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Essential Leadership in Troubled Times

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

By Sarah Sweeney
April 5, 2020

The past couple of weeks I’ve been commuting to the office and I take a look around at my colleagues who’ve also been considered essential employees during this unique time in our history. I wonder if they’re afraid to come to work when everyone else gets to stay home. As a manager it is my duty to be available to staff in the office so long as they are expected to come in each day, and I believe that as public administrators in these roles; it is even more vital that we commit to our positions in this field. I’ve attempted to keep up a positive outlook and encourage my staff to focus of self-care and precautions as they see fit; we must support our staff so they feel confident to support our clients. The continued operations and safety of our organizations is in our hands when administering services to the public.

It has been an immense learning opportunity to observe how our government leaders have responded to the crisis of COVID-19 and it is encouraging that mass changes to policy and a focus on community safety is at the forefront of that response. When I was in school for public administration I wondered what it would take to impact policy on a large scale and take immediate action; we are currently experiencing that on a national level and I believe everyone is taking notice. I firmly believe that all public administrators should keep a watchful eye on this situation and how it is being handled, because in the event we experience something like this in the future, we can be prepared. We were not prepared for the onset of this virus, but have the capacity to learn from our mistakes moving forward and learn how we can better prepare next time.

I work for a State agency that serves vulnerable populations in the greater Seattle area and am constantly applauding the dedication of our front line workers who show up daily to meet the needs of our community. They have been working so hard to adjust the daily procedure and policy changes to best serve those who come to the office for services. Let me tell you, there are constant changes to how our business operates; sometimes fluctuating multiple times per day. The complexity of social services currently offered is already difficult to navigate, and I must give all the credit to those answering phone calls, responding to in-person requests, and determining eligibility for government programs despite major changes to how determinations are made. We answer to the public on a daily basis and during this time we have experienced immense difficulties in maintaining public trust in our ability to serve.

If we could learn one lesson from social distancing and the government shutdown, it would be to focus on becoming stronger leaders for our communities by taking stand for what’s right over what’s expected. We must take a leap of courage to support our staff and our communities to make a bigger impact in the end. We must learn from the mistakes we are inevitably making, because there will be some. But we cannot place blame on any particular agency, practice or person because we are on a new frontier of service delivery, operations management and public administration. In order to maintain a realistic vision of positive leadership and strengths-based management we should remember the reason why we became public administrators and the vision we have for a better world.

As we move forward as leaders we must exude those qualities we wish to see in our staff and our teams and we must also be ready to model the behaviors we expect from them; if we show up and are ready to serve then there is a higher chance that those who are looking to us for encouragement and support will do the same and come prepared to work. But we must also know when to support our staff to stay home and take care of themselves; we must put our people first because that will go a long way in helping them understand our priorities. If we do not take care of ourselves we cannot care for others, and if we do not take care of our staff we cannot care for the public. So let’s all model the behavior we wish to see and support our staff without hesitation; that will go a very long way in furthering the mission and visions of our agencies.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Essential Leadership in Troubled Times

  1. Sarah Sweeney Reply

    June 11, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    Thank you Stephen, much appreciated.

  2. Stephen B Gordon Reply

    April 6, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    Informative and well-written. Thank you!

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