. This is because videos do not lie. And videos that present hot button issues, such as police killings, drive the public’s need to be civically engaged because people are more likely to believe something they see in a video.

Final Thoughts

In the end, it’s not the government that decides; it is the people who decide to be involved and when. The government can figure out ways to provide information to the public and explain it, but for real change to occur, it must be the people who stand up and say they will do something. Perhaps videos, memes and other forms of media will propel more people to be involved.

Many ideas have been proposed on how to get the public to be more involved. And while these ideas are noble, I fear they don’t do any good if the people don’t want to be involved. One idea that has been promoted to address the issue of an uninvolved public comes from the new public service model of public administration: a public administration that steers not rows. This means, government officials actively guide the public to finding solutions to problems facing the community.

Author: Benjamin Paley is a board member of the South Florida Chapter of the ASPA. He graduated in 2022 from the Shepard Broad College of Law in 2022 with a J.D. and in 2018 from Florida Atlantic University with a Master of Public Administration degree. Email: [email protected].

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