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Summer Television for the Public Administrator

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

By Benjamin Deitchman
July 12, 2016


This summer offers myriad opportunities for scholars and practitioners to study the field of public administration without needing to open a book, journal or even the latest edition of PA TIMES. For fans of live television events, the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention and the surrounding 2016 campaign will shape the future of American and even global politics. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will feature spectacular feats of sport, but the infrastructure struggles and responses to the Zika Virus and other public health concerns may change perceptions of the role of government in organizing major spectacles.

Scripted television, whether it appears over the air, on cable or through streaming services, also offers an entertaining format to consider key issues in the theory and practice of public administration. The below shows are not only a great viewing experience, but can reignite considerations of public policy and management.

  • “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix): Released earlier this summer, the fourth season of this award-winning, made-for-binge-watching, opus continues its exploration of the effects of prison privatization. Set in the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, the prison transferred from public ownership to a corporation in the course of the show’s plot. The Director of Human Activities, Joe Caputo (played by Nick Sandow), must constantly struggle with balancing the best interests of the prisoners and local community while managing his relationship with MCC, the company seeking a profit from its new investment. The show’s writers, producers, and actors reveal ethical quandaries in running a correctional facility as a business venture and their story arcs reveal the unfair, harmful and dangerous practices that can result from this approach. Viewed through multiple stakeholders including the prisoners, guards and their friends, family and colleagues, it presents a unique picture from a clear point of view of a debated issue in contemporary public policy circles.
  • “Scandal” (ABC):  Plotlines on this prime time soap opera can be over-the-top and ridiculous, but Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) and her friends and enemies still work within the context of public financing processes and the administrative state. B613, the clandestine extra-legal agency that maintains stability for the country through tactics including blackmail, torture and assassinations, managed to use gimmicks in the federal budget to fund its operations. Throughout the show, there is a tension between the authorities of elected officials and the power of the national security apparatus as it lends its expertise and abilities to instances of civil unrest and constitutional crises. 
  • “The Office” (Netflix, originally NBC): The setting of this program is the private sector, the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The human resources and workforce efficiency problems, however, can illuminate concepts in public management. From romance in the office, to motivational struggles, to integrating young workers into the operations and culture of the organization, Regional Manager Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) and his employees provide cringe-worthy examples of how not to run a business or any other form of an agency. 
  • “House of Cards” (Netflix), VEEP (HBO), West Wing (Netflix, originally NBC):  If the real world of politics is not interesting enough, then the palace intrigue of leaders and policymakers of these programs should entertain the wonks. 

The full disclosure here is that I have not yet seen House of Cards or most episodes of VEEP, so those are on my list to watch should I have a free moment this summer. Fortunately for all of us, there are ample options for great public administration television programs to help us procrastinate, avoid social interactions, or stay inside on a beautiful summer day. Enjoy!

AuthorBenjamin Deitchman, Ph.D. M.P.A. is a practitioner in Atlanta. His book, State Energy Policy Tools, is due out early next year. His email is [email protected] and he’s on Twitter @Deitchman

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