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My Last Column

This article appeared in the Summer print issue of PA TIMES.

Paul Posner

Fittingly, this is my last column. Someone said to me at our San Jose conference that being immediate past president of any organization is the best job in America! Well there is some truth to that. You finally get your life back and can still work with colleagues to continuing building ASPA and the public service together.

As I look back on my years as an officer and President of ASPA, I can say that they have been times full of trouble for the economy, the public sector and organizations like ours. However, I feel we have not let a crisis go to waste, as they say. Rather, we have responded to seize on new opportunities for growth and renewal. Meredith Newman, our new President, has coined the phrase “ASPA on the move” to encompass the growing range of activities we are taking on.

If I had to select one phrase that captures my own driving ambition for ASPA in my tenure, it would be to make our organization as expansive as our field. This means being an umbrella that welcomes the increasingly diverse range of sectors, whether they be nonprofit or private contractors, that do public value work. It also means being an organization that reaches for big ideas and for impact in the worlds of scholarship and public policy alike.

As I look back on our recent initiatives, the first thing to say is that none of them
are my own initiatives, but represent the healthy synergy of a wonderful band of
officers, excellent ASPA staff and a vital network of volunteers. Among the most
important new initiatives:

  • A wonderful annual conference in San José that exceeded our most optimistic expectations. With over 1000 registrants and first rate nationally prominent speakers, we are on the way to becoming once again that unique organization that can “get it all together” –high level academics and practitioners from all levels of government and sectors to focus on common issues.
  • A student representative on the National Council to give voice and add vitality from our newest professional members.
  • The phasing in of PA TIMES to become a partial online publication. Borne out of fiscal necessity, due to rising postage and printing, we have turned this crisis to our advantage and members are already seeing first-hand the advantages of having online material available far more quickly than the older format.
  • The formation of a new network focused on the important contributions of the nonprofit sector to our field.
  • The beginning of a new policy engagement process for ASPA. The National Council passed new rules of engagement, and we now have a process in place for ASPA to gain a voice in the deliberations of high level officials on selected issues where we can add unique value. President Obama’s Personnel Management Director John Berry was instrumental in facilitating ASPA’s engagement with high level officials on pay and performance reforms, and Kathy Newcomer, of George Washington University, is leading a comparable effort on ASPA’s behalf with OMB on evaluation.

ASPA has reaped some reward from these initiatives, as well as from the inspired and dedicated efforts of Antoinette Samuel and her wonderful staff. Unlike many nonprofits, neither our finances nor our membership experienced a free fall. This is not to say that we didn’t make sacrifices – for instance, the staff had to take a furlough this year. But prospects are now stabilizing and even improving.

This says something about the continued vitality in broader public service. While the sky still appears to be falling over the public service thanks to the economic recession, in fact there are several bright spots that offer a glimmer of promise. The challenges we now face in the public sector in fact constitute a double edged sword that contain the seeds of our renewal. Examples include:

  • The fiscal crisis is ushering in very difficult sacrifices, but the public sector as a whole often emerges stronger and more efficient. This is not to say that some cuts fall on those least able to deal with them, but it does suggest that fiscal firestorms can spawn great creativity and necessary, if difficult, choices. Public officials have had to face up to simmering problems that many viewed as unsustainable issues waiting for a crisis. The efforts of many states to rethink “three strikes and you’re out” was prompted by the fiscal crisis, borne from the recognition that many state prisons were becoming nursing homes for permanent prisoners.
  • The retirement of the baby boom workforce presents real challenges for public managers, facing the leaching of seemingly indispensable sources of institutional knowledge. Yet, this “crisis” is spawning creative efforts to retain “seasoned” workers, joining up in unique intergenerational partnerships within public agencies. And it is presenting unparalleled opportunities for governments to proactively shape the workforce of the future. The ascension of younger workers into positions of responsibility has already borne fruit for ASPA and many public administration programs, as first time managers come to recognize the need to upgrade their skills and networks.
  • The fiscal pressures and public restiveness taking the form of anti-government crusades itself can be a force promoting greater cohesion and networking among the many far flung public agencies and networks. Our notoriously specialized public service has a way of realizing we are in the same boat when a crisis of money or confidence casts its shadow on all who work in our noble profession. The surprisingly high turnout at our San Jose conference in a state suffering from furloughs and budget cuts, in my view, partially reflects the greater recognition of being part of a common profession during these hard times.

I want to add that I look forward to working with Meredith Newman who is adding her characteristic energy and insight in strengthening and expanding our organization. It will be my privilege to continue to serve with her.

ASPA member Paul Posner is ASPA’s immediate past president. Email: [email protected].

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