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No Problem

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

By John Carroll
January 9, 2015

Carroll janPerhaps it is a reaction to age or passage of time, but the common response I hear of late from service industry workers during transactions is “no problem.” What happened to “yes” or “you’re welcome” or something similar? I am not sure how this crept into the service daily dialogue to become a more universal response.

For this month’s theme, we are to presume that big problems can be solved by connecting citizens with government. Life should be that simple. In light of the “No Problem” era, what then constitutes a big problem?

Poverty? This past year marked the much heralded 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty.” Are we better off today? Maybe. Still a big problem? Yes.

What about education, crime, immigration, terrorism/warfare, government debt, affordable health care, and the list can go on? How many big problems was actually the result of government policies?

To attempt to frame the conversation, are citizens or government to decide what a big problem is and how to solve it?  At what level of government – federal, state or local? We have over 90,000 units of government that provide a vast array of services and hopefully address problems in their respective jurisdictions. If we were to harken back to former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil who said “all politics is local,” then can we say that all problems are local too? After all, local is where the citizens reside.

When community policing took off in the 1990s (virtually alongside the “Reinventing Government” movement toward results oriented management), a centerpiece of the philosophy was law enforcement connecting directly with citizen groups. It was revolutionary at the time. The intent was to gauge their perception of the problems in their neighborhoods, and those perceptions were often markedly different from those that served them.

Citizens perceived order maintenance (loud music, traffic, etc.) as the “big problems,” while the professional administrators saw more serious criminal behavior. These perceptions appeared to be consistent across the country. For a philosophy like community policing to be successful, citizens and government had to refocus priorities and work together.

Perspective, then, is paramount to identifying the big problems. In the emergency management field, deploying resources in response to an event is measured by the scope of the event. In a jurisdiction with limited resources, an event might easily become a disaster – a big problem – while in another with access to more resources, the event may be more routine in nature. However, no matter the scope of the event, to the victim – the citizen – it is always a disaster or big problem.

Ideology certainly comes into the picture. In an era when the extremes control debates, one side is continuously bent on dominating the other in a “win at all costs” mentality. When one side or the other seeks to monopolize the discussion, how can we ever agree on what is a “big problem,” much less how to solve it? How do we find common ground there?

For example, the biggest piece of federal social legislation in many years, the Affordable Care Act (popularly referred to as Obamacare) was passed when one side controlled the legislative and executive branches. Not a single supporting vote was cast by the other side, which shows that no compromise was ever seriously considered. Agree or disagree with the Act, this is no way to frame a conversation.

Part of our theme also pre-supposes that citizens should be better connected to government. How much better connected can citizens become? There has never been a time when technology has enabled citizens to so easily become more involved in government – if they choose to do so. Outlets like the continuous news cycle, the Internet and social media contribute to this unprecedented access.

Government can still reach out to citizens to encourage more involvement. There are public access channels, regularly broadcast council/commission meetings, and many other access points to government. Most local meetings, schools boards, and the like are fairly mundane events – until there is an issue or problem that touches citizens in a way that they turn out.

For example, the voter turnout in 2014 general election was the lowest since 1942. While the media and government elites scolded the American people for this threat to our republic, one can argue that many citizens simply chose not to participate.

Reinventing Government was noted earlier, because after 20+ years and efforts at all levels of government to become more accountable for results, we actually tried to be better at identifying and solving problems. Often, we would try to address small problems before they mushroomed into big problems (i.e., The “Broken Windows” theory in criminology).

Our joint citizen/government approach should be to identify and tackle the small problems first. Let us find some common ground across ideology to small problem solutions and then work toward an understanding of what constitutes a “big problem” and how we can solve it. Then we can join with the service industry to confirm this era of “No Problem.”

Author: John J. Carroll, Ph.D., is an assistant professor for public administration at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Before joining academia, he served in the public sector for more than 30 years. He is a retired deputy sheriff major and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He has published book chapters and in refereed journals, and made numerous paper presentations to conferences. His research and teaching interests include public administration from the “prac-ademic” perspective.

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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.

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