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Lessons from the Government Shutdown

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

By Michael Ford
February 5, 2018

Needs are infinite, resources are finite and values are contested. Such is the reality of public administration in a democracy, and public employees are used to working effectively under this reality. But sometimes it seems our nation’s values are more contested than normal. Exhibit A: The federal government’s recent shutdown. What can we, the public administration community, learn from the shutdown? There are several lessons, some encouraging, some not so encouraging.

Foremost, the inability of our government to keep its doors open is embarrassing. I am reminded of the meme — construction workers misspelling the word “school” on the pavement in front of a school juxtaposed with the phrase, “You had one job.” Funding the basic operations of the federal government is a pretty low bar for our elected officials. Making things worse, many will likely see the shutdown as a failure of government rather than a failure of politics.

The good news is the shutdown did not last long. The recognition that the shutdown of the federal government was a crisis demanding quick resolution speaks to the widespread acceptance that the work of the federal government is essential. Though politicians and pundits may speak to government’s flaws (some real, some imagined, some that exist solely in the eye of the beholder), I heard very few voices clamoring for the shutdown to continue. Simply, America needs a functioning federal government, and policymakers and citizens alike realized it.

The shutdown also reminded me that the politics-administration dichotomy, though understood much differently today than in Woodrow Wilson’s time, still very much exists. Before, during and after the shutdown, politicians did what politicians do: they talked, debated and stood up for their constituencies and eventually reached a solution. And, of course, they played the blame game; both sides of the political aisle placed the responsibility for the shutdown squarely at the other’s feet. Standing out to me, however, was the professionalism of federal employees. If a private sector employee is told not to come to work and that they will not be paid, chances are that employee is looking for a new job. What I saw from federal employees was a recognition that these things can happen in public service. What I did not hear were public complaints and/or placing of blame. This is not to suggest that administration is superior to politics, but only that politics and administration remain very different animals.

I also much appreciated the good humor of local government. For example, Wisconsin’s Washington County government tweeted on January 22: “As a result of decades of balanced budgets & nearly 2 centuries of pragmatic governance ALL WASHINGTON COUNTY OFFICES WILL REMAIN OPEN every day this week, & next week, & the following weeks.” Indeed, nothing highlights the steady predictability of most local governments like a little bit of dysfunction at the federal level. The humor also speaks to the wisdom of federalism, as most services hummed right along despite the federal shutdown.

Perhaps the most depressing lesson from the shutdown is the certainty it will happen again. The compromise reopening government keeps things moving for less than a month, and even if there is a less temporary solution in the near-term, history suggests future shutdowns are inevitable. As long as the federal budgeting process remains a case study in muddling through, we should expect the crisis of the day to dictate budget negotiations and actions.

From the administrative side, however, the issue of messy politics should be mostly irrelevant. I am not naïve enough to suggest that politics has no impact on the day-to-day work of administrators; funding decisions, regulations, public criticism, etc., of course impact the capacity and quality of government. However, our field’s charge is not to fix political problems, and we cannot simply blame political failures for administrative challenges.

To repeat myself: the administrator must make the best of a situation where needs are infinite, resources are finite and values are contested. If you accept Michael Lipsky’s argument which citizens tend to judge government based on their interactions with it, administrators have no choice but to meet the political reality where it is at and continue to find creative and innovative ways to succeed in a challenging environment. The biggest lesson from the shutdown is that our country needs a functioning government actively serving the needs of citizens. Though bureaucrats do not have the power to avert the next shutdown, they do have the ability to demonstrate the competency, professionalism and passion for public service that illustrates just how essential government is to our society.


Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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