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Sustainability: A Vital Public Administration Value

Most of the readers of this article probably have some appreciation for the natural world around them and connect this outdoor appreciation with recreational pursuits or with active involvement in some environmental organization. Except for those directly involved in administering environmentally-oriented activities, consideration of sustainability is unlikely to intersect our professional interests in public administration. The purpose of this short article is to argue that this separation of the concept of sustainability from public administration is no longer appropriate and that the time to enter this concept into our professional dialogue is now.

In February 2012, the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), as part of the campus strategic planning process, released a statement on the five areas of key campus priorities. One of the areas identified was sustainability, and this area asked the campus community to give special focus to this concern by identifying possible ways to further this priority in teaching, research and service. Stimulated by these developments, the Nebraska American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) chapter, which is closely connected with the UNO School of Public Administration, has begun discussion about hosting a symposium on sustainability in fall 2013 in cooperation with multiple campus and community partners.  In planning such an effort, these discussions have focused on what role sustainability plays in the practice of public administration.

The foundation of most professional practices begin with dominant values, some of which only come into prominence over time. The field of public administration has encountered the periodic rise of dominant values beginning in the early days of the self-aware field of public administration when the work of the municipal research bureau placed a clear emphasis on the concept of efficiency as a primary value. A focus on performance in the 1950s and 1960s brought the concept of effectiveness to the fore. Next was the addition of equity resulting from initial efforts at the Minnowbrook Conference in 1968. While all of these values continue to have substantial impact on current practice and influence thinking about sustainability, the central point made in this article is that there is a need to raise the visibility of sustainability to a level commensurate to the other basic values in the field.

While there are differing views of sustainability, the essential element is that the objective of  today’s civic sector is to meet today’s needs while not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (UN Commission of Environment and Development). Obviously there exist differing views about the urgency for action on sustainability issues like climate change, but there are growing pressures and evidence compelling concerted public action to advance sustainable objectives nationally and globally. Only in a totally Darwinian world is it fully possible to ignore threats to sustainability.

Within the field of public administration and the civic sector, it is possible to identify periodic concern for issues of environmental policy and sustainability. President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in the early days of the twentieth century provides an example of the first of broad-based concern for the preservation of the country’s natural resources. The 1948 writing of Aldo Leopold,  A Sand County Almanac, is often credited with the awakening of an environmental ethic. In the public arena, issues of environmental concern gained saliency with the concept of Earth Day which continues to be observed more than four decades later. Arguably it was the explosive growth of environmental legislation in the 1970s including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that provided a starting point for today’s attention on environmental and sustainability concerns. Within public administration, the 2009 book by Deniz Zeynep Leuenberger and John R. Bartle, Sustainable Development for Public Administration, provides one of the best comprehensive treatments of sustainability in the public arena and lays out some directions for the field of public administration, a discussion which needs expansion.

The most obvious case for emphasis on sustainability is premised on moral or ethical considerations and related to the concept of stewardship. Intergenerational and global equity considerations are primary to the concern. The recently adopted ASPA code of ethics calls for “strengthening social equity” and for maintaining the “highest standard of stewardship.” Despite these compelling reasons, sustainability remains only a tangential argument in public administration.

Additional logic for action to promote sustainability focuses on economic gains resulting from improved energy efficiency, improved building standards, and recycling and reuse. Amory Lovins in a recent TED Talk spoke to the issue of efficiency gains in the energy field by suggesting that every gain in energy savings means less oil needs to be extracted or imported resulting in marked improvement of domestic security and economic prosperity. Beyond the emphasis on gains from improved efficiency in using energy, we now have evidence that different development strategies have an impact on municipal budgets and improve their financial bottom lines. Smart Growth America has recently released a report, Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development (2013)This report surveys 17 studies that compare different development scenarios, including Nashville-Davidson County, TN, and provides empirical evidence that smart growth practices result in less up-front costs of infrastructure, less on-going costs for the delivery of services and more tax revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.

For both equity and economy reasons, we need to continue to chart a path forward in creating greater sustainability awareness in the field of public administration. Such actions include the necessity of making the concept of sustainability increasingly a part of the public debate. In addition, there is a need within the field to broaden an awareness of the profound connection between the use of natural resources and public policy. These issues will be central to the discussions that the ASPA Nebraska chapter begins to examine this fall, and we urge other chapters to begin or continue the dialogue.


Author: Carl D. Ekstrom, Ph. D., a member of ASPA since 1964 is currently affiliated with the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha and serves as ASPA Nebraska Chapter Secretary-Treasurer.

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