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Good Enough for Government Work

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

By Burden Lundgren
March 9, 2020

I have been writing a column for this publication since 2013. Over these years, with the exception of once featuring a picture of my dog, I have tried to keep things professional. This column is personal.

Last June, the man who had been my husband my entire adult life died. Not surprisingly, the shock and grief were overwhelming. But, very surprisingly to me, so was the tsunami of paperwork that had to be completed to go on with my life. It was not that we were unprepared. We had done everything right. We had wills, advance directives and all the other documents that are supposed to make transitions like this easier. It is hard for me to imagine that things would have been more difficult without all those papers although I understand that is the case.

Where did all this paperwork come from? Basically, it divided in two parts: private sector and public sector. Since my husband was a longtime federal employee, the latter was the larger piece.  I did have one glitch in these dealings, but this column is not about that.

Let me start with the public employees I met face-to-face. There was the kind woman in the Social Security Administration office who took me to a quiet space for my interview and conducted that interview professionally, but took the time to sympathize when she noticed that my husband’s death occurred on our wedding anniversary. On the state side, I cannot praise enough the personnel in the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles where I retitled our cars. I arrived late in the day and late in the week. The waiting room was jammed with people. It always is. The lines were long. They always are. The staff must have been stressed and tired. But the people at the desks I visited were invariably courteous, professional and—best of all—efficient. And the security guard who earlier had helped me find the right line gave me a big smile and wished me a good evening as I went out the door. That may not sound impressive, but to someone in a period of emotional fragility, that kind of considerate treatment is priceless—and anything less is hurtful.        

Of course, most of my contacts—mainly with the Office of Personnel Management—were computerized. And there I also have to give great credit both to those who designed the process (clear, simple and quick) and to those who implemented it—to say nothing of the IT people who made it go smoothly. 

I came to public administration mid-career after spending years as a nurse. It is hard to think of a profession that has more personal contact with people often in the worst times of their lives. Patient-nurse relationships are one-on-one. Nursing is both highly technical and highly caring. I took that experience with me when I began to study the health of populations. When I worked as an analyst for Medicare, I had more than 40 million patients, but I knew who they were. I had spent my days with them for many years.

I sometimes feel a chill when perusing the public administration literature. Where are the people? If I were the proverbial alien from outer space looking at much of what we write, I would have difficulty discerning the purpose of our work. There is a famous scene in The Third Man where Orson Welles, high in a Ferris wheel, refers to the people on the ground as, “Dots.” Sometimes it seems that we visualize people the same way—if we visualize them at all. We count the dots, but we don’t listen to the stories from the people on the ground – which in the end is all of us.

In a 1989 critique of his discipline (International Journal of Epidemiology. 18:3, p.482), epidemiologist Mervyn Susser describes what happens when experts treat theories as reality. “Abstractions can encode the essence of a problem; the intellectual effort and rewards involved are not to be deprecated. Yet to work solely in abstractions is necessarily to float above the uneven surface of the mundane and the diverse.” But the impact of all our theoretical work actually occurs at the level of that uneven, mundane diverse surface.  

 It is easy to love all our models, our computer programs, all the metrics, jargon, charts and statistics that sometimes seem to dominate the profession. But, at base, public administration is a humanistic enterprise. I am asking all of us to remember that, at the end of the line, we find human beings. Some are simply relying on us to manage the things that make their lives livable: safe streets, trash collection, good schools, clean water. But others are in situations of extreme distress, sometimes even desperation.  Like my first profession, administering programs that significantly affect human lives should be a mixture of technical proficiency and compassion. Our research needs to look at the data and the people. If we lose ourselves in our algorithms, so to speak, we lose the people we serve too. “Good enough for government work,” needs to be better than that.

Author: Burden S Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN practiced as a registered nurse specializing in acute and critical care.  After leaving clinical practice, she worked as an analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and later taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk VA.  She has served as a consultant to a number of non-profit groups.  Presently, she divides her time between Virginia and Maryland. She can be reached at [email protected].

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