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Public Administration and the 2022 Mid-term Elections

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
March 28, 2022

Over the past few decades, the United States has become increasingly fractionalized. The political landscape has evolved based upon factors such as the emergence of the post-truth environment, the expanding wealth gap, changing demographics and communications technologies permitting individuals to create their own online information “bubbles.”  This has contributed to a contentious political environment, which is unlikely to reverse soon. It will escalate as we approach the midterm elections. As public administrators, we must consider how this contentious environment might affect public service delivery.

The Risk

Public sector agencies are expected to provide effective, efficient and responsive services to their communities. They are expected to do so in a professional, unbiased, apolitical manner. Most public sector agencies, their leadership and their employees embrace this ideal. Most members of the community interact with public agencies in a civil manner. Serious conflicts are rare. However, within the current environment it is all too easy for individuals to let their passions inflame them, affecting their interpersonal interactions. This might contribute to public employees acting unprofessionally, uncivilly or performing in a substandard manner to both members of the public and to their coworkers. The same environment might contribute to members of the public treating public employees poorly. This might contribute to increased stress and tension in the workplace, which might subsequently contribute to diminished professionalism, decreased service quality and the tarnishing of the agency’s image.

Remain Mission Focused

Many performance problems in public agencies may be addressed by focusing on the mission. Most public sector agencies possess a formal or informal mission statement, value statement, vision statement or slogan which serves to guide behavior. It tends to be idealistic, focused on service and might be used to create unity of effort. Public sector leaders would be well served ensuring all employees are seeking to achieve the mission. They might also seek to market the agency to the public, stressing the professional services available and how to access them. Aside from being a foundational platform upon which to build continuous process improvement, it can be used to remove the potential negative effects of personal values or beliefs being introduced into the workplace, instead shifting the view of all to the mission of the agency and the services provided.

Remain Proactive

If a public sector leader takes no action until a problem arises, it is probably too late to deal with it effectively. This applies not only to the technical challenges we face at work, but to the types of interpersonal challenges we might find related to political discourse within the workplace. They must be sensitive to the potential for problems, but ensure they do not contribute to an environment where such problems flare-up. They must be alert to changes in attitudes and performance within the workplace, as well as relationships between employees and other employees, their leadership and the public. If any concern is noted, it must be investigated quickly. Most concerns will be relatively minor, addressed in a simple, quick fashion. However, always remember large fires begin with small sparks. To prevent a large fire, you either prevent the spark or extinguish the small flames before they spread. This might be addressed through refocusing on the mission, but it might take more direct intervention. If necessary, it might include mentoring, coaching, counseling or disciplining the employee. It might require some form of educational outreach to the public. If the concern is related to potential or actual violence, the engagement of law enforcement might become necessary. The general guidelines are (1) be aware it could happen, (2) try to minimize it happening, (3) scan the environment to see if it does happen and (4) if it does happen, address it promptly and effectively.

Contingency Planning for Threats and Violence

We may never know what happened on January 6, 2021, but at some point, elements of a peaceful political assembly became a violent and destructive mob. We have seen similar events at local and state government functions across the nation. At times, passions run high, boiling over from acceptable to unacceptable behavior, which might take the form of violence. From a risk management standpoint, it is a low-probability, high-risk, non-discretionary event. Public sector leaders should develop contingency plans which may be implemented rapidly with little notice if the threat of violence, or actual violence, becomes real. If you wait until the violence happens, the harm may be far greater.

Public administrators operate the systems of government. Too often, the focus is on the technical aspects of service delivery, with no concern for the political environment in which we function. Successful public sector leaders recognize they work in an open environment, subject to the influences of the political environment, taking actions to minimize the potential negative affects of such influences. By considering the potential effects of a contentious election process on a public agency, they are more likely to be able to continue operating the systems of government effectively and efficiently for the benefit of all.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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