Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

How Did I Get Here?

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

By Dwight Vick
February 5, 2024

I suspect I am like many other public administration professors and practitioners. We pay attention to current events. Our students ask questions. So do the constituents and elected officials we serve. I watch the chaotic outcomes of presidential primaries. Then I recall the increased number of Congressional members who decided to leave the House and Senate. I then remember the conversations I have with friends who are street-level bureaucrats—K-12 teachers and college professors, social workers and plumbers for public water systems, border patrol agents and peace officers, nonprofit managers and public health care providers, etc. Many talk about feeling demoralized and overwhelmed by a plethora of issues that impact their programs and careers in their personal attempts to navigate a bimodal world. During one of these conversations, I recalled the 1980s rock band, Talking Heads, and their hit from the 1980s, Once in a Lifetime. A line repeated in the song is, “How did I get here?” I chuckled under my breath as I tried to answer the question that many friends and colleagues seemingly ask themselves.

I am an avid reader of PAR: Public Administration Review. Upon consciously asking myself this question, I recalled Dr. Jeremy Hall’s editorial in the September/October 2022 issue,“Raising Expectations: The War We Must Fight to Prevent One.” In it, Dr. Hall not only answers the question posed by the Talking Heads but also explains the times in which we live are and are not “the same as it ever was.” Dr. Hall was, and remains, correct.

Dr. Hall writes in his editorial, that our political leaders, at all levels of government, frame policy choices as wins and losses—the vitriolic back-and-forth policy-making had led to expressed frustration for bureaucrats thereby forcing them, us, into individualistic mindset. This forces us into pitting what seems to be a lack of concern for the policy-based common good, on their part, and absent of common sense that we implement on our part. He is correct, as are all of us street-level bureaucrats, in that we must “remain concerned” as public sector servants and citizens. This bitter fruit is grown on a tree with very deep roots.

The editorial links history and sociology to current events in ways few have. He helps answer the question, “How did I get here?” Since our conception, Americans have demanded the right to self-government. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis claimed the Civil War was not solely about slavery, at its beginning, but about independence. Over time, the South’s hypocrisy led Lincoln, Congress and Northern abolitionists to claim that freedom must exist for everyone. The war led our country into nationhood and away from sectionalism, at least to a point, by “embracing racial justice” for all, a process that Mark Twain, whom Dr. Hall often quoted in the editorial, eventually influenced us all over the upcoming but turbulent decades. 

Today, we face other forms of sectionalism. Issues such as race, gender, economic policy, gun control, abortion, police power, climate change, the false implication of critical race theory implemented at all levels of American education and the like separate us into isolated camps with few opportunities for dialogue in the no-man’s land that divide the camps. All citizens are bombarded by an increasing number of news sources and social media which unify and divide us along old and new sectional and demographic lines. But the division is not just national but also within states and communities. For public administrators, we face an insurmountable wall that forces us to choose while we serve. Hall quotes the infamous Rosemary O’Leary’s phrase, “guerilla government,” a term that describes how administrators respond when forced to choose between policies that collide with their personal and professional ethics or work against the implicit or explicit wishes of their political superiors. In short, having to choose between doing the right thing and what the policy says. Unless we examine values and biases, social change cannot occur at any level of government or society.

I lecture on the theory of nonviolent protest advocated by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King in social justice policy classes. While I discuss the third component, self-purification or reflection, I point my index finger at the class and ask them, “What does this imply?” Almost always, students say someone judges them or they are judging someone else. Then I point my finger upwards, exposing the three fingers coming back at me. This explains the third category, self-purification or reflection. When we, as public servants and citizens, focus more upon the three fingers rather than the one, we both individually and collectively reflect on our values and better practice them in all aspects of our lives.

Every few weeks, I have lunch with a friend who is a social worker and business owner. We try to answer the question, “How did we get here?” We agree and disagree. But we meet in that no-man’s land and leave feeling a part of and not apart from.

Thank you PAR and Dr. Hall for pointing out the answers lie within us to prevent the war that we fight now. 

Author: A graduate of Arizona State University, Dr. Dwight Vick has been as ASPA member for 30 years.  He is an instructor with Texas A&M International University and Thomas Edison State University as well as works with Texas area high schools teaching government, economics, political science, and English.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *