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Discovering Meaning in Public Administration Through the Lens of Politics

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

By Alex Pattakos
July 13, 2020

Although some people may want to erase the first half of 2020 from memory and start the year over, we cannot ignore the damage the global pandemic has had on our health, economy, society and psychological wellbeing. Indeed, any existential angst we may have felt in 2019 has been intensified.

To compound matters, the socio-cultural eruption after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis laid bare the wounds of a world in desperate need of healing and soul searching. The complex background of social, economic, political and moral turbulence has created a perfect storm. As a result, the search for meaning in public administration has never been more important.

As the United States approaches Election Day in November, it is clear that the pandemic and social unrest present an acid test for the democratic ideals and principles upon which the country stands. The very roots of the republic are being challenged, as some believe that public officials should lead according to majority rule, while others argue that the views of the few represent more important issues that must be addressed. How are public administrators to respond in the face of the often-conflicting challenges this crisis presents within the “new normal?”

Let me suggest three important ways to advance the search for meaning in public management practice:

  1. Understand the intersection of politics and administration

Instead of conceptualizing politics and administration as a dichotomy like the “orthodox” discipline of public administration has done for over a century, it is time to seriously consider their overlap. I suggest that managing the public’s business, by definition, involves politics. By politics, I’m referring both to the partisan variety and the nonpartisan notion of, “Positive political skills,” espoused by author and organizational development consultant Peter Block.

In this regard, it is important to underscore that positive political skills are a supplement to, but not a substitute for, job competence. Political maneuvering and the skills that come with it actually can—and should—be a force for good within an organization. This, Block argues, is what defines an effective political player: someone who can wield political authority ethically and constructively, i.e., meaningfully, to influence other stakeholders. By not invoking partisanship per se, positive political skills can also be seen as a form of, “Authentic politics,” in support of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s argument that politics is a, “Positive human good.”

  1. Find common ground by going to a higher ground

It is the human capacity to extend beyond oneself—a key principle of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s meaning-centric philosophy—that enables individuals to find common ground by going to a higher ground.

We must be willing to acknowledge and respect other’s positions, recognizing that everyone has their own experiences and perspectives and is not satisfied with the status quo. We will never solve our challenges in public administration and public policy if we continue to dig in our heels and refuse to look for common ground. In the final analysis, diversity is only a strength if it accompanied by unity.

The late political scientist David Easton defined public policy as, “The authoritative allocation of values for society.” This particular definition can be linked directly to what Frankl called the will to meaning, a motivational concept involving a commitment to meaningful values. I explored the three categories of values that Frankl identified as, “Sources of meaning,” and applied them to government service in an article, “The Search for Meaning in Government Service,” published in the January/February 2004 issue of the Public Administration Review.

As we know, good intentions aren’t enough to implement public policies and programs, no matter how well intended. Aggregating values in the formation of public policy and ensuring shared understandings of the meaning behind them are no simple tasks. To be truly effective, neither side of the policy design and program implementation equations can succeed totally on their own; on the contrary, it is imperative that there be a meaningful connection between them.

The politics of meaning, in this context, can be found by examining the respective motivations and strategic aims of stakeholders. Ideally, there must be recognition of and authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals on the path to conflict resolution.

  1. Embrace meaningful innovation

The new normal will require enhanced innovative thinking and decisionmaking skills, including having an open mind and being curious, seeking new ideas from a broad range of sources, exploring new strategic directions and, importantly, understanding how to present and gain buy-in for new ideas. The recent challenges will necessitate changes to policies, programs and funding levels. Meaningful innovation will be needed to identify and negotiate program changes, financial cutbacks and new revenue/tax sources.

We are living in an uncertain world characterized by increasing polarization, a lack of civil discourse and authentic dialogue and, unfortunately, a focus on power and pleasure rather than on meaning. Managing the public’s business effectively, efficiently and equitably has never been more important. If there ever will be a time to find meaning in public administration through the lens of politics, now is that time.


Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of a think tank, Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is coauthor with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling, award-winning books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. He is currently writing a new book, Public Administration and the Search for Meaning: Rediscovering the Soul of Government, a title in the Routledge ASPA Series in Public Administration and Public Policy. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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