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Creating Space for Engagement: 2018 Annual Conference Addresses Who, What, When, Where and How

By ASPA Staff
April 2, 2018

ASPA’s 2018 Annual Conference convened in Denver, March 9-13, around its theme: Mission Focused and Service First: Creating Innovative Solutions. Within this framework, plenary lecturers and other featured speakers were drawn to a similar topic of discussion: constituents at all levels of civic participation are searching for ways to engage with their leaders and it is public administration’s role to help them learn how.

From start to finish, speakers on the main stage looked at public administration through their personal lenses, but their four divergent perspectives brought them back to a critical factor within mission and service: engagement. More so, lecturers were focused both on enabling engagement with elected officials, as well as enabling the right kind of engagement.

It was through that lens that innovative techniques and strategies were brought to light throughout the conference, throwing open the doors to new and different possibilities within public service.

Four Perspectives, One Shared Concept

Four plenary lecturers and keynotes captured attendees’ attention during the conference, looking at civic engagement and participation, technology, ethics and more.

One of the more notable speakers, Walter Shaub, Jr. (formerly director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics) addressed conference attendees on Monday morning as the 2018 Nesta M. Gallas Lecturer and provided a look at the current presidential administration and its ethical missteps. Outlining an array of decisions that have left many members of the Trump administration in a quagmire, Shaub’s point was larger than politics: the ongoing trend of failing to appreciate public service is damaging to its future.

“People enter public service for one reason,” he stated. “Because they care. We have to get young people interested in serving.”

Shaub repeatedly returned to ethics and transparency in government service, and its role in both serving a mission and inspiring new public servants. “Ethics rules exist to protect [people] against a variety of challenges,” he argued. “You cannot accomplish anything if those in office are working for personal gains. They should be working for the people.”

In fact, “the people” is where the conference started. The opening keynote lecture, given by Valerie Lemmie of the Kettering Foundation, reflected on how we can help democracy work as it should.

“Citizens do not get involved in what they do not care about, or if they do not feel they have been heard. How do we create these spaces?” Lemmie asked.

She went on to describe how to pursue a healthy democracy and find creative ways to innovate at the local level to create space for citizens to get involved in their own advancement.

“You need to speak [the citizens’] language,” Lemmie stated. “The way you talk about the work you are doing matters. You need to name—in terms they recognize—the problems, as citizens see them. And then enable them to help fix their issues.”

“Fixing their issues” is where Stone Lecturer Tina Nabatchi of Syracuse picked up the dialogue on Monday afternoon. Her presentation focused on public participation and creating civic infrastructure for it.

“Conventional participation usually takes place at open meetings with open mics, with less than one percent participating on average,” Nabatchi stated. “One of the first steps to improving this is to give good process. Treat them like adults. Provide information and choices. [Citizens] need to understand complex processes and we need to explain it. Give them room to tell their stories. Give them room to take action.”

Nabatchi outlined a number of processes and systems to encourage participation, demonstrating some of the techniques throughout her remarks.

“Lots of processes are meant to push citizens to a pre-determined outcome. The answer to that is to engage people earlier in the process,” Nabatchi observed.

This discussion of systems and processes, including using technology as an aid, intersected with this year’s Elliot Richardson Lecturer, P.K. Agarwal, as he discussed innovation and technology in government. Looking at disruption, wealth creation, transformation and the challenges all of these elements bring to the public sector, Agarwal led his audience through a brief history of everything the industrial and technology revolutions have meant for society. From horse-drawn carriages to the Model T, from Uber to drones to driverless cars, Agarwal outlined the ways technology has pushed us forward—and the challenges public administrators must address in order to maintain an orderly society.

“If government does not step up, the private sector will fill the void,” he observed. “Machines are going to learn. Who will teach them? This is an ethical issue you must address.”

Feature events look at ethics, equity

If creating space for engagement was a common theme on the main stage, “Which space?” and “Created for whom?” became a drumbeat within that dialogue. The Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Luncheon, Section for Women in Public Administration Breakfast and presidential panels all looked at answering these questions.

Gloria Hobson Nordin Award winner L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia, reflected on “for whom” during his remarks at Sunday’s luncheon.

“America started off in a little place in Virginia, and then moved west, and further west, until we occupied the land between both oceans,” he noted. “I don’t think we do that enough today. We are too content with who we are and where we are, rather than say, ‘What do we need to do to improve?’

“There’s too much focus on party, rather than people. If people are not running the government, we’re in trouble—deep trouble. Help your students know there is nothing standing in their way; help them know from whence they came.”

“For whom,” also was examined during a presidential panel looking at inclusion in public spaces, as panelists discussed which people are publicly recognized for their contributions through public monuments. Panelists looked at the broader issue of how public administrators should go about choosing who and what to commemorate, as well as the underlying issues of history, heritage, power, revisionism and dialogue.

“There is a difference between history, heritage and legacy,” stated American Historical Association president Jim Grossman. “Heritage makes you comfortable; history should make you uncomfortable. It is about the past and is constantly revised. Revision means new questions and new narratives. You should never be comfortable.”

“A common theme is power,” noted American University professor Gregg Ivers. “You have the power to recognize and the power to not recognize. Who decides? Governors? Mayors? The citizens?”

“And what does equal mean?” asked panelist Carla Kimbrough of the National Civic League. “Who decides what is said and what is hidden?”

Equality was also examined during the Section for Women in Public Administration breakfast, when keynote speaker Brenda Allen, University of Colorado Boulder’s vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, looked at divisions within divisions.

“Sexism and racism can both be at play when you interact and intersect,” Allen stated. “There are labels that privilege some and prejudice others. Gender, race, nationality, economic status, generational labels—we all have discrimination and privilege.”

Allen challenged her audience to dedicate themselves to diversity and be truly committed to it: “Commitment is in your head and heart.”

Commitment also was a central theme when four higher education leaders and former U.S. servicemen sat down during a presidential panel to share their lessons learned in military service and how those lessons have translated in the rest of their careers. The panelists brought the discussion back to creating space for engagement, this time through commitment to the team.

“When I joined the UT System, I knew nothing about higher education,” University of Texas System chancellor Adm. William McRaven observed. “I had to learn the language. You adapt to them—not them to you. Service to your organization is about something bigger than you. It’s never about you, it is always about the team. If you make it about you, you’re not leading.”

The panelists also discussed equity, directly addressing the lack of demographic representation among the panelists themselves.

“The best team is the most diverse team,” stated McRaven. “Four white men don’t always provide that. In the military, no one cares about your demographics, for the right reasons. Within higher education, we look beyond your skills and work to change the culture through diversity.”

The panelists also recognized the importance of creating space to develop new leaders. “People need support structures,” observed University of Texas at Austin policy chair Adm. Bobby Inman. “Focus on selecting your leaders and making sure they are trained properly to do the job. Leadership doesn’t always come naturally, but you can help develop the skills.”

Creating Innovative Solutions

In between plenaries, breakfasts, lunches, receptions and more, the 2018 conference also featured more than 170 panels, as researchers and practitioners shared with each other recent knowledge gained and innovative ways that data can be put to use.

Including Section-led symposia, hands-on workshops, Founders’ Fellows panels and more, the five days of sessions enabled almost 1,300 attendees to bridge the scholar-practitioner divide and engage with each other around how each of them can better enable society to solve our challenges in new and different ways.

While buzz is already building around ASPA’s 2019 conference, taking place March 8-12 in Washington, DC, those who were in Denver are just beginning to put some new data, skills and knowledge to use to create new spaces—for new ideas, better research, redirected missions and better engagement that reflects the public we all serve.

“The health of democracy is measured by the quality of its citizens,” Valerie Lemmie stated. “Recognize the value the citizens can provide and work with people to find the solutions.”

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