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Governing When the Margins Are Blurred

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

By Lisa Saye
June 11, 2023

@Sidelines Everybody, 2023, Photo and Title by Lisa Saye

Democracy’s soundtrack is voice. Inequality is a rusting industry. In the present era, democracy has no contemporary. It represents a continuous quarrel with injustice, inequality and corruption. It has not been a gentle ballad, but its lyrics are truly beautiful. Democracy knows that habit does not have to be tradition. As such, building and sustaining democratic and representative structures has always been a modern project in the current historical context. Good government rejects class creations and strives to evenly disseminate public goods across communities. This is the essence of democracy.

Democracy’s detractors are the leaves of its new branches. It’s true. I believe they are calling it the new math. Public service is also a leaf on that tree and it positions itself as the moderator of government. It blows with the winds of change, but most solidly, it blows against the winds of destruction. When government follows democratic concepts of equality and representation, public service is at its most efficient. In its finest moment, public service rescues the vulnerable and helps to remind them that they are worthy. 

In a world where resumé building has become competitive art, public service is inherently prescient. Not because of an ability to tell the future, but rather, directly from an ability to see through the blurring at the margins. Public Service is not a finesse, it is a calling. It is the customer-facing self-reflection of government. Its main challenge is to fill a specific deficit in the space of education, employment, transportation, social services or technology. This begins with designing particular public obligations that are often hidden away in policy narratives. Real public service recognizes the spectacle that distracts us and approaches need as need.

All the world can be thought of as nature living in balance-seeking political trees. While most of us enjoy the oxygen of freedom, many still wrestle against legislation that is almost gleeful in its exclusion of whole communities of citizens. This is a weird normality for too many people and a practice that has long ago run its course. The bizarre personality of inequality and injustice is a spreadsheet of interlocking confusions. The work of public administrators is to build and support the broken places in citizen’s lives. Not exclusively as social workers, though some work requires their skills, but through the dissemination of public goods that work as structural support for quick healing and continued progress. The work of public administrators is an honor, much like the honors we have all been raised to admire.

By design, governments are supposed to find and fill the gaps in services left by neglect, accident or ignorance. Data is supposed to help us find these gaps. Too often we think of data as counting. In public administration data isn’t merely counting. In public policy, data is the examination of a particular implementation. To relegate data to just numbers is like saying that acrylics, oils and watercolors are the only kinds of paint that an artist can use. Data sifts out real narratives and measures the success or failure of the words of a particular policy. And, it does this in season and more precisely, out of season.

What does policy failure look like? Does it include numbers or graphs? What number would make it clear that we need to double our efforts to help poor people in and around our community? Policy failure, big numbers, bad graphs and the lack of motivation to help poor and low-wealth communities are results of the chaotic way we deliver public services. Change these and we begin to see the lines we can’t see. Change these and policy leaves the sidelines and gets into the game. 

Public administration is the means we use when the lines are not clear and were probably never intended to be. It is the major approach in the purity of government change. It is the heart of the heart of good government. This is not a romantic idea or some sensational desire to pretend we are something we are not. It is because we are something we are not that we write. If we are to see through the haze of poorly constructed policies, we must cry, howl and moan against those policies that are written to divide. Fear is too fragile an emotion to work for too long. Our work, if we choose to accept it, is to try to perfect the essential parts of government that unite us, the parts that govern us and the parts that inspire us. Whether that happens on Turtle Island or in Timbuktu, this work must become a part of our voice. 

The Sidelines Everybody@ 2023 image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She also served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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