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Optimism In a Time of Political Chaos

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

By Michael R. Ford
October 13, 2019

I recently opened my twitter feed and saw a video of President Trump openly calling for Ukraine and China to investigate his political opponents. This morning I watched my hometown Senator, the Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, publicly declare that he does not trust the FBI or CIA. Flipping between CNN, MSNBC and FoxNews is like taking a journey through three different nations. Our current politics, to put it mildly, are chaotic. How should those of us working in public service feel? Public Administration (PA) is grounded in fact, professionalism and rationality; it is easy to be discouraged by national political events. But should we be?

I suppose it is ok to be discouraged with politics. The tidal wave of breaking news, talking heads, misinformation and partisan groupthink can be dizzying. But such is the reality of politics in a society with divided values and an unprecedented ability for citizens to find comfort in the news outlets that adhere or our worldview. But we cannot afford to let our discouragement with politics erode our confidence in the future of PA.

I took heed of my own advice at last month’s annual Midwest Public Affairs Conference (MPAC) hosted by the O’Neil School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The gathering of ASPA’s Midwestern regional affiliate gave me plenty of reasons for optimism. This year’s theme-less conference attracted papers on a wide variety of topics from scholars using diverse methodologies. The breadth of our field, and its corresponding willingness to adopt methods from other disciplines, demonstrates our ability to be creative in finding realistic solutions to governance problems. The state of our politics may create governing problems, but we have plenty of tools to address these problems.

The large graduate student presence at MPAC also inspired confidence in the next generation of PA scholars and practitioners. I often fear that partisan political divisions, combined with the steady drumbeat of derision for the administrative state in some quarters, discourages younger folks from pursuing a career in PA. Thus far those fears are unfounded. The graduate students at MPAC were to person positive, solution-focused and dedicated to public service. As important, there research ideas were innovative and thoughtfully executed. I travelled home comforted that the field will be in good hands for quite awhile.

But nothing gave me more confidence in the potential of PA to weather the current political storm than Mary E. Guy’s keynote address. Dr. Guy spoke of the importance of empathy and positivity in governance. It is no secret that folks often interact with government in times of vulnerability, a little bit of kindness and understanding can improve people’s experience with bureaucrats, and ultimately increase trust in our institutions. Dr. Guy also discussed the natural desire of people to follow positive leaders, emphasizing that it is much easier to buy into a vision of optimism than one of pessimism. It is ok to be pessimistic about politics, but it is essential that we be optimistic about the potential of our administrative institutions.

Aside from being a fundamentally decent worldview, the embrace of empathy and positivity as core governance principals is enticing because it is executable across all contexts of public service. Employees of the CIA and FBI cannot force Senators to trust them. Academics cannot research or lecture away dishonesty from our politicians. A dedication to professionalism and evidence-based decision-making will not dampen political passions and the extreme rhetoric such passions bring. But, those of us working in public service can be positive in the face of political crises by continuing to pursue solutions to governance problems. We can exercise empathy in our professional interactions in ways that build citizen trust. To put it another way, we do not have to powerlessly throw our hands in the air and complain about politics; We can be constructive.

In summary, the broader PA community has the ability, and even the duty, to provide a constructive continuity in government during this time of political crisis. Politicians will come and go. Our current crisis will end. Future crises will occur. The values of the electorate will continue to change in unpredictably ways. What will not change is the necessity of an administrative state dedicated to PA’s core values of efficiency, effectiveness, economy and equity. Though I speak broadly of the administrative state, our administrative institutions are comprised of individuals who can be empathetic to and positive regarding the individuals and communities they serve. In this time of challenge, we can be our best.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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