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The Future of Public Administration: Sub-fields, Promises and Time

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

By Lisa Saye
May 23, 2021

In a White House Rose Garden speech on May 13, 2021, President Joe Biden removed his face mask and proclaimed that it was a great day for America. To be sure, COVID-19 vaccines are being administered to people around the world, stores and schools are slowly reopening and many states are relaxing mask and social distance requirements. There is good news and much hope to go around, but as COVID-19’s variants increase and as the lessons we need to learn from the pandemic continue to unfold, we know that the emergency is far from over.

COVID-19 created a sub-field of social, political, economic and terrestrial public administration because of the physical restrictions placed on government, government employees and the public. Neither well-intentioned in-box exercises nor extensive models of government adequately covered the entirety of the focus within this new sub-field. Thus, 2020 became a meta-practice of implementation surrounding the dissemination of public services while working within the legal parameters of policy. We saw how governments around the world recognized the complexities in public service delivery in policy narratives that were designed during milder or in less inclusive eras. The pandemic called on everyone to participate in assisting in the delivery of public goods. Out of absolute necessity, it has provided the first and only stage of government whereby all citizens contribute to policy creation, policy analysis and policy implementation. It is tragic here to say that it is about time, but it is.

Public Administration is not a new curiosity. It is a socio-economic system that is embedded in a particular political system. Since COVID-19 began, public administration has become a working prototype of an advanced capacity of collaboration. Freedom and equality had an earlier birth than actual government, with some more free than others. Dispassionate attitudes of separation and indifference to others lingered too long in agencies tasked with the redistribution of public goods and services. For public service, the COVDID-19 year and beyond represents a dramatic contrast to government as usual. It continues the reform that the pandemic ushered in and hopefully continues the public, private and citizen collaboration of service delivery. For an extended time, COVID-19 has prompted public administrators to determine what represents a sufficient level of government when no one is able to go anywhere.

COVID-19 forced public administrators to resist relying on the imbalance of an emotional analysis. Real data became important, flexible schedules became comfortable and normal and equality of access to health services became top-of-mind in saving lives. Old patterns of access faded quickly when the structure of administration became sanitized by masked cleaning teams. Because dysfunction was disruptive and nonessential, government got a lot clearer, a little smaller and more responsive under the circumstances.

I have stated many times in my many articles how I would describe the role of the public administrator. My words may often appear to be naïve or too hopeful. Accepting those appearances would be faulty. My articles allow me the opportunity to celebrate the promises that government makes toward the lives of its citizens. I attempt to present narrative in each article that represents the various blueprints we use to that end. The interest of a public administrator must be based on what is best for the public. That may sound like an overstatement, but were it fully actionable it would not need to be said. The public administrator is a peacemaker, a tribal leader and a negotiator whose vocation it is to make the journey of the public we serve more accessible.

During the height of the pandemic, the world watched the same frightening show every day and every night. We prayed for quick relief, we longed for a rapid path back to normalcy and we hoped that our leaders and essential personnel remained healthy. Taking our mask off is indeed welcoming. It heralds a return to ourselves and to our lives. As that happens, we must continue to unmask racial inequalities, health disparities, corruption and anything that stops us from delivering on the promises of government. COVID-19 has showed us what we can do when we have less and when we are forced to do more. These lessons should become new strategies in the planning and implementation processes going forward.

Each era and each emergency generates new concepts and new ways to solve crises. COVID-19 will continue to create complications, conceptualizations and challenges until it becomes as manageable as the common cold. Public administrators will be here until then and beyond keeping promises and producing results. The time that it will take for the world to recover post-vaccine is unknown. What is known is that time is multi-faceted, time is fleeting and time is never captured. But, in every era of government, time is what we make it.


Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Research Methods for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at DePaul University. Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Dr. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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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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