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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration — Toward New Benchmarks and Best Practices

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

By Siegrun Fox Freyss
November 4, 2014

Column 9: Toward a Democratic-Participatory Public Administration Model

Freyss octThe ever expanding communication capabilities of the information age are part of the paradigm shift from modern to postmodern organizational principles and practices. One can call one set of innovations the democratic-participatory public administration model, which is covered in this column. Another set, which I call the competitive, market-driven public administration model, will be covered in the next column. The description of the two sets is taken from my article “Local Government Operations and Human Resource Policies: Trends and Transformations,” published by ICMA in the 2004 Municipal Year Book.

The characteristics of the democratic-participatory public administration model can be summarized under two principles and practices:

  • Empowering rank-and-file employees to participate with management in decision making processes by:
  1. Using the knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as emotional intelligence, of all employees in the organization.
  2. Understanding that managers cannot know everything in a complex, ever-changing postmodern work context.
  3. Promoting bottom-up management rather than a top-down command style.
  4. Encouraging managers to seek improved performance by acting as facilitators, mentors or coaches, not by employing a command-and-control approach.
  5. Recognizing that, due to the complexity of issues, work teams may generate synergies and outcomes superior to work done by isolated individuals or isolated departments.
  • Empowering  citizens to collaborate with government officials in the delivery of public services by:
  1. Using the knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as emotional intelligence, of citizens.
  2. Creating government-citizen partnerships to pool the knowledge of stakeholders.
  3. Encouraging government experts to seek better, more satisfying outcomes by consulting with community groups.
  4. Recognizing that governments have limited resources in managing the commons and raising citizens’ quality of life.

The empowerment movement can work because employees and citizens are better educated than in the past; but employers may not be aware of unused resources.

My graduate students provide examples. They wish their superiors would consult them more. The failure to do so leads to an unhappy, quiet workplace. In talks on succession planning, the dire threat of losing institutional memory tends to be emphasized. My students, however, can hardly wait for the retirement of the baby boomers to bring their agency into the 21st century.

Empowering the public can be rewarding and lead to successful policies, but it can also create new challenges. The volunteers who show up for meetings can be a great asset, but the most vocal ones can also generate unnecessary discord. They have a great passion for their cause because they feel wronged or they feel the country is moving in the wrong direction. Books like Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems by Jeff Conklin provide some insights on how to deal with social complexity.

Other communication tools are websites. They can be built to empower and engage the public. Examples of such sites are highlighted by Government Technology with its award for “Best Government Websites for 2014.” The awardees—a state, a city and a county—were honored for expanding our vision of best practices in the field.

(State) Hawaii – Its website was recognized for “its elegant and beautiful design, ease of navigation,” and functionality, as well as for using game-design thinking to make the government website more engaging for citizens.

(City) Washington, D.C. – Its website was chosen because of the application of responsive design, social media integration, a simple interface, functionality, the use of GIS and access to nearly 500 data sets.

(County) Oakland County, Michigan – Its website received the award for its unique approach to mobility and for its attractive and simple interface with smart phones and other high-tech mobile devices.

The judges were not only impressed by the appearance and functionality of the websites, but also by the demonstrated increase in online traffic. The increases indicated that the jurisdictions saved money and time for customers and for agencies by reducing the need for phone calls and on-site visits.

Easy, Web-based access to government services may not lead to increased democratic involvement. Social media platforms offer better functionality, as for instance, Twitter. It has made an effort to cut through the noise of the Internet and become user-friendly for government stakeholders, be they political candidates, elected officials, public administrators, voters or service recipients. The link is https://media.twitter.com/government.

The Boston marathon bombing validated crowdsourcing and Twitter’s potential for law enforcement, considering the perpetrators were located within a few days. However, the police could not completely escape the traditional use of Twitter – the exchange of gossip. Boston police tried to tamp it down by tweeting “Stop making up fake Twitter accounts, stop tweeting our scanner, stop telling people where we’re going” and where SWAT teams are concentrating. In the end, Twitter highlighted the collaboration by inviting the chief of the Boston Police to the podium of the New York Stock Exchange to ring the bell for Twitter’s initial public offering.

In a 2012 report published by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, Ines Mergel (Syracuse University) provides a comprehensive report on how Twitter has been used by government agencies, as well as how it can be used successfully. She describes six best practices for public administrators:

  1. All social media interactions need to follow your organization’s social media strategy and resulting daily tactics.
  2. Don’t do it on your own!
  3. Curate content daily.
  4. Find a human voice.
  5. Keep routine updates among your team.
  6. Make sure to distinguish between your personal social media account and the organizational accounts you are responsible for.

Finally, what does the future hold for social media? In a recent Governing article, Colin Wood describes the “social media next frontier.” He sees signs “that people are tiring with what the first generation of social media offered and are clamoring for new possibilities. A future of integrated digital technologies that will transform the world is being built right now.”

Combined with the communication potential of high-tech devices, the democratic-participatory public administration style can accomplish a great deal; but it requires diverse competencies to be successful. The competencies range from deep knowledge of the subject matter, to visionary leadership and managerial skills, to emotional intelligence and the willingness to keep up with high-tech changes. These qualifications may not be present in one and the same person, but by applying democratic-participatory principles and practices, teams can be assembled whose members complement each other’s strengths.

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