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Democracy Sans Frontières: No Preface Needed

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

By Lisa Saye
July 17, 2023

@Borderless Morality. Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo and Title by Lisa Saye

Democracy belongs to the feet that carry it. It is the boldest graffiti. The highest art. It’s not password protected, but it’s database heavy. It is reproduced and reimagined most often as public service. Democracy is both a way in and a way out in removing the perceived immobility of injustice and inequality. Each time we hold a free election, we celebrate a chapter in democracy’s origin story. Every hill, valley, city, village or municipality that embraces democratic principles becomes a narrative in democracy’s long autobiography. And the story is long indeed.

It has been said that ‘people don’t quit jobs, people quit people.’ I believe this. I feel that the statement can also be a founding tenet of public service. If we quit people, we quit democracy and we demonstrate that we do not understand the concept of worth. Public service is direct to the consumer, direct to the humanity that moans for peace. A 17th century artist in Haarlem, Amsterdam approached a public charity that gave him three loaves of peat or fuel to warm himself. He was so moved by their generosity that he painted the portraits of the charity’s lead administrators. As with democracy, public administration deals with live issues. The charity’s administrators saw the worth in a person in an insufferable condition of poverty. They acted. They didn’t quit.

Policy making is another chapter that we as public administrators should work to get right. We error when we take a clinical approach to policy making. We err even further when we give in to political monopolies and outmoded clichè. Policy implementation fails under stale experiments, misguided scenarios and inappropriate inbox exercises. Practice makes perfect and practicing and implementing good street-level policy is essential for democracy.

Scarcity has always been a life theme, if not an exclusive economic one. Governments always work to avoid being on the minus side of the ledger. Scarcity is always connected to the question of what’s missing. If policies are not fashioned and implemented to address gaps in public services, those questions become what’s still missing. Old theories and collapsed notions may feel familiar, but pain is poor company. Public budget items should resemble plans for addressing scarcity in housing, education, transportation, the environment or public safety. Such attention to citizen needs will begin to rebuild the trust that so many have lost in government and in public agencies.

Democracy makes mincemeat out of so-called settled history by supporting the possibility of possibility. If democracy is the structural compass of freedom, then public service is its many ways to get there. While history has recorded the many governmental structures that have collapsed under the weight of institutional weakness and moral panic, democracy is far from its sunset.

Public service is not the threadbare wishes of a disillusioned citizenry or some enjoyable distraction. It is the polished lens of public administration and the acknowledgement that access to any particular public good is a birthright that must be protected by the government. Public service is public administration’s Mount Rushmore that when government gets it right, you can almost hear the African horns in the background. 

Public service cannot act alone. It needs the legitimacy that legislation or public policy provides it. To be clear, public policy is not a Monday supplement nor should it appear to be a series of disconnected afterthoughts. When we make policy, we must resist the ‘oh yeah, and by the way’ method of piecing together something that is destined to fail. Endlessly quotable concepts of make believe ideal environments waste precious time we can give to real work on real outcomes that people need. Democracy is not a vanity project and government is not another space to torment people.

Democracy has had a hard couple of years, but this is not democracy’s last road, nor is it ours. This, our present route, is a road that some of us know well and a road that others of us know even better. This route has become the peat fuel for many of us when corruption first freezes us and then gaslights and blames us when we get a cold. Policy negligence has its own consequences as witnessed by outdated and crumbling infrastructure, bloated administrative budgets and delays in the dissemination of essential public goods. Coordinated inefficiency masked as one-sided status quo legal maneuvers won’t get your portrait painted by any artist in any century under any circumstances. We don’t need to take an opinion poll to know what we need to do as public administrators. Effective public policy is democracy’s noble and intentional by-product. And for that, no preface is needed.

The Borderless Morality@ image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She also served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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