Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Public Administration for the Leslie Knope Generation

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

By Benjamin Deitchman
February 26, 2024

“Now go find your team. Get to work. Whatever that work is that you find worth doing. Do it, and find some people to love who’ll do it with you.” – Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation, “One Last Ride.”

Parks and Recreation is the great public administration comedy; a program rooted in the different perspectives of public and private management,” I wrote in a 2014 PATIMES column. A decade later and almost nine years since the Parks and Recreation’s series finale (not including its social distancing special episode in 2020) that statement holds true. Reflecting on Parks and Recreation and its societal impact is useful towards understanding the vibes of the contemporary public sector.

Inspiring real-world public and nonprofit sector leaders shape our fields, nations and planet every single day. While their stories deserve more attention than a fictional sitcom character from a decade ago, there is much to learn and love about Leslie Knope as generations of public policy and public administration scholars and professionals grow and emerge. For all the deserved criticism and cynicism of contemporary governance, the celebration of public service on Parks and Recreation remains a testament to a broad belief in the public good. The question then becomes how we can bring this idea that permeates culture into practice.

Experienced scholars and professionals can start with the positive vision of Parks and Recreation in introducing the opportunities of the present and future. The cast of characters working in the city government of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana face challenges including budget cuts, regulatory barriers, personnel issues and difficulties with public engagement among other obstacles. The politics of the town and the influence of corporate interests further vex civil servants as they navigate the bureaucracy to balance interests and support an often-unappreciative public. From the enthusiastic, but highly misinformed, public commentary sessions, to the logistical dilemmas of increasing efficiency through municipal consolidation, to all of the paperwork required to fill in a literal pit, there is plenty of truth in the comical fiction. Life in government in Pawnee is not always simple or carefree, but overall, the show is a celebration of what we can do.

As it is on Parks and Recreation, work should simply be fun, interesting and useful. Working in government centers Leslie Knope’s life and makes her and her colleagues happy, perhaps even as happy as waffles from her favorite JJ’s Diner. Parks and Recreation was not the first show to portray the public service, and the inspiring vision of The West Wing and the farcically jaded vision of VEEP remain popular in streaming. Parks and Recreation, however, is ideal content to jump into the promise and perils of public policy and public administration.

When considering our field, scholars and professionals sometimes understandably lose track of the fact that governance is personal and intimately connected, yet as the show progressed, Parks and Recreation brought in auditors from the state government and managed to express how public accounting changes lives. That spreadsheet on a government database may seem banal but it impacts people. As we introduce our work to people outside our communities of practice, or seek to reinspire ourselves and our colleagues, the Leslie Knope perspective is entertaining and insightful.

Obviously, Parks and Recreation should not be central to education and training in public policy and public administration. These are evidence-based fields that require broad technical skills and competencies, as portrayed-along with comical incompetencies-in the Pawnee government. The theory and history of governmental and nonprofit management are fundamental to socialization into this profession and academic disciplines. Passion for the public and good governance, however, is more than just data and analysis. Leslie Knope works harder than any real-life person could within the hours that exist in the day, but the importance of the show comes from the feelings that emanate from the work.  The next generation needs to understand the facts, but also deserves the positive feelings.    

It is also important to consider that although public policy and public administration are all around us, they are not everything. Leslie Knope is a classic workaholic, but she also learned as the series progressed, “We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third.” Parks and Recreation is worth watching for everything we can learn about how to serve our communities, but it is also entertaining. At the end of the day, doing good work and enjoying what we do is how we can expand and grow as individuals and as a field. It is our duty to share that opportunity, wisdom and inspiration. For further relevant television criticism please see “Public Bureaucracies on TV: ‘The Americans,” “Summer Television for the Public Administrator,” “Public Administration in The Good Place” and “The President of These United States: Television Presidents and 21st Century Government.” Enjoy the excuse to watch (or rewatch) these shows!

Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy professional in Atlanta, Georgia.  He is currently working to develop a book connecting public policy, public administration, and popular culture to introduce and inspire the next generation in our field.  His email address is deitchmanb at gmail dot com.  That is his real-life coffee mug in the picture.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *