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Local Government and Active Public Sector Management

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

By Lisa Saye
June 13, 2022

Seven out of ten government employees are local public administrators—the people we see every day. They are the folks we know and the folks that know us. Local government is not sessile. It is the machinery that moves the nation through mechanisms of policy and program intent. It is funded and unfunded, it is formal and informal and its public servants are fluent in all of it.

Local government meets not only the immediate needs of citizens, but it also meets or addresses a host of other needs almost as an automatic response. Government as an entity is beyond budgets, buildings, parking decks and break rooms. Active public sector management sees what we don’t see. These public administrators make predictions and strategic decisions using historical parallels and best practices noted for working. The fact that local governments around the United States do this consistently demonstrates the capability of the government’s most valuable resource—its workforce. The work of local government is a triumph over cynicism by establishing hope again and again and day after day.

The pandemic challenged local government and strained active public sector management in ways we are still reading about. Every city became its own case study on public service delivery and struggled for efficiency as its workers became remote, its supplies were low and its agency websites were crashing. There were surprises and complaints from many, but local public administrators steadied the ship because they know that democracy has no sub-level. It is all or it is nothing.

The pandemic reminded us that the definition of a public good should be immersed in the condition of survival. A key component of active public sector management is that leadership never forgets this. Public service makes the distance between needs and between needs met much smaller and the pandemic did not dismantle this truth. While policy and funding act as foundational seed capital, local public service moves us past the fear of losing our way.

Local government uses a host of tools to accomplish our immediate vocation of collective public service. Screening interviews for open positions in government have increased, thereby reducing the number of in-person interviews characteristic of pre-pandemic recruiting. Lessons from the past two years will definitely impact departments of public health as it relates to medical staffing, mental health care, vaccine roll-outs and disease testing. How that looks will depend on a particular city’s priorities, on its available resources and on the needs of its citizens. The pandemic taught us to do more with less and helped us to remember why honesty has to be the moral copyright of the soul.

Students of public administration will most likely agree that local government represents a city’s administrative core. Its practical application can be measured through surveys or in program evaluations and its effectiveness is quantified through data analytics. Public service is a measure of the resilience of local government. It is a language that needs no subtitles because its essence is felt immediately and understood through word and deed. Active public sector managers stress the importance of maintaining and understanding this relationship to the public and for the public. 

Everything is not back to pre-pandemic normal as yet. Baby formula is low, gas is high, inflation is rising, supplies are late, understocked or overstocked. At the time of this writing, the United States has lifted its requirement for Covid testing to enter the country with a caveat for reinstatement if necessary. We are seeing fewer masks in public and hand-sanitizer has been largely restocked everywhere. Remote working is being debated and discussed all over the world—the United States included. Whether an option for remote work will become a tool of recruitment and retention of public employees has yet to be seen. Some governments already offer a form of remote work, though not for every position. Its adoption would represent a sea change in service delivery and HR textbooks will need to add a section about it in its chapter on personnel.

I feel a renaissance (small r) is upon us. I feel it is a natural and welcomed renewal of commitment to the citizens and I am eager to see the manifestations of that commitment going forward. For sure, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for the extraordinary job our local governments accomplished these past few years. We owe them a lot. But more than anything, we owe them our admiration for understanding that the moral costs of dismantling the certainties of democracy would be equally as devastating as the germ we couldn’t see.

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 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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