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Power to Truth and Public Service

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

By Hillary Knepper
November 5, 2018

Truth to power is a rallying call to speak out in the face of injustice, to speak out against authoritarian regimes, to raise the voices of those vulnerable people among us. All of these are admirable and relate directly to the work of public service professionals. Yet, I want to flip this phrase to empower public service workers across the disciplines. I’m suggesting that we empower truth and data in our daily functions in public service – whether it is working in municipal management or a national non-profit, or teaching those who will manage future public services. In this essay, power to truth serves as a mobilizing frame for reclaiming the power of evidence and our ability to faithfully deploy facts in an effort to bring back civil discourse. We are the caretakers of the evidence, the implementers of policy and the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves. Running from unpleasant facts in a search for an elusive alternate “truth” has disconnected the power of administrators’ evidence based decisionmaking. The vibrant nature of a political system balanced by well-educated and well-trained administrators is currently at risk. But public service professionals can change this. They have the numbers to amplify those knowledgeable and expert voices.

Woodrow Wilson, for all his flaws, might be surprised at the lack of influence public administrators arguably wield today. More than 100 years of professionalizing public service boils down to the loss of power for truth. Currently, power seems to lie with those who control the popular narratives in the media streams. But, public service professionals have powerful voices in the United States. Our voices alone are more than 21 million people strong as the federal, state and local government workforce  In the non-profit sector, we hold more than 12 million jobs. Health care managers alone account for over 350,000 jobs. What does this mean? We can raise up our voices, regardless of our political affiliations, and speak up on behalf of science, evidence and doing the right thing. Perhaps as public service advocates, we need to remind everyone to occasionally put on the Veil of Ignorance  proposed by John Rawls and employed by Michelle Alexander in her recent New York Times piece, “What if We’re All Coming Back?

Remember, “Our role as public administrators is to empathize with the greater world around us even though backgrounds may be fundamentally different than our own.” – Emily Costa, October 2018

Power determines whose voice counts. Today’s volatile mix of politics makes truth irrelevant. Yet, power gets the business of government done, regardless of popularity or ease. Real power lies in doing what’s necessary. One example? After decades of effort the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 ended child labor – simultaneously creating a hardship for families who depended upon their wages and making strides in protecting and educating children. More recently, the “see something, say something” movement has facilitated widespread awareness about safety and security measures. Perhaps it is time for us to “see something, say something” to empower truth. Perhaps we leverage O’Leary’s guerilla government… of sharing information and knowledge as a power disruptor when necessary.

We’ve witnessed a steady decline in the people’s trust in government. The idea that public servants are a vast network of conspiracists subverts the work and history of how we’ve gotten to this point. How do we regain the power of truth? Information and contacts. We have the day to day contact with the public. We are credible.

Our duty is to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness…” – Wilson, 1887

Here are suggestions for building the power of truth:

  • Change the dialogue. Promote the diversity of public service folks in all their disciplines, affiliations, shapes and sizes. Public administrators are both highly educated professional administrators and experienced working class professionals.
  • Loudly share information in transparent and easily accessed ways. The clearer our message and the more accessible our data points, the more traction our credible information gains.
  • Volunteer to teach workshops and lessons about civics – from children to seniors, remind everyone about the role of public service professionals in promoting a civil society.
  • Bring back civil discourse and respect for divergent opinions. Model the ability to disagree and to build consensus for divisive decisions.
  • End the winner take all mentality. Compromise is a skill well worth building and nurturing.

As we strive to rebuild the reputation of public service in all of its iterations, we must promote the power of truth. In the words of the immortal Tupac Shakur from his song “Changes,”

It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other… Things will never be the same.”


Author: Hillary J. Knepper, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Public Administration, Pace University [email protected] Dr. Knepper brings over 20 years’ administrative experience as a practitioner in the public and nonprofit sectors to her work in academia. Her most recent work appears in Public Integrity, PA Times On-Line, and Nursing Outlook. She is the incoming co-editor of the Journal of Health & Human Services Administration.

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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.

2 Responses to Power to Truth and Public Service

  1. hillary Reply

    November 9, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you Ernie!

  2. Ernie Joaquin Reply

    November 5, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Glad to read this.

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