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Substance Over Marketing: The Economics of Public Memory

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

By Lisa Saye
August 13, 2023

Public service is democracy’s silhouette. For wheel or for woe, it is the shared path to a well-governed republic. Democracy is not conducted by chance and neither should public service. Public Service must be deliberate and should be structured to focus squarely as the government’s liaison between itself and the citizens. Democracy helps the government reach its potential—a potential that is manifested in the level of service by public administrators. When administrators act as if they are the sole owners of public goods such as education, transportation or social services, government’s potential becomes a debate of privilege over policy. The social failure associated with this action represents damage and erosion and dents the success of a vibrant society.

How one sees democracy often becomes a separate discussion around debates of policy ownership. Perspective is solo, while reality may be shared. Regularity in some degree is perspective, but what one constitutes as proper regularity may not be so to someone else. Democracy is tough. It has absorbed every societal shift in politics since its first inception. This is not hyperbole. Democracy is still in the zone, propelled by value-added public service. In an internet search, democracy’s digital footprint is larger than the next four political ideologies combined. If democracy were a zip code, it would be the globe.

In any economy, maldistribution of public goods is always a source of additional debate. Budget fights are still at policy’s margins. Policies shouldn’t manage poverty, neglect or isolation, but should be one of the common strategies toward resolve. To do so, public goods must be fundamentally structured as a non-exclusive social construct for all citizens. As we’ve moved from largely agricultural societies to digital ones, we still haven’t employed the economics necessary to lessen inequality. What kind of organizational structure allows centuries of inequality to fester, yet has the nerve to call itself a democracy? Inserting democracy into narratives that are anything but democratic is nerve. Policies connected to the humanity of the citizenry abandons the numbness and indifference of society-directed exclusion and we become better for it.

There is intense recognition that public policy is intentional. Intentions, written and designed within the mind of its creator. The mis-beginnings of the application of democracy through the intentional misalignment of public policy is unnatural and corrosive. When policy’s verbs are passive and its adjectives fail to describe, policy is ripe for individual or community isolation. Isolation is counter to productive economics, so policy punishes—intentionally or not. Reform provides the opportunity to correct overlaid traits of control, but without collective intent reform becomes a trendy way to maintain the status quo.

Any real attempt at policy reform will not happen until real wages equal real income. Economists and public administrators know this too well. The street-level-bureaucrat has become consistently in the most advantageous position to know what that real wage is for the particular citizenry they serve. However, in this scenario, position is not power and although most knowledgeable and most present, the public administrator is most often excluded from any discussion on the matter. Thus, most of the traditions attached to societal economics represent little more than folklore abstractions that have nothing to do with reality. Yet, we continue.

The global climate may be trying to tell us something. Barely a week goes by without some story of floods, flight cancellations, school closings or thousands of people losing electricity because of weather. To be sure, this is not the place for a climate debate, but it is a place to make a point about substance over marketing. The daily collapse of centuries old glaciers are captured in the sad gasps of onlookers. When the black-necked cranes in Bhutan stop returning because civilization, then joy becomes an empty distinction. When it rains every day because it rains every day, ignoring the rising sea levels does not lessen the impact on a city when the dam breaks. We can market policy changes in any way that we desire, but substance always brings us back to the truth.

The ancestors say that water has memory. Conceptually, so does policy. Public policy is the diary of memories in historical context. Lessons of time are often forgotten and replaced by the distortion in the retelling. Access to stable economies affect the decisions citizens make and may impact what they choose those decisions to be. Confusion produces individuals who may exchange freedom for weird rules and bizarre representation. Future’s eye will look back on today’s political commotion and see the degree to which inconsolable misery produced democracy’s angriest years. Years that strangely embraced separation and withdrawal. How successful would democracy be if its concepts were administered with good intentions in mind? No doubt its results would make you sigh and bring about the day when protest signs would become poetry. That is a future I would love to see and a memory worth marching for.

The future’s street eye@ image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She also served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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