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Goal-Critical Public Service Decisionmaking

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

By Lisa Saye 
July 28, 2019

Roof-top Circuitry, New York City. Photo by Lisa Saye © 2018

Incrementalism and Goal-Critical Objectives

While we do not look at public administration through properties of matter and energy, we could learn a lot from our physics colleagues. Any physicist will tell you that everything in the universe is in a constant state of motion, even if you cannot see it moving. As public servants, we have an advantage in that we can see change. We can see when policy implementation works and when it does not work. We can get immediate feedback about any program or initiative we bring to the public. We can affect the change we hope to make in real-time and, in doing so, we can directly influence lives and livelihoods.

The property that public administration uses to chart and measure change is incrementalism. For public administration, incrementalism is bureaucratic remote control and it has become operation central as it relates to implementing program goals. When we control for things like time, constituency and budget, we can see what works, which processes address and resolve public issues and what else needs to be done. This is not piece-meal problem-solving. Rather, it is the constant and repetitive act of reading the gradual results of the implementation of goal-critical objectives. Goal-critical objectives are those that are indispensable and vital to delivering public services. Goal-critical public service is not what is trending; it is what is needed.

At times, a bureaucratic structure and a rule-heavy process can limit the success of achieving goal-critical objectives. Structures do this when goals are not clear or when public servants are ill-trained or ill-equipped in doing their jobs. When this happens, public service delivery can look like a sad traffic jam of misplaced goals and disconnected and inadequate delivery techniques. But whether the structure or the process are stable or are not stable, public servants must work within them and are expected to do well.

So, how do we guarantee that we accomplish goal-critical program and policy objectives? Unfortunately in this case, miracles are rare and free-tutorials for designing fool-proof strategies are even rarer. What we do have to assist us are two elements that are the best practices invented for assessing goal success. Those elements are pre-implementation public input and post-implementation public feedback. It does not matter how well we think we have written a particular policy nor does it matter how well the intent of the public servant or servants who write the policy is admired. Without the inclusion of public input and public feedback, we are simply entertaining ourselves and congratulating ourselves on our abilities to conjure up good prose.


The View from Above

In an interview years before his death in 1991, Miles Davis, in talking about piano players, remarked that the right hand plays the musical phrase while the left hand fills in the note. Public servants play a strange piano because we must be both right-handed and left-handed. We must keep one hand on goal-critical strategy while simultaneously managing incremental implementation of that strategy with the other. For this to occur, we have to consistently weigh and adjust policy goals. A crucial question becomes to what extend do the goals of a particular program have meaning to the people we serve? A proper follow-up question then becomes to what degree are the goals of a particular program more important to the agency or personnel and less meaningful for the public? As public servants, we must abandon administrative pageantry and the fossil-thinking that goes with it when we set out to resolve public problems through effective public service delivery. We have to focus on what is critical for our public and quickly and consistently discard empty symbolism.

How much time we spend in an operational month or in a fiscal year on designing goal-critical program implementation says a lot about our commitment to the public. It says even more about our understanding of program design. I titled the photo accompanying this discussion, Roof-top Circuitry. To me the image resembles the circuit board inside of a computer that allows for the addition of hardware that improves the computer’s abilities. We plug new techniques into the bureaucratic circuitry of an existing structure in a similar fashion. For example, we now have a 24-hour 365-day virtual Suggestion Box on any agency’s website. Blogs allow our citizens to become photographers, journalists and panelists with the click of a mouse. And we can deliver commentary on programs and initiatives in podcasts that when archived can be viewed or listened to at times more convenient to the public. 

I think more than anything that the photo accompanying this piece shows the current state of that particular New York community which looked different from above twenty years ago and which will look different from above twenty years from now. Each view represents the result of the community’s use of the space and that result is relevant to the resources available to the community. For that moment in time, the results are normal, conventional and timely. For public servants, knowing which goals are critical and which goals represent the space and the people we serve must also be seen as normal, conventional and timely.

The copyrighted ‘Roof-top Circuitry’ image was taken by Lisa Saye in New York, New York.

Author: On July 9, 2019, Dr. Saye delivered the Pre-Departure Orientation Keynote Address at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for Fulbrighters leaving for Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Saye 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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