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The Colors of the Wind: A Common Sense Revolution in Public Service

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

By Lisa Saye
April 16, 2018

Can You Paint With All the Colors of the Wind?

This question was melodically asked in a song that was sung by Vanessa Williams in Disney’s 1995 animated movie, Pocahontas. Preceding the question are several observations meant to reveal the degree to which we are all connected. The song connects man, moon, animal, earth and weather. In the lyrics, you imagine the wind, moving through time and place — gathering the climate of each era, coloring the landscape in different flavors.

Public Administration has been present for every wind of public or social reform that has whistled or roared through the ages. Each wind has carved the path for the next wind, despite our selfish beliefs that the latest winds of change are the only ones that matter.

In 1776, Thomas Paine sold Americans on revolution and independence in a pamphlet called Common Sense. America’s journey toward Common Sense began in London when Benjamin Franklin convinced then Englishman Thomas Paine to migrate to the U.S. Paine did just that, arriving in Philadelphia in 1774 with a Letter of Introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Less than two years later, on January 10, 1776, America began to digest Paine’s four-part pamphlet of fewer than 50 pages and by July 4th, 1776, the country declared its independence from England. Paine, the first to call the U.S. colonies The United States of America, helped galvanize a population of immigrants in forming a new nation.

The wind of revolution cleared the way for the wind of democracy, but there was still work to do. The U.S. was young and naïve, imperfect in its treatment of Native Americans, slaves, women and others, but the template for revolution was born. Since then, U.S. government has become a reflection of the remnants of the tipping points of every recorded era. The spoils system, the end of slavery, the Industrial Era, the politics-administration dichotomy, the scientific method and the creation of the executive budget are a rough summary of notable events but are by no means a complete list. Public servants were there for all of it — planning, managing and implementing.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

                                                Thomas Paine, The American Crisis (1776-1783)

Before George Washington made his famous crossing of the Delaware River during the American Revolution, he ordered his officers to read Thomas Paine’s, The American Crisis, to the soldiers. The pamphlet series and Common Sense served as part of the narrative-track for the Revolution.

If we could point to the narrative-track for the personnel revolution in public administration in the U.S., we would have quite a few writings to choose from. In 1945, it was Paul Appleby telling us that government was different. More than twenty years later in 1968, we would be extolling the virtues of Frederick Mosher’s book entitled, Democracy and the Public Service, thrilled that we were given an expert outline of the ways to design and sustain public servants within a democratic government. But it is Paul Light’s 1999 book entitled, The New Public Service that could easily serve as the introduction for our modern Common Sense Revolution. Light remarked that one of the main characteristics of the new public service is its diversity in personnel as well as in hiring. I agree with Light, and to that notion I propose that government’s effectiveness will be measured in how it embraces and includes energies and ideas from what I like to call a diversity of capacities.

In this era, as in every preceding era, public servants need to develop a preponderance of skill, knowledge, observations and resolutions to serve the public. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense encourages us to look to society because society encourages discussion. His suggestion has traction in the current environment. We cannot learn, and we certainly cannot serve the public if we do not talk to each other. We have to take a common sense approach to diversity, so much so that it is our narratives, like Paine’s, that are read and reviewed before major life-changing decisions and events. We have to be the wind, crossing borders and blowing change through stubborn and inflexible systems of government.

Indeed, we are living through the times that try men’s and women’s souls. But, that is nothing new. Every previous generation and every generation to come will make the same statement and with an equal amount of passion. Public servants must do what we always do during a revolution. We must rise again to the occasion. Our challenge is to produce more than catchy slogans and phrases that fail to address our goals of bringing different capacities into the public hall. Our challenge is to paint a proud legacy of change for a population that so richly deserves it.

Images: All images were taken by Lisa Saye in Brazil, the U.S., China, Africa, Nepal and Haiti.

Author: Lisa Saye is Executive Director of The Policy Analysis Institute. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management from Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached at [email protected]

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