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Studying Public Servants in a Post-pandemic World

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

By Nevbahar Ertas
October 10, 2022

Public servants already have a central place in public administration research and theory and the pandemic has brought renewed focus and targeted research questions to the forefront. In my first essay for PA Times, I summarized some of the themes public policy and administration (PPA) scholars have identified for a post-pandemic research agenda. Public servants and their relationship to the publics they serve are key concepts in those discussions. My second essay discussed the critical role of trust in times of crises such as a pandemic, since trust in government is crucial to the public’s compliance with policies and prevention efforts. Public servants who deliver services responsively and equitably also help foster this trust. For students and practitioners of public administration, understanding public servants and the way in which the political and administrative environment shapes their behavior is critical.

Who are public servants?

By 2020, almost 22 million people were working for federal, state and local governments in the United States, with federal workers representing 1.9 percent and state and local workers 12.4 percent of the civilian labor force. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), during the first year of COVID, employment fell by 5.1 to 6.5  percent in state and local governments, at slightly higher rates than the 4.3 percent decline in the private sector. In state governments, correctional officers, postsecondary teaching assistants and postsecondary health specialties teachers are the top three occupations. The largest occupational categories of local government employees include elementary and secondary teachers and teaching assistants. Public employees provide several essential services to the public whether they are teachers teaching and guiding children, engineers in public works departments providing safe drinking water or public health officials keeping diseases from becoming epidemics. Many individuals also provide human and social services in nonprofit organizations with a mission to serve the public good. According to a 2020 report by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, about 12.5 million people work for nonprofit organizations in the United States.

Public servants and the pandemic: Fundamental questions for PPA researchers

One avenue for research is pandemic induced changes in the workforce by sector. The United States public and nonprofit workforce has decreased compared to pre-pandemic levels, and the rates of job recovery vary by field. For example, BLS reported that in 2020 that government employment declined by 1.3 million. Tracking the BLS data, this Brookings Institute blog notes that “the number of government jobs remains 2.9 percent below its pre-pandemic level.” State and local governments have been especially slow to recover, possibly reflecting declines in education and health services. Similarly, the Center for Civil Society Studies estimated that “nearly half a million of the nonprofit sector’s pre-pandemic workers are still missing from the workforce,” and that unlike other fields, nonprofit educational institutions experienced new losses during 2021. We need more research to track changes in the workforce by sector, field and location, understand whether and how the recovery affects different groups of workers and public services and to identify what actions policymakers may take to stabilize, assist and support the workforce.

How public service professionals have responded to COVID-19 inside and outside of the administrative bureaucracies of government and how they are affected has also been fertile ground for research. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown public servants onto the frontlines in response to the crisis, forcing them to deal with a quickly and ever-changing situation. Many workers have experienced increased workloads, reduced compensation and stressful work environments. Public servants played key roles to ensure continuity of public services and to maintain public trust, while dealing with pandemic related challenges like everyone else. Pandemic-related burnout is a serious concern for public servants, especially in the United States public health and education workforce. The pandemic has been especially hard on working women. Professors Elias and D’Agostino explain how “school closings during COVID-19 exposed an under-addressed gender equity issue in the United States: child care in crisis” and offer ways to reimagine child care in the future. The gender and social equity implications of COVID-19 in various policy areas such as education, housing and health, among many others, must be examined by scholars. We can learn a lot from comparative research, case studies and qualitative and quantitative surveys. 

Last but not least, we need more research to understand and counteract corruption, incompetence and ethical violations involving public servants. In Introducing Public Administration, Professor Shafritz and colleagues wrote “Public administration is the totality of the working-day activities of all the world’s bureaucrats—whether those activities are performed legally or illegally, competently or incompetently, decently or despicably!” For example, local government scholars note problems with policing and election administration as two issues that have been amplified during the pandemic, which have placed public servants—in this case, police officers and election administration officials, as well as the systems under which they work—under scrutiny. Similar issues and appropriate policy response for systemic change will continue to be debated in federal and state legislatures. It is to be hoped that public administration and policy research can inform effective and equitable policy and practice.

Author: Nevbahar Ertas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research focuses broadly on public service, and public administration and policy. Twitter: https://twitter.com/NevbaharErtas or @NevbaharErtas

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