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Rediscovering the “Soul” of Government

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

By Alex Pattakos
May 7, 2018

Americans in large numbers today seem not only to distrust but also resent their government. “They have become convinced that government, especially the federal government, is wasteful, oppressive, and insensitive, and people have come to doubt that public officials act in the public interest or in accordance with commonly-held values.”

This statement was part of the opening chapter to a book, Managing the Public’s Business, published in 1981, following the election of Ronald Reagan as President. The book’s author, Laurence E. Lynn, was at the time a professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was a former Assistant Secretary in both the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and the Department of the Interior.

Support of government at the state and sub-state levels is also on a path of erosion as citizens increasingly question the role and scope of public sector intervention, the unwillingness to cross the chasm of partisan differences to craft meaningful public policies, the uncontrollable pace in government expenditures and the effectiveness and efficiency of public service delivery.

Let me suggest that “managing the public’s business” has never been as important as it is now. Political realignments, increasing global competitiveness and interdependencies, emerging developments in technologies, and the uncertain geopolitical milieu all contribute to the need to carefully examine the public’s return on investment in government affairs. Indeed, the very nature of the public’s business, by definition, establishes it as the biggest business in the public marketplace.

The United States, as well as many other nations around the globe, suffers not so much from what Lynn called a “crisis of competence” but a crisis of spirit. In this regard, it is the essence of government at its most fundamental level that is at risk, not the capacity of elected, appointed and career public officials to discharge their responsibilities effectively and efficiently. Only by reconnecting with its “soul” can good government be exposed and the challenges of guarding the public’s interest be accommodated with integrity and dignity.

To be sure, this will require a different paradigm than that which currently guides the public sector, especially at the national level. For one, it will require that we collectively raise our consciousness and seek to discover common ground about the purpose and deeper meaning of government.

In this vein, Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine, observed that “we can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.” In other words, constituency-based politics, with its factional interests, will not lead us to this higher ground. Politics has been reduced to the selfish struggle for power among competing—and often polarizing—interests and groups, instead of a process of searching for the common good. Importantly, this reductionist view of politics will not allow government to realize its full potential.

Finding the point of balance between the common good and individual rights is no simple matter. In fact, there is no such point. We live in an “age of paradox,” observed British author, Charles Handy, and finding balance is a formidable, ongoing challenge. This is especially so for the government sector where the lack of order and clear-cut policy direction is commonplace.

It is also clear that government tends to elicit deeply seated value propositions about the boundaries between the public and private spheres. It is this passionate desire for demarcation that sets the stage for understanding the spiritual side of public affairs and points to the seat of the soul of government as a living entity in its own right. Government, in the words of Aristotle, “is more than a legal structure, more than an arrangement of offices; it is a manner of life, a moral spirit.”

To the extent that government is viewed as the manifestation of a collectivity of living beings also provides reason to believe that it possesses qualities of human systems of its own. Hence, it is no accident that the name “body politic” has been used frequently throughout recorded history when referring to government and its proper place in society. One of the qualities of living human systems, I think most readers would agree, is spiritual in nature.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that, in order to affect reform in ancient Greek society, the cradle of Western civilization and democracy, both Plato and Aristotle ultimately resorted to “spiritual means” as the preferred course of action. It was their view that in order “to heal disunion and division of spirit, one must employ a common education, which will put all men (i.e., people) on the same spiritual level, and initiate them into the same spiritual community.”

It is the process of authentic dialogue that is linked most closely to the notion of a “common education” to build the kind of spiritual community envisioned here. Importantly, it is through such dialogue, a process that is rooted in and derived from the ancient Greek concept and word logos, meaning spirit, that we become really conscious of and connected to the “soul” of government. Alas, if only Plato and Aristotle were around today!

Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. His passions include advancing meaning in government service and the “human side of innovation.” He may be contacted 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.

3 Responses to Rediscovering the “Soul” of Government

  1. Larisa Benson Reply

    June 15, 2019 at 8:33 am

    Alex, I am glad to be reading your words about the soul and meaning of government. Looking forward to further exploration. My colleagues and I in the Pacific Northwest are working to clear the clouds of emotional waste and confusion that hold many government practitioners back from expressing their dignified and joyful purpose.

  2. Bill Van Eron Reply

    May 20, 2018 at 12:44 am

    Hi Alex, I am thrilled to see you addressing this topic as it is near and dire for all of us that have values resident in a more representative and conscious nation.
    I often cite the advantages of growing up in NYC as most of us embraced ethnic and gender diversity, especially in open dialog. For me diversity, new thinking and values synthesis was essentially aligned to my design career. Then, as you know and were part of the positive forces I applied, I was able to evolve beyond the designer status quo to see the internal and external ecosystems that define success. I enjoy young people yet believe they are socially challenged to reason things out so as to enable their values past obstacles.

    Fast Company just asked designers how they see the future and their comments in May illuminated my own path of consciousness years ago as partially influenced by you, that designers need to step up and can. They noted politics as the first frontier begging for design think, as did I a year ago, but the system seemed closed. I’d love to see more people agree on the top issues, collaborate on what matters and bring in teams that include conscious designers and architects so solutions are system worthy. I value our constitution and yes, politicians, while not all bad, have lost their soulful connection to what matters. Media too, can innovate a solution that earns trust and created greater relevance.

    Keep our fires going my friend, OPA!

  3. Peter Burchard Reply

    May 11, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Alex – a wonderful and thoughtful article. The quote from Jim Wallis is perfect: “we can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.” Thank you for your quintessential point about seeing all people being on the same spiritual level. Without this, we are most ignorant – forever wandering.

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