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Public Administration in Today’s Troubled World

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

By David Hamilton
February 2, 2018

The profession of public administration is an ancient and high calling to service within the varied institutions of government. Since its creation in 1939, ASPA has been a consistent advocate of “advancing excellence in public service.” As members, we are guided by the wisdom and writings of academics and practitioners in the leadership of developing and managing important government programs and services. These responsibilities weigh heavily on public administrators on a daily basis. But as we contemplate the current attitude of society toward government, we find a growing malaise related to its value and indifference with the public we serve.

As I wrote this article, our national government reopened following yet another brief shutdown with little concern expressed by the public. On January 21, Stan Collender, summarized the dilemma in USA Today. “The biggest and most depressing lesson coming from Washington these days is that government shutdowns are a politically acceptable tactic for Congress and the White House. As a result, what was once very rare must be considered the new normal, very likely to be threatened and occur almost every year.” His comments went on to explain, “few people think that a government shutdown will hurt them personally. Unless you are a federal employee, a government contractor, a business heavily dependent on federal employees or contractors, or planning to visit a national park, a shutdown just won’t seem that important to who you are or what you do each day.”

From the perspective of public administration, this dark assessment of the public’s interest in their national government and its employees is both disturbing and breathtaking. According to Governing Magazine, at June of 2017, there were 2,087,747 Federal employees excluding postal workers, 1,917,523 cabinet agency civilian employees excluding active duty military and 168,846 employed within independent agencies. Once again, most of these career public servants were temporarily out of work. An online article in Vox, indicated this is the eighteenth time our national government has been closed while noting shut-downs have occurred more frequently in recent years. The latest projections forecast another potential shutdown in early February. When did deliberately putting 4,174,118 Americans out of work and closing government service become “not important?” Have we come to a point in our great democratic experiment where government is expendable?

Across the Atlantic, during the same week, a group of our government and business leaders met with a variety of global delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss lofty, public policy issues. Our President attended and addressed the gathering, his presence affirming the importance of the event. The Conference theme was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Co-chair Christine Lagarde, leader of the IMF, amplified the theme by stating the focus of equity was like the same gathering in 2013. Clearly, it was viewed as an important issue.

Source: weforum.org

One of the key addresses at the conference, came from Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics. Her presentation focused on the social impacts of globalization and technology related to “social sustainability” and “society’s social cohesion” according to the on-line web site weforum.org. The seven policy categories presented included changing policies related to retirement, automation, part-time work, lifetime learning, health interventions and taxation. But her last point was intriguing: move public debate from “them and us” to “us.”

While the first six topics may appear simplistic and generalized, to the trained public administrator, they involve deep and profound issues that require understanding based on complex policy analysis and formulation prior to political consideration. This is what we do including her final challenge that points directly to the underpinning of all the others and summarizes the demands placed on public administration in today’s governments. But how amidst a divided culture can we move to models of social cohesion, balance and equity that are acceptable to our governing elected leadership and most of the public we serve?

Although this may seem an impractical and impossible challenge, we need to recall the words of wisdom from an earlier era when chaotic economic upheavals had led to social and economic decline during the Great Depression.  In 1936, E. Pendleton Herring, wrote his classic, “Public Administration and the Public Interest” which he began with this salient statement: “Upon the shoulders of the bureaucrat has been placed in large part the burden of reconciling group differences and making effective and workable the economic and social compromises arrived at through the legislative process.” As his words remind us, it is not a matter of becoming politically involved. Instead, we are to boldly renew our acceptance of the responsibility of our profession to formulate options, implement policy and manage programs needed by the public now and in the future. In short, our focus cannot change but our resolve must strengthen.

Today, it would be easy to accept the notion that government has lost its way and to resign our profession to the anxieties of political turmoil and public indifference.  But what we do as public administrators matters and this admonitory theme will continue in the next article, “Government is the solution, not the problem.”


Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas.  He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [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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