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The Important Job of a Public Administrator

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Stephanie M. Moore

Remember career day? The one day of the year you got to dress up like the person you wanted to be when you grew up. Or the other type of career day when parents would come in and talk about what they did as grownups. Kids most often gravitate towards such lofty jobs as president, superhero, mayor, firefighter or police officer. What you may not have realized is that all of these lofty careers are jobs that serve the public. Perhaps kids select these types of careers because these jobs sound fun, helpful and rewarding and it seems kids have an innate passion to please others.

public_administratorA career in public service and public administration is indeed a lofty, important, fun, helpful and rewarding job, but not always the most glamorous, respected, highest paid or easiest job. So why even choose a career as a public administrator? There are many reasons, but one primary reason is to serve residents and keep cities and towns running smoothly and efficiently.

In recent years, keeping cities and towns running smoothly and efficiently has been especially challenging for public administrators. The housing market collapse triggered far-flung economic distress across every sector. Markets are just now experiencing some reprieve from the distress. This challenging economic environment makes choosing a career in public administration even more challenging and interesting.

Seasoned public administrators are retiring in record numbers. Recruitment and attraction of new and younger practitioners is taking place. Government and public administration trade organizations are leading campaigns to tout the importance and rewards of public administration. The International City/County Management Association’s current campaign, Life, Well Run, is to recruit and attract young professionals into the public administration profession. The time is ripe to continue, expand or join the public administration profession.

Another challenge to a public administrator is running a city with limited funding. Practically every year federal funding from nearly every funding source has been reduced. Federal programs are receiving more scrutiny from Washington, D.C. This has resulted in cuts to programs, program changes and programs that are more difficult to administer.

Competitive grants are becoming even more competitive as more cities face similar funding challenges. Budget and program reductions, furloughs, pay and hiring freezes have become commonplace as cities and towns struggle to maintain a balanced budget. These types of budget challenges are just the thing that attracts passionate public administrators. Practitioners who love a good puzzle and enjoy a good challenge should consider choosing a career in public administration.

By default, choosing a career as a public administrator means accepting a career as a public servant. The ability to acknowledge and play to this fact will lead to a more successful and rewarding career. Public service is a rewarding but challenging career. The ability to assist a community to achieve its full potential is reward enough. A public servant is generally serving the community from behind the scenes. If everything is operating smoothly, a good public servant is rarely seen by the public.

Selecting a career in public administration is not about public accolades or about just having a job. Public administration is about having the passion to serve residents and the city. Public administration is about public service. Public administration is about serving the residents, working with elected officials and respecting the knowledge of the staff. All the while staff are challenged to continually improve and stay ahead of the curve or better yet setting the curve.

City government is structured to provide residents with their basic needs. Every resident expects utilities to be readily available at the touch of a finger; roads to be functional; and trash to be picked up. However, residents also rely on public administrators to be proper stewards of the community’s resources and decision-making. When needs arise or disasters strike, man-made or natural, the residents seek assistance, guidance and direction from the public servants at city hall. Public administration is about working smarter, not harder, to solve community challenges with stakeholders, elected officials and staff for the greater good of the community.

When development and planning decisions must be made, residents trust that the public administrators will conduct the research and make the best decisions for the community. Public administrators must make these decisions based not only on experience and staff expertise, but also within the purview of the laws, regulations and ordinances that govern the decision. Generally, these types of decisions are conducted behind the scenes and presented to the governing bodies for a final vote. The public is generally a passive observer with little or no input. This structure of governing is challenging for all parties involved– the residents, governing body and public administrators. This is even more reason for public administers to conduct themselves as public servants.

Public administration requires not only fair and ethical decision-making and problem solving skills, but passion, determination and drive. These are essential to carry out though at times mundane. These are daily tasks that must be performed as a public servant. Without the passion for the mission of public administration, without the determination for fair and quality decision-making and without the drive to move beyond setbacks, the career will not be very rewarding and the resulting public service will mediocre at best.

It takes a passionate and driven type of person to accept the challenge of a public administrator. The reward of a job well done is the culmination of a project, whether it is the successful completion of a multi-billion dollar project, or the successful completion of a grass-roots neighborhood project. The pride of a job well done is why you choose a career in public administration. Public administration, when executed with the greater good of the public in mind, results in strong, vibrant, productive and proud communities.

So if you have the pride, passion, drive and determination to work thanklessly behind the scenes to serve the residents and make a lasting positive impact on the community then you should choose a career in public administration. If your passion for public service is so powerful that you naturally inspire and motivate those around you, then you can rediscover and reignite that “career day kid” energy and passion and harness that energy into your public service profession.


Author: Stephanie M. Moore has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Urban Administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is a Program Supervisor for the Community Development Department at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS.

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