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Public Administration: From Career to Calling

By Kelly Larson

careerI did not set out seeking a career in public administration. I set out to be a public interest attorney. Actually, I set out to be a psychologist and somewhere along the way I stumbled into law school. Life is funny that way.

As of today, I have devoted my entire professional life to public service, the last fifteen years as an executive. I suspect that an honest assessment would show that I’ve also devoted fully one-third of those years to seriously contemplating the wisdom of my choice. I work in a profession where blame exceeds support, where criticism is dished out like candy and where one is expected to describe complex problems in a sound bite. Why choose a career as a public administrator? Why indeed.

And yet, each time I contemplate an alternate path, I find myself recommitting to the path I am on.

Probably the most straightforward reason to choose public administration is that it is a career choice that provides a sense of purpose. I do not spend my days wondering at the meaning of life or whether a single person can contribute anything of value to the world. When I am paying attention, I am able to end the day knowing that I spent my time making a contribution to something bigger than myself.

Still, it would be unfair if I failed to acknowledge that there is an element of thrill that can come with public service and that can drive the choice to be an administrator. Our work is an endless lesson in learning and change. As our world changes rapidly around us, those of us in public administration must constantly be aware of the impact of those changes on the health of our society as a whole. There is a stimulating challenge in developing plans and structures that allow us to be more nimble and resilient as the changes continue, while also remaining true to the bedrock principles of democracy that guide our work.

This work places us smack dab in the middle of life’s most complex questions and challenges us to use our experiences, our logic, our knowledge and our imagination to address those questions together. There is little to no certainty in our work. In most circumstances, our choices are not between right and wrong but between better and worse. They are choices upon which reasonable minds might disagree – and disagree we must if we are to create an outcome that is most likely to fall on the “better” end of the spectrum.

Ultimately, public administration forces us to put democracy into practice. It confronts us – at times in unpleasant ways – with the reality that any individual’s deepest beliefs and values may in fact conflict with democratic ideals. It forces us to acknowledge our hypocrisy and to continually re-evaluate how best to work together in search of the best possible integration of a variety of perspectives. To be effective, we must think well beyond ourselves and be able to draw forth all that is good in self and other in order to create opportunities that strengthen our people and our communities.

In the end, we must act in the face of all this uncertainty and disagreement. We make a choice and with it, we learn. At times, that learning is little more than a confirmation that we have chosen well. At other times, the learning is unpleasant, taking conscious effort to see its value. When our best intentions do not unfold as planned, it can force us to more deeply examine our own behavior, the behavior of others and our democratic ideals. It can remind us of our limits and our core humanity, while providing us the chance to do a better job tomorrow.

In the end, I suspect that working in public administration has made me a better person. I am more humble today than when I started. I listen more and I talk less. I prefer questions to answers. My internal compass has become more strongly rooted in something deeper than rules and regulations – something that is at the core of our humanity and our longed for ideals. This work has provided me with frustrations, trials and pain, to be sure. Yet is also has provided me with the sense of life well lived.


Author: Kelly Larson is the executive director for the City of Dubuque Human Rights Department. She can be reached at [email protected].

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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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