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Public Administration in the Post-truth Era: Workplace Management Challenges

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

By Thomas Poulin

February 16, 2018

In the last few years, we have seen the emergence of the post-truth environment. The term post-truth refers to a socio-political environment characterized by the increased effectiveness of emotional, values-based appeals and a decrease in the effectiveness of scientific arguments. The former contributes to an unwillingness to compromise on issues, a fundamental necessity of democratic governance, while the latter contributes to the potential wholesale rejection of any evidence-based data contrary to an individual’s pre-existing beliefs. This creates a problematic climate for technical specialists in any field, including those in public administration. Much of the literature on this has focused on voting patterns and policy development, largely in relation to the Great Britain’s BREXIT vote and the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. However, there has been little on the potential workplace management challenges a post-truth environment creates for public administrators.

Potential Challenges

A number of potential challenges may be created by such an environment. We might see increased levels of conflict, contributing to decreased organizational effectiveness and efficiency, as well as negative impacts on the workforce. This conflict might arise both internally and externally. Internally we might find employees becoming so carried away by their passions they can no longer effectively engage professionally with their coworkers. This might contribute to ongoing arguments, or to an increase in fractionalized relationships characterized by strictly limited interpersonal communications. Both are problematic outcome, as they negatively affect both organizational communications and internal collaboration.

There may also be external conflict arising from the post-truth environment. Employees might find themselves unwilling or unable to carry out assigned duties, arguing that doing so would conflict with their personal values and rights. Alternatively, we might find members of the public arguing that public sector employees are acting in an inappropriate manner, focusing on a personal agenda instead of the general public’s welfare. Leaders at any level of the organization might be hesitant to resolve these conflicts given their potential sensitivity, avoiding them for fear of further arguments, closer scrutiny by the media or individual legal liabilities. The potential challenges associated with the post-truth environment are exacerbated by broader socio-political realities. We have seen a decrease in basic civility on an increasing basis within our society, associated with uncivil discourse and actual violence. This means much of the problem is far beyond the control of any individual leader within a public agency, regardless of their level.

Potential Consequences

If left unaddressed, the post-truth environment may have notable organizational consequences. We might find employees increasingly hesitant to engage with anyone others, seeking to avoid arguments. We might find employees who are hesitant to do anything beyond the minimum, seeking to avoid accusations of seeking a personal agenda. If these outcomes do arise, we will see decreased organizational effectiveness and efficiency. If left unchecked, we might see increased employee stress, with the accompanying problems of increased sick leave usage and healthcare costs, as well as increased attrition within the organization. None of these potential consequences would well serve the employees, the organization or our communities.

Potential Approaches

Creating and sustaining an effective organizational climate in the post-truth environment creates an immense challenge for leadership. Both experience and the literature would suggest that addressing these types of issues requires open communications, but this a conundrum in an environment where such open communications might be difficult to achieve. There are a few potential approaches which should be considered. The leadership of public agencies must:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the potential challenges that exist. The first step in addressing any potential problem is acknowledging it.
  2. Ensure all organizational efforts are directed at achieving the mission of the organization.  This mindset must inform the recruitment, selection, promotion and evaluation of public agency employees. Personal agendas that negatively affect service should not be tolerated.
  3. Seek allies within the organization at all levels. The goal is not to create a clique of like-minded people, but is instead to seek potential partners as “force multipliers” in our efforts.
  4. Actively engage in team building activities at all levels, which can support a team-based, mission oriented environment by establishing and sustaining professional relationships within the workplace.
  5. Recognize that much of the challenge is tied to socio-political influences within our communities, not to individual shortcomings of any individual or organization. We must recognize what we can and cannot control, engaging in amelioration of any negative effects of the post-truth environment.

Conclusion

Most public administrators were trained and selected based upon their technical capabilities. The focus has been the delivery of high quality services in a professional and nonpartisan manner to the communities we serve. This has not changed. However, our environment has changed with the emergence of the post-truth environment.  We must be wary about falling victim to it, shifting the mindset to potentially irrational approaches of service delivery. We must remain focused on evidence-based best practices, providing the highest quality and greatest quantity of services we can, meeting or exceeding community needs and expectations. This can and will be far more challenging in a post-truth environment, but we can minimize the potential effects on our employees, our organizations and our communities if we recognize the challenge, then take active, strategic measures to address them. That is the truth of it.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), serves on Capella University’s public administration faculty, prior to which he served in local government for over 30 years. He may 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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