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Public Administration On the Road Less Taken: Getting Out of Our Own Way

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

By Lisa Saye
November 14, 2022

@Out of Our Own Way, Photo and Title by Lisa Saye

Democracy is an ongoing creation story. Its tenets dismantle weak and corruptive means and measures. Echos of it can be seen in the minutest of details and in the broadness of narratives on freedom and equality. It is not a latter notion that has been bouncing around for the past few years. Democracy is a way and public administration is the path cut out of the forests of uncertainty and doubt.

One does not know democracy until one has lived with it or has lived without it. Democracy is an experience. Each generation that has lived under it knows what that sentence means. For some it means freedom, for others it means equality and for others it means justice. How we treat democracy says a lot about the level of respect we have for it. That is to say, when we greet elders, we greet elders and when we greet children we greet children. Respect is a standing tenet, no matter the temperature of the room. Democracy is no generation’s true peer. It is a respected elder. Democracy wins when we understand the kind of reverence a time-trusted elder deserves while realizing that we are time’s children and limited in what we build and what we leave behind.

An old African saying states that when a person dies a library dies with him. Another says that people create wise sayings for others to learn and not to just repeat. Paths are like sayings. They link us to the future and help us plan for what is to come. If we are repeating the mis-wisdom of others then our paths are not very useful.

Public administration is the path we ought to take in the industry of compassion that is democracy.  The fact that we are not governing our citizens to our potential and the idea that we may never be able to is fallacy at its highest levels. We know what to do and we know what we must do. When we fall for the tired notion of failing while at work, we choose not to see the forest for the trees and thus we fail to see when the path changes color.

As much as we have drained her effectiveness, democracy is still the path of greatest resistance and greatest reward. Public administration gets its power and its strength from a system of democratic exchange, selection and government. Public administration has managed to be the principal frame of reference for how well a democracy is doing or how well it is not doing. Public administration is intragovernmental because it has to be for it to be successful. While a solo is wonderful to hear, the mechanics of a full choir of sound is unmatched when all voices are included.

COVID-19 was responsible for a lot of changes in government and in what one considers normal activity. Everyone around the world had to adapt and find ways to maintain some level of society. While it impeded many activities, COVID-19 forced democracies to reorient themselves around their systems of democratic exchange, selection and government. In doing so, democracy subsequently survived a more than two year continuous emergency call. How was this possible, you may ask? How are we now looking backwards and forwards and seeing again a plausible path to the future? I think the answer lies in the decisions we made and ones we still make to choose democracy over chaos. I think we still know a time-tested truth when we see one and democracy as a system has lasted through wars, invasions, colonization, pandemics, civil strife and man’s inhumanity towards man. Democracy is dependable and public administration is dependent upon by the people we see, the people we serve and those notions of equality we still dream about.

Public administration’s overview is still the efficient and effective delivery of public goods through public service. Even so, sometimes our paths become clouded or we make a selfish turn in the wrong direction. It is then when we should get out of our own way, study the possible results of our action or inaction and make a better choice for those that will inherit our decisions in the form of government. As long as there are buildings, bridges, dams, libraries, museums, waterways or common areas for gathering, there will be a place for another testimonial plaque about the government and its most effective administrators. Future testimonials should be about the administrators who made the difference despite awards and recognition. Those leaders are democracy’s best paths forward on the road less taken.

The copyrighted ‘Out of Our Own Way’ image was taken by Lisa Saye.


Author: Dr. Lisa Saye is OSO Director for the District of Columbia at America Works in Washington, D.C.. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected]

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