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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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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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