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Public Administration as Must See TV: “Parks and Recreation” in a World of Public Values and Public Interest

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Benjamin Deitchman

“The bankrupt government of Pawnee has been shut down all summer so it’s been three months of no work, no meetings, no memos, no late nights, nothing. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” – Leslie Knope, portrayed by Amy Poehler, on NBC’sParks and Recreation.” 

“I think the entire government should be privatized. Chuck E. Cheese could run the parks. Everything operated by tokens. Drop in a token, go on the swing set. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.” – Ron Swanson, portrayed by Nick Offerman, on NBC’sParks and Recreation.”

dietchman april“Parks and Recreation” is the great public administration comedy; a program rooted in the different perspectives of public and private management. The glory days of must see TV, when water cooler areas across the office world buzzed on Friday mornings with discussion of last night’s “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” or “Friends” are unfamiliar to young adults starting their careers today in the public service. Amy Poehler and an all-star cast on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” however, provide our present day Thursday evenings a comedic commentary on key concepts in public administration theory and practice. What truly makes the show one of the finest television programs of the present day is the characters and storylines, but its commentary on local government- particularly citizen involvement- adds depth to the situation comedy for scholars, practitioners, students and observers of participatory governance. I do not know if the main character, Leslie Knope, has read Barry Bozeman’s 2007 book Public Values and Public Interest, but in her fictional world, she lives aspects of this important redefinition of the public and private spheres of policy and administration in each episode.

The mockumentary style show depicts the lives of the Parks and Recreation Department in the small, fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. This season, Pawnee has subsumed the neighboring city of Eagleton in a consolidation that Eagleton’s lavish government spending necessitated. Historically, Eagleton has been a swanky enclave while Pawnee is known for its poor public health and hygiene- leading to significant tensions in the newly reconstituted city. This is not the first story arc in the nearly five seasons of the show that addresses local budget crises. Pawnee had faced shutdowns before the merger and required direct oversight from the Indiana State Government for its own fiscal woes. The budget gurus, who descended on the small city from Indianapolis with spreadsheets and policy options for cuts, met initial resistance from the Pawnee politicians and citizens. Their active engagement with the local bureaucracy and citizenry has led to success and their own integration into the life of the community.

One of the strongest themes of the show relates to public versus private provision of services. Ron Swanson may be the director of the Parks Department, but he sees government as the problem; very much at odds with his sometimes deputy- the politically ambitious Knope- who sees it as a solution. She wants government to solve problems big and small.

In describing the purpose of his work, Bozeman writes, “The book’s objective is to address the imbalance of theoretical bases between, respectively, market-based and public values approaches to policy and management.” [Author’s emphasis]. While Swanson considers engaging the public to be a nightmare, Knope positions Pawnee’s city government as open to the concerns, comments and criticism from the community through regular public forums. Swanson would take pride in a characterization as an economic individualist; Knope deeply concerns herself with social choice and the public interest.

In addressing the mission of reviving public interest theory in his book, Bozeman comments that, “Public interest theory seems out of place in polities dominated by fructuous, interest group-based politics.” The power-player in Pawnee politics is the Sweetums candy company. “When you think Pawnee, you think Sweetums,” Knope declares. Much of Sweetums public policy goals, however, are inconsistent with the promotion of public health in the (fictional) fourth most obese city in the nation. In her campaign for city council in season four, Knope must challenge Bobby Newport- heir to the Sweetums fortune- and his highly paid Washington-based campaign manager in her grassroots effort to represent her heartland hometown. Although Knope wins the office, she had lost in previous encounters with the Newport family. For example, Knope attempted to save an historic gazebo on behalf of the public interest. This was not to be, as the Newport’s flaunted their wealth and influence to remove the structure to make for a more visually pleasing and exclusive private party. It is only through Knope’s superhuman dedication that there is even a semblance of balance between public values and economic individualism.

Knope also has the ability to marshal enterprising colleagues to assist her quest for social choice-based policy decisions. Once on the city council, and prior to her recall from the position, she finds a new adversary in Councilman Jamm. Jamm is a dentist and objects to fluoridation of the city’s drinking water in an effort to preserve the poor dental hygiene that is beneficial to his practice. Tom Haverford, the entrepreneurial city hall denizen, uses his marketing skills to defeat Jamm’s misinformation campaign about fluoride. Portrayed by one of the leading comedic voices of the millennial generation, Aziz Ansari, Haverford is an aspiring business entrepreneur who has only succeeded as an entrepreneur in his public sector bureaucratic day job. I can only hope that one-day Haverford recognizes the importance of policy entrepreneurship and the role that he can play in advancing public values through his charisma and leadership, rather than investing his time, energy and money into fruitless business ventures. He could serve as a model for ingenuity and creativity in the public sector.

For Knope and her team, “managing publicness,” as Bozeman would describe it, requires constant community feedback meetings. “Despite the apparent convenience of mechanism, the general approach of ‘simply asking’ raises questions. Does it matter if choices of sector roles are ill informed or poorly rationalized?” asks Bozeman. Most choices advanced by the community in Pawnee are ill informed and poorly rationalized for comedic effect. At her core, however, Knope loves her community and its diverse cast of characters. She recognizes that the citizens do not always make rational decisions about what is best for themselves and their community.

The current season leaves Knope asking whether her efforts on behalf of the people of Pawnee are all for naught and considering leaving the city to pursue a federal position. As real world public administrators know, it is not easy to integrate pluralistic values into public decision-making. Bozeman’s book indicated that a paradigm shift towards reintegrating public values and a sense of community is a challenge in the modern market-focused governance system. Knope is now deciding whether in her very difficult community this is a worthy challenge of her

Whatever happens next for Knope, however, I hope that this show continues to educate viewers with applications of public administration theory. It is below the surface, but it is enough to allow practitioners and scholars to think deeply between the laughs. For anyone looking to introduce various concepts of the field to a novice audience, there’s probably a “Parks and Recreation” episode to help share our work. Although we now live in a world of telecommuting, where our day-to-day interactions are less prevalent, Knope, Swanson and the rest of Pawnee depend on these face-to-face encounters for building consensus (and comedic effect).  Let’s hope that this civil discourse and balancing of public and private can also remain prevalent in the real world.


Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman, MPA, is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and will receive his PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy this summer. You can follow him on Twitter @BHDRIT.


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