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Public Administration in a Time of Dread

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

By Burt Lundgren
February 21, 2017

I came to public administration at mid-life. My first career was nursing – difficult, demanding and immensely rewarding. Then, after a stint at graduate school, I became part of the federal workforce – also difficult, demanding and immensely rewarding. One of the shocks of the change was I had gone from a profession that garnered respect (nursing is consistently rated as the most ethical profession in America) to one that the public apparently despises. I don’t believe I have ever heard the term “federal bureaucrat” uttered in admiration. I was working as a “fed” at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. I still remember people’s utter surprise when they discovered federal workers worked hard, had families, loved their children, volunteered in their communities – in short, they were not mindless drones, but fully-realized human beings like everyone else.

The founding fathers propagated the idea governing was something anyone could do for a time before returning to their “real” lives. Governing was basically an activity for amateurs. Jefferson, for instance, thought what was needed to govern was simply “common sense and honest intentions.” What they said was belied by who they were – professional politicians and administrators. They devoted their lives to governance. Despite that example, many Americans today still regard governing as something anyone can do – an activity for amateurs.

Now we truly have a government by amateurs. The President has had no governing experience, and he has surrounded himself by others, cabinet secretaries, high level advisors, with the same deficit. To go further, some of those responsible for government agencies believe in the dismantling of those agencies or a radical transformation of their missions. One is suing the agency he has been nominated to head.

So far, the Trump administration has shown no understanding of the fact that public administration is non-political. I have been present at the change of administrations from one party to another. Basically, it was a non-event. Our responsibility was to administer the law, no matter who had written it, but this is different. There is both a hiring freeze and a threat to fire large numbers of federal workers despite the fact the workforce is only about the same size as it was in 1950. Federal agencies are being asked to identify workers who may have views contrary to administration policy. There has been a purge at the State Department. Other agencies have been told to edit their websites and silence their social media accounts. The acting Attorney General of the United States has been fired. There has been talk of reviving an old anti-patronage law allowing pay cuts to $1 per year and of abolishing job protections and employee unions. It is no wonder federal workers (possibly close to a third of them) are job hunting. According to the New York Times, others are living in a state of dread.burt

Where can those who stay find steady ground? First, hold on to the fact that at least since the 4th century B.C.E. Sumerians, an administrative structure has been necessary to govern. There is no government without bureaucracy. That means rules, procedures and people with the expertise to administer them. The federal workforce is not just valuable. It is essential. Second, with so little knowledge at the top, the power of expertise shifts to those who possess it. With power comes responsibility. Federal workers will have to act as tutors to political appointees. That applies not just to how to manipulate the levers of government, but more importantly, promoting understanding that the bottom line of government is the public good, not the accumulation of dollars.

Public administrators can also use their skills to implement policies in the way most conducive to the public welfare. Regulations should be thoroughly considered and applied along a glide path rather than to a crash landing. Stakeholders can be helped in the face of a high degree of change by clarity in administrative directives and open communications. This is a good time to review the ASPA Code of Ethics and plan a strategy to uphold that Code under stressful conditions.

Paradoxically, the amateurism and chaotic state of this administration may offer workers in public service an opportunity to display both their professionalism and value to a heretofore skeptical public. The federal workforce is the backstop to the rule of law. They are more resistant to politicization than any other part of the government, and that is something that the public may come to appreciate. One former Obama official has suggested being attacked by the administration may even “embolden career civil servants.” My favorite piece of advice for times like these comes from our last populist president. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Thank you, Theodore Roosevelt.

Author: Burden S. Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN practiced as a registered nurse, specializing in acute and critical care. After leaving clinical practice, she worked as an analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and later taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She has served as a consultant to a number of nonprofit groups. Presently, she divides her time between Virginia and Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].

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4 Responses to Public Administration in a Time of Dread

  1. Tim Loney Reply

    February 24, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    As a retired federal employee serving under at least seven presidents I agree with Dr.Lundgren that as public administrators we need to strive for neutrality; however, in reading this article I could easily have thought that this was written by a disgruntled Democrat with a liberal, progressive bent.

    One of the messages in the recent election is that many citizens are not happy about government experts, and they certainly don’t like elitism [think Professor Jonathan Gruber, MIT and the ACA]. The reference to “amateurism” seems to feed into this narrative. Does Dr. Lundgren really think that a successful CEO of a large and impactful corporation [Exxon], a doctor, a surgeon, a Senator, a Congressman, and several military generals deserve to be labeled as “amateurs” and can’t do as well as some recent politicians or public administrators?

    Dr. Lundgren talks about the importance of rule of law. Where was this when Lois Learner and other IRS civil servants restricted the rights of certain citizens? When I worked for IRS there was only one politician in IRS-the Commissioner. How about rule making by govenment employees in EPA? Was this non-political? What about leakers in the intelligence community? Does this represent the best that public administrators can do?

    It is one thing for Democrats [politicians] to be in denial, but another for those of us in the public administration community.” I suggest it is time for some serious reflection on our competencies and credibility.

    Tim Loney, DPA
    Associate Director, Online MPA
    University of San Francisco

    • Burden S Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN Reply

      February 24, 2017 at 10:53 pm

      I certainly agree with Dr. Loney – It is a time to reflect on competence and credibility. But, leaving that aside – The word “amateur” is not an insult. It simply refers to a lack of experience in governing even with accomplishments in other fields. Congressmen and senators are, of course, professionasl when it comes to governance. As to whether the amateurs can do better than the professionals – that is an open question. We will just have to wait and see. That uncertainty does make me nervous (not disgruntled). Nonetheless, I wish them all well.

  2. Burden S Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN Reply

    February 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I want to thank Dr. Lurie for his careful reading of my column. His comment on the language I used is well-observed. I did mean “non-political” in the narrow, partisan sense.

    With regard to his last paragraph, I did consider the problem of what a public administrator should do or could do when convinced that the law fundamentally violates his/her personal values – and what the threshold might be for that type of violation. I didn’t go there – columns have a word limit, after all. But it is a issue that many of us have had to address. For me, it came when I went from bedside nursing to working for a federal Medicare contractor. My bottom line is the welfare of my patients. I could not remain in a job that asked me to do them harm. Fortunately, I was never asked to do so – in fact, quite the opposite. But I do expect a number of federal employees to address this issue by leaving government service under this administration. My expectation is that the State Department will be particularly vulnerable in this regard.

    But this is a much wider issue. As citizens of a democracy, we all have to ask ourselves how far we will go in cooperating with government policies when they are not in accord with our values. Lately, we have seen the answer of many ordinary citizens in airports, in town meetings and in the streets. In this time of “dread”, federal employees are not alone.

  3. Jay Jurie Reply

    February 22, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Dr. Lundgren has written a thoughtful and interesting article about a topic that should generate much ongoing consideration and merit some debate. By way of debate, she wrote “…public administration is non-political…Our responsibility was to administer the law, no matter who had written it.” And subsequently, “Public administrators can also use their skills to implement policies in the way most conducive to the public welfare.” These two perspectives are not in perfect harmony.

    In an effort to help clarify, Dr. Lundgren may mean “non-political” in the sense of narrowly-partisan party-label politics, which would make a certain amount of sense. Otherwise, most everything public administrators do is political in one sense or another. Her second sentence reflects this orientation, where “conducive to the public welfare” requires value assessment, which would be inherently political in nature.

    It’s in this latter regard that her article is written. While not overtly political in the narrow sense, public administrators may hold values that the incoming administration feels contrary to their own political orientation expressed as beliefs and values.

    Jay D. Jurie, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    School of Public Administration
    University of Central Florida
    Orlando, FL 32816-1395

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