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It Is Always a Pivotal Moment in Public Administration

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

By Benjamin Deitchman
March 25, 2024

The presidential election season is always an opportunity to reflect on the world as it was four years ago, but even as we are faced with the same presidential choices as in 2020, life in 2024 is a sharply different reality. The early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic remain significant but feel distant. Barely leaving one’s house, taking special precautions when visiting grocery stores, professional sports in bubbles without spectators and exclusively virtual education and happy hours seem like relics of a long-ago era.  It is still, however, easy, obvious and correct to declare that, despite some memory holes, those experiences have shaped contemporary public policy and public administration. As fields that respond to events and society, there is always something reshaping and reframing governance needs and the public interest.

I cannot remember an election where people did not say it was the most important election of our lifetimes. In hindsight I tend to believe that the most important election of my lifetime for me personally was probably one of the Bedford Central School District’s School Board and School Budget votes in the 1990s or 2000, as those contentious ballots shaped the education and opportunities that then shaped me into who I am today. The superlative framing of elections is clearly sometimes hyperbolic, but we would be living in a different world if different candidates won past elections. Even where the status quo prevails, our changing influences, technologies and climate always require adaptation and reconsideration.

Public policy and public administrative professionals outside of elective office have impacted our present and our future throughout the history of democracy. Robert Moses, called The Power Broker in Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, controversially shaped the land use and transportation system of today’s New York, leading in his roles entirely through appointed offices in the middle of the twentieth century. In the modern media ecosystem, there is more opportunity for the public to recognize their administrators, sometimes with negative impacts. In 2018 ABC fired Roseanne Barr from her eponymous and highly rated Rosanne sitcom reboot for a racist social media post. Her vitriol was not directed as an elected official, but rather a former White House staffer, Valerie Jarrett. In Downtown Atlanta I regularly recognize government employees who are famous or infamous for their association or opposition to the actions of Former President Donald Trump.

Amidst the spotlight of contemporary society, public policy and public administration scholars and professionals continue in their multitude of roles to serve the public interest. Public policy is embedded not just into our careers, but into our everyday lives. Even a hermit living in the forest and avoiding human contact can exist in the wilderness due to conservation and protections facilitated by governmental and non-governmental administrators. The pandas at the Zoo Atlanta that children and adults alike admire and enjoy are not just impressive animals, but the result of complicated diplomacy and logistics between China, the United States and various public and private partners. Public policy and public administration are often misunderstood, but they are fundamental and essential services.

Many students, scholars and practitioners may have started in student government, learning to balance sometimes trivial interests among their peers, moving forward into the field today dealing with significant real-world problems. The challenges of administering the DMV are different than administering the DMZ on the Korean border, but as a broad discipline with various opportunities for specialization within the defined parameters, the responsibility to serve the public is a fundamental calling. While public service is often a solemn and serious endeavor, it can also be fun. Popular culture is full of entertainment that borrows from the experience of public administrators to entertain and inform. The interaction between sports and public policy is sometime unnecessarily contentious, but athletics can inform and be informed through this field of human endeavor. Not everyone may find the minutia of government budgets and regulations fun, but those of us who do relish this work.

As we move into the second quarter of the twenty-first century public administration, as usual, is at a pivotal moment. We do not know what the world will look like four years from now, but we do know that governance structures will continue to facilitate humanity and the environment around us. We also do not yet know what skills or competencies the next generation will need to succeed in their roles and careers.  We do, however, know that a commitment to public service and the public interest will remain essential goals to our society. If we can grow and retain a well-oriented mindset there is reason for optimism in our field, country and around the world.    

AuthorBenjamin Deitchman is a public policy professional in Atlanta, Georgia.  He is currently working to develop a book connecting public policy, public administration, and popular culture to introduce and inspire the next generation in our field.  His email address is deitchmanb at gmail dot com. 

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