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Public Administration: 10,000 Hours Times Infinity

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

By Lisa Saye
December 12, 2022

Oeil d’affiche , Photo and Title by Lisa Saye

Democracy is a multi-sensed term that in its purity means freedom. It is packaged and distributed almost everywhere. Its reach is vast, its geography encompassing, but it is certainly more than real estate. Public service is democracy’s permanent and indisputable line item. It is not a faded outline of a lofty idea or an attempt at artful expressions of policy. Not even close. Public administration’s process of public service is organized around real access and real equality which are resourceful parts of democracy’s critical infrastructure.

Painted art is mimicry in color or in black and white. But, that is not all that art is or can be. Public administration has a number of unmemorable definitions traditionally defined within the limits that words provide. Its definitions, like art’s interpretations, are not all that it is or all that it can be. People give a physical presence to the administration of government. People give and apply ontological meaning to the intent of programs. The kind of meaning and the kind of intent that you cannot record on a phone camera. Meaning and intent that when it is administered well is not magic, but rather is its logical and most accurate conclusion.

Public administration is the operational diary of our service to ourselves. Policies and programs are its pages. There have been some famous diaries that have documented life’s truths, its triumphs and its tragedies. Some diaries have been life-changing or revelatory, but they have always been very moving. Public administration documents our efforts to change the future in the present. It is the means we use to distinguish policy from promise, both then and now. Public administration is foundation and foundational. It meets the needs of the public through the appropriate level of compassion and concern. That means also serving and governing citizens whose shelters are nylon and polyester. Extreme homelessness is the furthest sway from the promise of a government that values the condition of its people.

Have we ever really given ourselves over to democracy completely? Are we afraid that if we do then we will have no excuse but to govern the right way? The truth, metaphorically, is that we are democracy’s architects. And as its architects, we can choose to build a strong structure or choose to build one that is destined to fall someday. This is the power that we transfer to material objects that have little to no public good for the people we serve. And it is in this kind of instability that our commitment to the principles of public service are tested. 

Democracy calls for our active participation in our own governance. We select, we choose, we debate, we conclude. When we don’t do any portion of these things as part of a collective citizenry, it is then that we rudely ignore democracy’s origin story that calls for majority rule. Democracy is one of society’s original trolls. It never fails to find us where we are and remind us where we should be. Public administration is 10,000 hours times infinity. It is the process model of democracy within a structure of implementation whereby the dreams of the marginalized become the hope of future’s citizens.

No one holds a monopoly on power or influence, no matter how much they would like to think that they do. Power is supremely inviting, but public service is the essential resource in a democratically productive government. Time has shown that democracy is exceptionally productive because every encounter between a public administrator and a citizen is a mini opportunity to build something greater and to reconnect the government and the people.

Like democracy, public administration has survived the clumsy centuries of political pageantry. Public administration has grown from a notion about government operations to a fully developed discipline. It has no believable impersonators. It is another discussion around the visible aspects of governance. One essential aspect being that of service efficiency in the delivery of public goods. It is the other discussion of politics and policy and it always should be.

Tis the season for kindness and reflection, right? For public administrators, this should be every season and for most it is. It is not our marketing strategy. It is simple outreach to those who need it, be it December, March or June. Good public service is the collective realities of what we have found to be the best practice for effective service delivery. Good public service is the investment from the workforce of individuals that help the government fulfill its duty of advancing humanity. It is a guarantor against poverty, inequality and injustice in the dissemination of public goods and services. Good public service doesn’t come with pretty ornaments or shiny bells. But, for those who are in need, it doesn’t have to.

The ‘Oeil d’affiche’ image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye is OSO Director for the District of Columbia at America Works in Washington, D.C.. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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