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Dismantling or Rebuilding Public Administration: We Must Now Decide the Future

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

By Michael Abels
June 7, 2020

On October 15, 2018 I wrote a column for the PA Times Online titled The Future is Now. In that article I argued that the field of public administration could take two tracks into the future. One was to continue dismantling public administration, converting more of its programs and services into a business model where equity for services was traded for efficiency. The second track was to rebuild public administration using the model of sustainability where equity and economic, social, and environmental issues are viewed in balance, and serve as the foundation for the formation of public policy. I concluded by stating that we are following a path of dismantling, but dismantling was not ordained; we could chart a new path to rebuilding.

The coronavirus pandemic is a clarion call of alarm; it clearly demonstrates the crisis that is befalling public administration. This crisis is starkly highlighted by the United States failing to provide adequate tests for the virus, and an inability to track the virus so preventive actions can stop the spread of the disease. Our failure is exacerbated by our national government failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for our health care system.

The dismantling of administrative capability in public administration is also demonstrated by the inability of the IRS to send in a timely manner the economic stimulus funds that were the center of fulfilling the goal of the program, and, the administrative failures of the Small Business Administration in the Paycheck Protection Program. Structural failures seen in the governmental response to the corona epidemic were tragically described by Dan Balz in the Washington Post when he highlighted the failure of the United States to test and track the coronavirus, describing it as, “How America has hollowed out its government.”

While the Executive Branch can be charged for mismanagement of the response to the pandemic, Congress has for decades allowed the government infrastructure to deteriorate, and has ignored redesigning our government system so it could adapt to the world that has changed around us. Ultimately the management failures in this pandemic, as well as our inability to adapt to the demands of our current age, are the outcome of the deliberate, long term dismantling of public administration that has taken place for several decades. We are not the United States that mobilized and led the world in defeating Nazi Germany in WWII. We are not the United States that prevented the collapse of western Europe after WWII by funding economic recovery through the Marshall Plan.

So, the question posed in my 2018 article remains; will public administration mobilize and rebuild, or will we continue our present course to dismantle public administration? With this question an even larger societal issue confronts us. In response to the racial crisis challenging the United States in the 1960s, leaders in public administration convened what was labeled the Minnowbrook conference. Through this conference and later designed actions, social equity was integrated into the soul of public administration. “Promote social equity,” is now a value in the code of ethics for the American Society for Public Administration. Combined with, “Advancing the public interest,” ASPA has at its core, the values that demand proactive action for insuring a sustainable national future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the United States to another inflection point where fundamental change is mandated if we are to address critical problems that threaten the United States from enjoying a sustainable future. There are four major policy issues that must be addressed immediately. These include reversing climate change, reducing growing income inequality, improving access to quality health care for all citizens, and fourth, rebuilding primary education to allow all our children to have an equal opportunity for a quality primary education. There is not space to lay out the complete justification addressing these four policy areas. However, a central place to begin reflection on the long-term sustainability of the United States can be determined through a fundamental base point for each policy area. These fundamental policy base points are:

  1. Globally, the years 2015 through 2019 have been the hottest years on record.  
  2. The wealth gap between the top 10% and the bottom 90% is growing; income inequality in the United States is the highest in comparison with other OECD countries.
  3. Citizens in the United States spend more on health care than other OECD countries, and we live shorter lives.
  4. The United States spends more per student for primary education than other OECD countries and American students score no better than 14th when comparing to other countries in mathematics, reading and science.

As a country we are not addressing the problems that must be addressed for us to create a sustainable future. Our national political system is dysfunctional and cannot identify the problems which confront us, much less honestly debate the solutions to these problems. Therefore, it is critically important that a professional, politically neutral organization such as ASPA recognize today, as it did in the late 60s, these policy deficiencies, and then mobilize the national stakeholders that must be involved in researching, designing and advocating for the solutions that will address these fundamental problems. Beginning the process requires leadership. Time is of the essence!

Author: Michael Abels. Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently adjunct instructor at Stetson University. Recently published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government. Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike

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