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Eye-Level Government: Public Service Here and Now

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

By Lisa Saye
February 16, 2019

Ancient site of the King’s Courtyard, Seat of Government, Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo by Lisa Saye.

 Plowing Around the Stumps

Each month, around this time of the month, I sit and I think. I think about concepts, themes, ideas and notions related to public policy and public administration. I think of new ways to say old things and old ways to say new ones. I write under an unqualified illusion that my words will be read, will be felt and will someday lead to a change in the thinking and practice of public administrators. In each column that I write, I single out specific examples of policy creation, program evaluation and public service that ought to be the kinds of policy, programs and public service we deliver each day.

Although I write confidently within each submission, I must now point out what continues to be most obvious in the current environment. We are plowing around the stumps. We are presenting lively notions of verse wrapped in the symmetry of technical narrative, but we are no closer to curing what ails us. This is in no way an indictment of any public administration content that is currently available in journals, textbooks, blogs or in any other form or type of communication. No discipline relies more on discussion than public administration, so I am definitely not advocating that we stop publishing. I am saying that we simply can no longer afford to ignore the lumps in our foundation and hope that traffic will be heavy enough to eventually smooth them out.

When I think about the stumps in public administration, I often think about a particular decades-old jobs program. Since its creation, the program has been renamed again and again in a sad attempt to make the title as hip and relevant as it can be. Never mind the fact that the program has done little to accomplish the goals it set out to accomplish. What has evolved over time is the idea that giving something the right name is what is most important. Thus, the program’s name has become more important than the program’s aim.

Lately, there has been quite a bit of talk and at times a lot of screaming about walls. It would be easy to use the notion of a wall when identifying another one of our stumps, but that would be inaccurate. Our silence on the issues that make a difference in the lives of the people we serve does more harm than any stretch of concrete, or wire  or steel ever could. Our silence is another one of our stumps; a silence on issues such as rising homeless numbers, inadequate healthcare and the lack of real consequences for those of our very own number who lose the public trust through incompetence and indifference. When we fail to say what is right because in doing so we say what is wrong, we build our own walls of distance and distrust. Our silence confuses our public and our work loses its value.

 Pulling Up the Stumps

As it turns out, it looks like we still have work to do. And, as it turns out, I believe we are ready to do it. While we cannot reasonably solve every problem that comes our way, we can reasonably remove our own stumps so that our path becomes clearer. Let’s begin by challenging ourselves to see our problems as opportunities for growth. We would also do well to pattern that growth after ideals we abandoned or neglected long ago. We should create eye-level government modeled after Lipsky’s street-level bureaucracy. Earth’s populations have never lived in an era with better, more efficient or faster tools of compassion and service delivery. We should make excessive use of what we are blessed to have despite the obstacles that life may present.

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for PA Times entitled, “Why Answer the Call? Because Government is Different.” My answer, “Because government is different,” was based on a short essay written in 1945 by public administration scholar Paul Appleby. I will resist attempting to compare events then to events now and simply offer reflections on the words Appleby left us to ponder. Government and government work is different. Government is like a moving train and like a stalled train. Government is sunny, rainy, windy and dry. Government is overdue bills, small rooms and broken clocks. Government represents hope, promise, triumph and gain. Government is more and sometimes less. Public servants are called to be what government is, and what government is continues to be rather simple. Government is different. And so are we.

The Image was taken by Lisa Saye in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Statistics for Public Service and Research Methods for The School of Public Service at DePaul University. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected].

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