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Public Administration in The Good Place

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

By Benjamin Deitchman
October 26, 2018

“I think this entire project of yours is stupid and doomed to fail. I think you’re going to be retired, eliminated from existence and burned on the surface of a billion suns. And I have no doubt that you and your cockamamy experiment will go down in history as colossal failures.”

– Shawn (played by Marc Evan Jackson) to his subordinate on The Good Place.

“Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.”

Chidi Anagonye (played by William Jackson Harper) teaching moral philosophy on The Good Place

(Spoiler Alert: Season 1 and 2 of The Good Place are on Netflix, while Season 3 is currently airing on NBC. This article may contain spoilers up to the show’s present airings.)


Public administration has a role in the afterlife — at least on the critically-acclaimed network comedy The Good Place. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, is no stranger to themes of bureaucracy, governance and the ethics of public policy in his television programs. The American version of The Office is the defining workplace production of its generation, addressing topics from motivation and comradery to sexual harassment, fraud and whistleblowing in the corporate environment. Brooklyn Nine-Nine offers serious discussion of the criminal justice system and street-level bureaucracy around its amusing plotlines and characterizations. Parks and Recreation is the must-see program for public policy and public administration students, scholars and practitioners in its deep-dive into local government politics and responsibilities. Although The Good Place centers on individual behavior, the rules and dynamics of its fictional universe offer unique insights for contemporary leaders and citizens.

The Good Place is the humorous story of four recently-deceased human beings, with the immortal Michael (played by Ted Danson) as their “neighborhood architect” overseeing their eternal fate. Michael operates within the rigid hierarchy of a system that implements rewards or punishments based on a person’s actions in their lives on Earth. A specific scoring methodology determines one’s ultimate destination of the “Good Place” or the “Bad Place.” Rooted in the morality of various religious beliefs, with the practicality of the Chinese government’s emerging Social Credit System, these points would serve to promote desired behaviors amongst the general public. The divinely developed accruals and deductions, however, lack transparency, as the human characters only learn about their fates after their deaths. The ignorance of the impacts of their actions becomes a cause for rethinking among the architects of the afterlife as to whether this is an effective mechanism to reward morality and punish the immoral.

It is in his role of persecuting the doomed of the Bad Place that the demon Michael attempts to exercise his entrepreneurial spirit within the governing institutions. Michael struggles to convince his supervisor, Shawn, of developing a program for the condemned humans to torture one another rather than the traditional mechanisms used in the Bad Place since, literally, the beginning of time. The idea is to convince the souls they are in the Good Place, when, in reality, they are experiencing a psychologically and interpersonally punishing version of the Bad Place. Shawn allows Michael to try his novel approach, but Michael faces dire consequences should the innovations not produce the desired outcomes. His experiment does indeed fail on hundreds of attempts, but Shawn will not even listen to the lessons in evaluating the mistakes of the underlying core assumptions. Shawn is the quintessential stifling supervisor frustrating opportunities for improvement within the bureaucratic structure.

Michael seeks a potential reprieve of Shawn’s directives from the superior Judge Gen, as the protagonists begin to recognize that ethics is not a simple as the good versus bad dichotomy that is the basis of the central code in this canon. Despite the acknowledgement of certain immutable wrongs, the characters begin to understand the challenges of context in deciding what is right. For individuals in public policy and public administration there are strict principles of conduct, but there are also times where balancing different interests in search of the best of bad outcomes in necessary. These unclear choices define the humanity of the characters and those of us operating pragmatically in the messy real world.

The controversial presidential administration and political leadership, with the rapid and divisive news cycles, have become a dominant theme in contemporary popular culture, but The Good Place rarely directly addresses current events. At its most thought-provoking, it is a window into big picture concepts that define our career and who we are as individuals. The hierarchies and institutions are strong, but there are opportunities to muddle through and produce marginal changes in policies and, more importantly, perceptions of the roles and responsibilities in carrying out the fundamental tasks of the universe. In today’s complex and trying times, however, it is also a comedy that can provide escapism. The eternally optimistic Jason Mendoza (played by Manny Jacinto) tells another eternally doomed human, “The point is, you’re cool, dope, fresh and smart-brained. I’ve never seen you dance, but I bet you’re good, ’cause you’re good at everything. You’re awesome! Be nicer to yourself.” Whether we live and work in the Good Place, the Bad Place, the Medium Place or in reality, being nicer to yourself and to those around you is not a bad takeaway message for all of us from a half-hour of high quality television in today’s polarized world.

Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is a policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. His book, Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications, recently became available in a paperback edition. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected] and he’s on Twitter @Deitchman.

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