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Public Administration Goals for the 21st Century: #5 Serve the Consumer

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

By Erik Devereux
July 21, 2021

serve (v.): “Perform duties or services for (another person or an organization).”

This is the last of a series of columns on the topic of setting public administration (PA) goals in the 21st century. This column focuses on why governments need to enhance their attention to consumers during this century. The other goals I have advocated in this series are the following:

I conclude this series with a focus on consumers because of the increasingly precarious position of consumers in our current mix of capitalism and democracy.

Our economy is driven by consumption. Regardless of various obituaries you may have read in the past decades, Keynesian economics continues to hold true—what drives the economy is aggregate demand. Aggregate demand comes from the collective action of hundreds of millions of consumers in the United States and billions worldwide. You would think the consumer would be royalty amidst all of this, but I think most consumers feel much more like serfs. There is little faith that governments make consumer well-being a priority. A consequence is a further erosion in support for the work that governments do and a feeling that consumers are on their own when navigating an increasingly complex marketplace for food, healthcare, education, financial services and technology.

Consider three of these markets that illustrate the plight of consumers: credit cards, nutritional supplements and nicotine. Several decades and at least one severe financial crisis were required before credit card issuers agreed to provide simplified contracts and monthly account statements and otherwise be transparent about interest rates and fees. This is an ugly history in which many current political leaders in the United States are culpable for delaying transparency in the credit card industry to the detriment of consumer well-being.

The nutritional supplement industry continues to evade regulation while manipulating consumers with false promises of the benefits of products of limited or no actual medical value. The federal government and state governments continue to look the other way while consumers are fleeced by this industry for billions of dollars every year. And it is worse than that—consumers who buy these products are convinced that they can continue unhealthy lifestyles rather than take actions that would greatly improve their physical health. If you do not believe there are any victims here, I suggest you consider the factors that influence your health insurance premiums, the scope of health coverage and the fragility of the United States healthcare system.

About 400,000 Americans die every year directly because of nicotine addiction. A much larger number of cancer victims should be added to that count—if you ask nurses in oncology wards you will learn that most of their patients are current or former addicts. Yet, despite this grievous death toll and all the science necessary to understand it, governments remain relatively passive about outlawing products containing nicotine. Even when presented with compelling evidence that the nicotine industry intentionally targets children, many governments still delay taking actions to stop it.

One of the more troubling aspects of how consumers are treated by governments is the structural biases that favor businesses over consumers. These biases are evident in a legal system that struggles to punish even the most heinous “white collar” crimes and among government bureaucracies (and that is not a pejorative phrase for me) that are more responsive to demands from businesses than from consumers. Rather than dwell on such factors as campaign contributions and lobbying, I want to address on an underlying mindset that needs to be changed.

From the first European colonists forward, the United States has been dominated by the mindset that business people are a special class deserving of extra privilege. This privilege has extended into the relationships that shape governance and public administration. It is time to wake up and put that mindset behind us in the 21st century. Governance and public administration need to shift that privilege to consumers and seek to serve consumers as their primary objective. Being in business generally is its own reward. Governments do not need to amplify those rewards by putting businesses on a pedestal. Being a consumer is akin to swimming with sharks who happen to control access to all the key ingredients for living. Governments need to get in that pool and lead everyone to safety.

For those in public administration reading this, the stakes here are much larger than you might think at first glance. As noted above, the exposure to risk that consumers feel in their bones leads them as voters to lose faith in their government. Everything I have advocated in this series on public administration goals for the 21st century has focused on restoring that faith. If governments practice transparency, keep religion out of public administration decisions and elevate the place of the consumer in society, then the erosion in support for democratic institutions will stop and hopefully reverse.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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