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East-West Knowledge Transfer: Resolving the Paradoxes in Public Service

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

By Pallavi Awasthi
August 8, 2017

From Hurricane Matthew to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, or the speculated possibility of a third world war, conflicts around the world beg the questions: Why are we at this juncture? Are we losing confidence in our public institutions and making blunders as a human race? What are our roles as nations, societies and individuals so we can live and exist together peacefully? The only solution that seems relevant today is “being in the service of the public from our hearts.” The role of public service leaders and administrators across nations is critical in building happier and inclusive communities. Indeed, public servants are doing great work everywhere; nevertheless, the demand is growing. Being in public service should be a never-ending endeavor to challenge oneself.

For truly being in the service of the public, the need is to create the meaning of “giving” rather than “receiving.” Public service is not only the responsibility of public servants but each one of us as citizens. It spells the need for a fundamental change in redefining our identity as “We” rather than “I.” Public service professionals are unique and have the responsibility to reflect on their actions continuously. It’s a world of paradoxes in public service responsibility; the critical question is: are we ready to forego our self-interests in making the world a better place? How do we address these paradoxes in our minds?

Often, a metaphorical description of Indo-US relations refers to India—the largest democracy—and the United States—the oldest democracy—as a defining partnership in the 21st century. Is there anything unique these connect-20333_640countries offer each other to solve their public service challenges? The Gallup World Affairs Survey, 2015, rated India as the sixth most favorable nation by Americans. In the 21st century, the two nations are strong allies and cooperate on various issues. However, public service knowledge transfer remains an abandoned dialogue. Debatably, India has around a 4500-year-old history. The famous mythologist in India, Devdutt Pattnaik, said in one of the talk show on the East-West: The Myths that Demystify, east and west live in two different worlds of myths and beliefs. But which world of belief seems relevant in today’s times?

These are two different ways of looking at the world. One linear, one cyclical. Westerners typically believe in a single life of achievement, while Easterners believe in multiple lives with no final achievement. In public service, we need both the linear and the cyclical thinking. Particularly in India, public service delivery has large and glaring inefficiencies. For example, on a typical work day, almost 30 percent of the public school teachers and health professionals are absent. Karthik Murlidharan, in a 2007 Human Capital article titled “Public Service Delivery: Opportunities and Challenges,” states, although state and local governments in India have increased spending on the policies, not enough attention is given to how efficiently the resources are spent. How do we fix such systemic problems of inefficient service delivery? The knowledge transfer from the United States can offer linear and scientific solutions to create a result-oriented culture linking performance to the organizational goals in achieving efficient service delivery. In return, Yoga is a gift from India to the West. However, in the United States, Yoga is limited to the flexing of muscles and body movements but does not include the holistic practice of mindfulness.

Globally, in today’s public service culture, the majoritarian problem is to deal with the paradoxes of responsibility. On a routine basis, public servants are in a dilemma hoping for a paradigm shift from the world that is not of our making to the world in which we are the architects of our lives. Michael Harmon in his book Responsibility as a Paradox: A Critique of Rational Discourse on Government explains the processes of self-reflexivity are critical in developing a reflective public service practitioner. Self-reflexivity occurs when there is care and compassion in a relationship leading towards a truthful and authentic conversation. The absence of either compromises the real essence of dealing with the paradoxes of responsibility. However, how to teach reflexivity is left unexplored in public affairs education. In this respect, the wisdom of India offers an evolutionary model entailed in Yoga and emotive processes, to see public service as a mirror of the heart. It functions at a subconscious level and is not merely a fashionable term. It first transforms the outermost aspects of a person, then the mental and emotional levels, and finally the deeper levels of consciousness. It paves a path for an inquiry emanating from the heart in our personal paradoxes.

At this point, the debates on public affairs education in American schools are centered around whether the education should produce citizens or workers. Policy makers, practitioners and academics in the public service profession face a challenge to reinvent the wheel in the making of a virtuous and responsible public servant. In this respect, NASPAA has established for its schools, competencies that public affairs programs should teach. However, the unresolvable question is how to create a space for a critical and self-reflexive dialogue entailed within public service ethos? Therefore, to embellish our lives, we are in search of a paradigm shift to establish an authentic relationship with “being in the service of public – from our hearts.”

Author: Pallavi Awasthi is a second-year Ph.D. student in Public Affairs at Florida International University (FIU). Her research interests lie in studying comparative public administration (India and United States). Particularly, ethics and leadership in the public and non-profit sector, emotional labor behaviors among front-line public servants, and women social entrepreneurs. She has been a consultant with UNDP, India on Strengthening Human Resource Management in the Indian Civil Service.


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