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Discovering the Public Interest

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

By Michael Abels
September 23, 2016


Since the founding of the nation, there have been societal and political tension between the values of individualism and collective values classically identified as the common good or public interest. From the 1980s to present day, this conflict has intensified. In the field of public administration, the philosophy of “reinventing government” has helped shift local governments toward an emphasis on market based methods of administration, treating services to citizens with a more individual approach instead of a collective approach. The philosophy of referring to citizens as “customer” is a reflection of shifting the balance away from collective responsibly to emphasis on individual choice.

Nationally, we are in the throes of experiencing a negative outcome of this movement as the bonds of interconnectedness between citizens and groups within American society are increasingly frayed. As our social bonds disintegrate, and we as a people politically fragment, our national political systems have become dysfunctional. Unfortunately, this system dysfunction is reaching beyond the federal and state governments and is extending into our local communities. Without proactive intervention local government may likewise fall prey to administrative and political dysfunction.

There is a solution to prevent this malady. An approach to prevent this trend from reaching local government is for local government managers and elected officials to emphasize the public interest as the guide for their policy actions. How can this be done?

First, it must be recognized that the concept of the public interest is very nebulous and our political system is increasingly not accepted as an arbitrator people trust to mediate conflicting ideals and ultimately decide on polices that will reflect the public interest. But local government still possess the trust, and the tools, to insure local elected officials maintain public trust and confidence. The foundation for discovering the public interest is to involve the public as partners, and use engagement processes that will allow all interests and data to be considered in the search for policy that constitutes the public interest. Let’s start with several overarching definitions of the public interest from historical and modern perspectives.

Outcomes best serving the long-run survival and well-being of a social collective construed as a public. — Barry Bozeman

Resources are not to be put at the disposal of any limited set of governing influences, but for the whole people…  — Woodrow Wilson

Shared interests and shared responsibility.  — Janet & Robert Denhardt

The public good, the real welfare of the great body of people, is the supreme object to be pursued.  — James Madison

Strategic Planning Sets the Broad Public Interest

These definitions provide key concepts that address the question of what constitutes the public interest. However, they do not recognize the exact components of the public interest. To identify these components, administrators and elected officials must recognize the broad public interest unique to each community. The outcome goal for strategic planning is knowing the community’s values, needs and opportunities for improvement. Strategic planning that is comprehensive and citizen directed is a tool that can identify the broad public interest unique to each community.

Identifying Public Interest When There is Only One Alternative

Many policy issues initially seem to have only one alternative to address policy issues. This can lead to the pursuit of narrow approaches that do not recognize opportunities which could improve the policy response. To overcome this limitation, the principles of sustainability should be utilized. Sustainability as defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission is, “Development that meets the needs for the present without compromising the ability of future generations.”

Recognized by Daniel Fiorino writing in the Public Administration Review, sustainability has three components that when integrated are excellent for policy analysis: environmental, economic and social. For each policy issue, specific criteria can be developed and analyzed that address each component of sustainability. This will allow the analyst to determine if the policy will result in a net positive outcome for all three sustainability components.

A fourth component should also be evaluated. The administrative/governance capacity of the organization to implement and carry out the policy. Does the organization have the financial capacity to implement the alternative?  Does the policy issue extend beyond its own jurisdiction?  Are other organizations working in the same policy area?  Should a policy network be created or joined?

Comparative Analysis to Choose Between Multiple Alternatives

When local government recognizes several alternatives to address a policy issue a comparative analysis can identify the public interest. Starting with accurately defining the policy issue or problem, comparative analysis allows the analyst to work with citizens and stakeholders to identify policy alternatives, along with criteria for evaluating the efficacy of the alternatives. While all policy issues will have overlap in the criteria used, each issue will have its own unique criteria that are important to the policy issue stakeholders.

The Public Interest Can Be Recognized

Public managers are tasked with finding solutions that reverse the fraying of our social and political fabric. One solution is for local government to discover the common public interest, and then to pursue those common interests through public policy.

Author: Michael Abels is a career city manager and retired lecturer in public administration at the University of Central Florida. Email: [email protected]

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5 Responses to Discovering the Public Interest

  1. Pingback: The Nation at a Point of Inflection | PA TIMES Online

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