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The Future Is Now- The Rebuilding or Deconstruction of Public Administration

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

By Michael Abels
October 15, 2018

American public administration has traveled through many eras since Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1887 about the necessity to professionalize public administration. In the 1980s the “New Public Administration” emphasized equity. In the 1990s the “New Public Management” focused on business practices and efficiency. By the turn of the 21st century “New Public Service” advocated for the public interest to be a centerpiece for public administration. Our current era could be labeled as the “deconstruction of public administration.” Public service is being degraded by continual legislative and political attacks on the infrastructure, e.g.  personnel, wages, benefits, neutrality, of public service. This coupled with the US becoming politically, culturally and religiously tribal has resulted in the public losing confidence in elected officials, each other and our political system. A 2018 PEW research poll found that only 21 percent believe government is run for the benefit of all, 56 percent lack confidence in political wisdom of their fellow citizens and only 25 percent have confidence in elected officials. Deterioration of faith in the country’s political system is a factor contributing to the degradation of professional administration.

This column explores the future of public administration. What characteristics will we identify with the next epoch? To help in this exploration questionnaires were sent to practitioners and academics asking what they saw for the future of the profession. Two tracts of possible future scenarios emerged from this survey and, with my thoughts included, are described below.

Interestingly, these two tracts have also been identified in a report published by the Brooking Institute. Brookings labels the tracts as government “dismantlers” or “rebuilders.” Dismantlers want smaller government with major reform. Rebuilders would have a larger government with more services. Both dismantlers and rebuilders desire major reform in government.

First Track-Deconstructing or Dismantling Public Administration

Government at all levels is attacked with the public believing that public administration is inefficient at best, incompetent and corrupt at worst. Tribalism defines the political culture. The business model and privatization dominate government philosophy; replacing citizens with customers remains the central administrative principle. Public choice, self-interest and libertarian philosophy rule the political system. Public services are focused to those in the tribe that possesses political dominance. Low taxes are the mantra echoed by elected officials. As a result, safety net programs at the federal level are dismantled with reliance placed on private institutions to assume responsibility for social service intervention. The judiciary disassembles the administrative state resulting in the dismantling of program regulatory regimes. Federal involvement in broad national issues ruled unconstitutional. As a result, the federal government is unable to address national problems e.g. climate change. Services other than national defense increasingly shift to state and local level. Reduction in revenue at all levels prohibits large problems such as infrastructure and inequality from being adequately addressed. At the federal and state level the civil service system experiences momentous erosion with salaries and benefits losing competitiveness. The spoils system increases in use for personnel recruitment. Local government, the level most accountable to citizens, remains competitive with salaries and benefits, but personnel competitiveness coupled with the drive for low taxes requires continual service reductions.

Second Track-Rebuilding for the Public Interest

Millennials and generation Z implant new societal norms that are more collective, global, accepting of diversity and long term oriented. Major societal issues such as climate change, income inequality health insurance are addressed from a national perspective with implementation accomplished through federal, state and local government collaboration. Divisive political tribalism is significantly reversed. Majority of citizens express confidence in government at all levels, and, public polls show support for elected leaders and public programs.  Increased civic confidence improves public willingness to bear the financial cost for funding comprehensive solutions to national, state, and local problems. As seen in the first scenario and as occurred in the 1930s, courts are impediment for national policy initiatives. Controlling judicial philosophy of constitutional originalism daunt centralized, large issue legislative policy.     The movement of people from rural to urban centers continues with collaboration and public engagement serving as guiding values for local government administration. Local and state government invest in infrastructure development with an emphasis on rural re-development and sustainability. Professional politically neutral administration with competitive financial remuneration to those who work in the public sector is a supported public value.

Conclusion  

This column has depicted two futures for public administration; one dismantling, one rebuilding.  The path we are on closely aligns with the dismantling scenario. But dismantling is not ordained.  Public administration can pursue a future of rebuilding. However, this will require the public to regain confidence in their government, as well as acquiring an understanding about the role public administration plays in improving their quality of life. A future of rebuilding will require reversing the confidence deficit that exists. To rebuild, public administrators, both practitioners and academics, must engage in on-going programs to educate the public about governance in the US, and, the central role public administration plays in enhancing the quality of life for all citizens. If rebuilding is to be the future for public administration, then public administrators, as a primary mission, must engage in public education.


Author: Michael Abels Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently adjunct instructor at Stetson University.  Recently published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government.  Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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