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Remembering The Importance of Public Administration

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

By John Duffy
August 8, 2019

All too often, the daily grind of our work causes us to forget the importance of our chosen field, public administration. Remembering our field’s role in creating a civil society can both re-energize us and ensure that we focus on the right work. In essence, public administration seeks to improve and bring order to our citizens’ daily lives. Public administration addresses the basic needs of our citizens and by doing so allows them the opportunity to make great achievements.

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, individuals must first satisfy their physiological needs such as having sufficient food, clean water and rest before they are capable, or willing to consider, the fulfillment of other human needs. When we improve conditions that satisfy these basic human needs such as ensuring that our citizens have access to healthy food, good housing, clean water and efficient transportation, it allows them to address other needs such as the psychological needs of belonging, family and social relationships.

Once these other needs become fulfilled, then our citizens are better able to pursue their life’s dreams; be it becoming teachers, cosmonauts or mining engineers. What Maslow believes to be true at the individual level, I believe to be true at the community level. When public administration is able to address each of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on a community level, the members of our communities become better citizens and are able to make more meaningful contributions to both family and community. As a result, our communities become better places to live, work and raise families. Consequently, we come out with stronger societies.

Public administration is also responsible for the allocation of scarce resources. For example, it is public administrators who make the decisions regarding how much funding will be allocated to health care, emergency response or transportation. Through these resource allocation decisions, public administration determines if our society will advance, and if so, how quickly because these decisions affect important endeavors such as education, national research and development and the form of economic activity.

Another vital role of public administration that is typically overlooked is in the area of entrepreneurial risk related to innovation and technological advance. Major advances in technology, medicine and other forms of innovation are in the initial phases, very risky and expensive endeavors. To make major, paradigm level-like advances possible oftentimes requires the government, i.e., public administrators, to take on the complex work due to the high risks of failure and high investment costs that are involved especially at the early stages of such endeavors.

For example, it was the work of public administrators that was responsible for the internet, for the exploration of outer space, for nanotechnology and for the invention of microchips and semi-conductors. At the beginning, all of these advances required massive financial risks that were so large no private corporation or venture capitalist was willing or capable of underwriting the financial risk. Consider the effort to place a human on the moon by the United States, the moon landing program cost, in today’s dollars—just over $150 billion. At one time consuming over 5 percent of the annual budget of the United States. What private sector entity could take on such risk? The answer: None. Thus, I firmly believe public administration has a definitive role to play in areas facing major entrepreneurial risk.

Before I conclude I wish recognize that the work of public administration is not easy, nor is not for the faint of heart or the weak. In public administration we work on society’s hardest and most difficult problems—problems that have been with humankind since the beginning. These problems include poverty, homelessness, unemployment, lack of food and now climate change. These so-called wicked problems are highly resistant to solutions; indeed, they have no solutions. Instead, we can only make small improvements and then we must return to the problem again and again. The problem changes as these small improvements take effect and our economy, society and environment changes. Developing the ability to recognize wicked problems and develop the appropriate approaches for addressing them is one of the critical challenges facing us as academics and practitioners in public administration today.

In our day-to-day work of resolving the latest permitting crisis, filling in the potholes and preparing lean budgets, we often lose sight of the bigger picture, of the larger, important roles we play as public administrators—roles that result in better communities and societies. I hope that my comments remind some of you of our greater purpose and that our work is worthy. And by reflecting upon our purpose, we rededicate ourselves to taking those actions that result in our citizens living healthy and more productive lives as we build noble societies.

Author: John Duffy, PhD, CM, AICP, serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, College of Business and Public Policy; as a visiting professor at the National University of Mongolia, School of International Relations and Public Administration, and is President of the International Chapter of ASPA. He served in local government for over 30 years. He may be reached at [email protected] ; Twitter: iceclimb03.

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