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Realistic Public Administration: Revisiting Amelioration

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

By Thomas E. Poulin, PhD
January 4, 2019

When working with public administrators at any level, or when listening to the concerns of our communities, we often hear the sentiment that all problems should be fully addressed, as if public administrators at any level, in any setting, in any community across the globe, have complete control over outcomes — but this is not so. There will always exist factors beyond our control, beyond our influence, which are confounding parts of any wicked problem – factors which cannot be erased. Public administrators must, from time to time, remind themselves of the limits they face, focusing their efforts on the achievable.

Otto Von Bismark once noted, “politics is the art of the possible.” He was suggesting there will always be some constraints on what a public leader may do. This idea was expounded upon during the Minnowbrook conferences — a series of conferences of scholars and practitioners focusing on public administration. They discussed the concept in terms of amelioration. Amelioration means an improvement – a striving to do better, combined with a recognition that it will never be possible to achieve a perfect outcome that is acceptable to all. We all face unlimited problems with limited resources. We may find constraints of laws and regulations. We may find them in terms of political support and funding. We may find them based upon organizational rules. Whatever the resource—power, funding, staffing, support—we have to understand we will never be able to address all of our problems. The existing problems are complex, and they continue to evolve, joined by emergent problems every day.

This may sound negative, but consider this; Those focusing on amelioration suggested two take-aways, upon which all public administrators should reflect:

  • First, do not become frustrated if you do not achieve a perfect outcome – it is by far the most likely outcome. Instead, keep focused on making incremental changes on an on-going basis, either fixing what is broken or making what is strong better, but recognize that, at some point, your limited resources might be better used elsewhere than trying to achieve those last few percentage points to perfection.
  • Second, be wary of seeming to overpromise to your followers within the organization or to those in the community. We will do our best. We will strive for excellence, but, in some areas, the potential for a perfect outcome is very limited.

Reflecting upon these two points can support the development of a more realistic, more objective view of the challenges faced by public administrators. People with a more realistic view of extant challenges are more likely to engage, and more likely to assess organizations accurately on their accomplishments, as opposed to their inability to achieve an unreachable ideal. For example, in disaster mitigation, we can minimize or reduce risk, but we can never fully eliminate it – we need to do what we can, improving as much as we can, using our limited resources to their greatest potential. It is an ideal we should strive for, but, in doing so, we recognize it is and will remain an unending task, which is why, as public sector leaders, we should be developing the capacities of those who will be taking up the burden when we transition our of our current role or organization. That means having an objective view of what can be done, and what cannot. Leaders do what they can to build the future – they always will.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is a core faculty member of Capella University’s public administration programs. Prior to that, he served in local government for over thirty years. He may 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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