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When the Rainbow Is Not Enough

Considerations for Public Administrators

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

By Brandi Blessett
July 14, 2015

James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This quote essentially sums up how I feel about the field of public administration. Since I embarked on my doctoral studies and transitioned into a career in academia, I have grown to love public administration – that had not always been the case. Initially, I questioned my choice of study based on the normative discussions of efficiency and effectiveness, the lack of historical and cultural context in addressing real-world issues and honestly, because everything I seemed to learn was from the perspective of dead, old white men. I honestly do not say that to offend anyone, but the reality of what I was exposed to in public administration hardly reflected anything that I cared deeply about on a substantial level – inequality, cultural diversity and social justice.

Scholars of color seemed to be absent from the conversation, which meant that the issues unique to their respective communities were largely nonexistent. However, I am and remain thankful for those opportunities that allowed me to find a connection to the discipline. Trying to understand and frame issues from a public administration perspective within the context of the urban environment made all the difference in the world for me.

In many respects, my pursuit of a doctoral degree was sincerely concentrated on how and why urban communities “looked” the way they did. In other words, why were the communities that people of color live in so often characterized by violence and crime, blight and disrepair, unemployment and bad city services. The research helped me understand the complexity of these issues from both a public administration and public policy perspective, which really afforded me the chance to see how and where I could make my contribution to the field.

As an academic discipline that prepares the next generation of scholars and practitioners to think about, advance and evaluate the philosophical, theoretical and practical application of how government works, public administration is fundamental to the pursuit of the American ideals of justice, fairness and democracy. New professionals are tasked with the difficult job of balancing what they have been taught, job requirements and responsibilities and engagement with the citizenry (in some capacity). These duties are not only impactful for public administrators and their respective professional experiences, but also for their constituents. In a nutshell, public administrators are responsible for moving government’s plan into action. It is from this viewpoint that I would like to offer advice to incoming public administration professionals.

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Familiarize yourself with the ASPA Code of Ethics. A review of the ASPA Code of Ethics is one of the most important things a new professional can do to understand the responsibility of the profession. Some people chose public service because they want to make a difference, others may be interested because of the security and benefits traditionally afforded to public employees. In either case, it is important to recognize values of the profession and that your position can be used to promote or suppress democracy. Ultimately, if altruism is not the goal, then please do no harm!

Recognize that your constituency is everyone, not just the privileged. All persons deserve your attention and respect. Traditional practice afforded significant privileges and funneled resources to those constituents who had social, political or economic capital. In this regard, those without capital were, at best, ignored, if not harmed by administrative actions. Be considerate of the past, in order to ensure that the same communities are not further marginalized.

Feel comfortable to challenge the status quo. It is not recommended that you go into your first job and try to dismantle the bureaucracy, but being cognizant of your professional responsibilities helps. Use choice points wisely. In other words, consider the cumulative impacts of the many small decisions you will make. Thus, understanding that your decisions will have a significant impact on the population served.

Take opportunities for professional development. In this capacity, you will always be evolving and honing your skills in preparation for the next challenge. Organizations that are willing to invest in their human capital are invaluable because those organizations realize their success is directly related to your training and preparation.

As I think about my personal and professional evolution, I realize that my love for public administration is centered on making the profession more responsive to the whole citizenry, not just the privileged. Any criticism I have lodged against the discipline is based on my interpretation that public administration has not fully embraced past wrongdoings, which is needed if administrators do not want to be culpable in perpetuating injustices.

Whatever your reason is for being drawn to this profession, please consider that the work you do does not just affect you, but informs the interactions, impressions and expectations of public servants overall. I guess what I am trying to say is that in a world where politicians are always bashing “the bureaucrat in Washington,” please try to give your constituents another story to tell.

Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].

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