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Public Administration: The Realities of Imagination

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

By Lisa Saye
November 9, 2020 

PA Imaginations, Khalid Wardak (artist), 2019. Photo by Lisa Saye

Autumn this year may turn out to be a grim harvest of emotions, fears and discontentment. In his 2008 book titled, There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth, William E. Bartelt reported that when asked on a questionnaire, then Congressman Lincoln recorded his education as defective. What a resounding description for a self-taught lawyer who would one day become President of the United States and what an eerie subtext for the current environment.

This has been a long year and we still have more than a month remaining. To borrow a line from Beowulf, this year has felt like, “Twelve winters of grief.” The internal aggressions that have bubbled up in the United States makes history’s footnotes longer and longer. Hate is a strong art that demands full commitment from its players. When we look back, I think we will be shocked at the degree to which many of us have comfortably abandoned time-honored rituals for meanness.

This year and every year prior, public administrators have served as mediators between policy and citizens’ needs. Our workspace in the United states spans from sea to shining sea. We borrow and design formulas for distribution of public goods to our most needy, but math and government are not the same. Government is not a math problem—Government is a math solution. It is the place that our citizens run to when life has presented its limits. And government is the one place that understands the evolution of dreams.

The vocation of public administration is complex. To put it bluntly, as public administrators we must be failures. We must fail at indifference. We must fail at complacency. And we must fail at dispassion. We must, however, succeed at paying close attention to the patterns that we have been through and be prepared to hesitate to judge. But how do we accomplish this within our national commotion?

For starters, government must be an implemented measurement of the realities of imagination. The truth is, no matter how effective we feel that government is at any one time, there are a multitude of future services that even the best public administrators cannot conceive. To be sure, there are a host of finer points and specific strategies that legislation attempts to capture. These finer points have meaning and value in society, but even those attempts do not satisfy everything or everyone. As such, the issues of collective need that rise up in a country’s citizens should contribute to a design of future elements of a better government.

Another line from the more than 3100 in Beowulf states that, “Peace makes spears silent for a time, but not for long.” I find this to be an accurate depiction of our national memory in the United States. We cannot look at each other as rented faces of differences that we refuse to try to understand. We cannot achieve better government without reform, transition and transformation of ourselves in finally laying down the ancient divisions that keep us apart.

Governments everywhere have marveled at United States elections. They have tried to copy the widely adopted processes of order and equality of the vote. Our particular oral history, though not a United States invention, has been mimicked around the world as part of truth and reconciliation peace structures. Now is not the time to forget to remember who we are and who we have been to everyone else. We are not perfect, but we have actively worked toward a more perfect union and now is not the time to suggest that we are there. If we do not embrace all the points that make us unique, then we must admit that America has been a distant myth bouncing around in a matrix.

War is not always bloody, but it is always brutal. War lessens the opportunity for engagement and collaboration. Public administrators look for ways to bring about a peaceful solution, for a time, to people who have grown tired of a life of some particular war. This is why our work should be looked at as a calling. Public administrators have to bravely navigate the purposeful slings and arrows of life’s cruelties. We have to rethink the human conditions that we are privileged to help to change. While war takes lives, public administrators are called to save lives. Much of our work will not appear in history books, but that is not the reason we serve. Public administrators do not take power unto themselves. Public administrators work to help today’s heroes and to heal tomorrow’s world.

The painting is by Khalid Wardak, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2019. Title and Photo by Lisa Saye 2020.


Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Research Methods for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at DePaul University. Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. On July 9, 2019, Dr. Saye delivered the Pre-Departure Orientation Keynote Address at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for Fulbrighters leaving for Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email 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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