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The General Relativity of Public Administration 

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

By Lisa Saye
March 10, 2023

@Relativish, 2023, Photo and Title by Lisa Saye 

Constitutions are governing documents that are designed in the transformative spaces towards change and stability. Depending on the delivery method, constitutions are either draped in grief or glittered in triumph. A constitution gives away what the state or government apparatus favors the most and what it favors the least. To the deepest eye, constitutional languaging matters and must be welded to purpose if it is going to do any good. The intentional construction of public service is one way forward, but not the only way forward. Constitutions, when implemented well, help out a lot. 

Constitutions cannot fix a lack of wage growth. They are powerless against workforce declines. Since politics can be so emotional, any accurate quantification of a particular debate is often lost or impossible. Nevertheless, constitutions represent the idealistic narrative of those in charge and of the utopia that the government hopes they are or hopes that they can be. Constitutions are unique because they emerge out of crisis and out of a desire to not-crisis.  

In heavy memory is the fact that many constitutions are in opposition to actual, asphalt reality. Many have not always been designed and implemented as part of an environment of purity. The paragraphs of some constitutions are little more than administrative constructs embedded into a cleverly written fable about a particular area. In many sections, democracy is a footnote or afterthought squeezed into the tight details of governmental intent. Democracy is not a discount ideology, but it can suffer from misplaced versioning when a Constitution is meant as entertainment. At its center, democracy is a substantive political art form derived from ancient certainties about the equality of all people. Constitutions that are formed without basic democratic elements of justice and equality are just props. Trying to implement such a weak document is akin to trying to shovel smoke. 

Public administrators know that public service is a renewable resource. This is its massive appeal for the individuals who passionately want to serve. For those who tamper with democracy, public service is a nuisance and is not widely admired. In his 1867 book entitled, The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot cited listening to the assembly as one of the formative elements of constitutional government. Indeed, listening to the citizenry is a skill and public service is always a form of listening. Bagehot further states how expanding the assembly ensures democratical governance. A truer phrase has never been spoken. Public service is most effective where democratic constitutional ideals are real and are implemented toward a reality of true equality.  

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is hardly the place for explanations of public administration or public service. Yet, the relativity that gravity creates as the effect of the curvature of space-time on objects is simple enough to borrow when discussing the relativity of public administration and the impact of constitutional attributes on stable government. The elements or the attributes in a constitution bend, curve and define the space in which the relationship between public administration and public service outcomes grow and connect. If the constitutional attributes are undefined or if the interests are too narrow, the relationship is unstable and so on. The state’s will or its constitution shapes its environment of public service thereby guaranteeing the extent of the implementation of its public goods and services. 

So, context matters. Without a foundational basis or enabling statute, public administration has no where to go and its demise becomes highly predictable. For as long as they stand, Constitutions represent the final draft of the original debate for a particular society. There will still be some divide within that debate, but public administrators understand that despite the divide that exists, there is no divide in providing public service. 

When the air is full of rumor and distrust, we run toward the old certainties of words. We want to believe that our constitutions are punctuation marks of the kind/type of public service a particular government promises its citizens. We want to believe that they mean every word. To be sure, public administration has come up the hard way. With every new generation comes a new assembly of needs. Since space and time are always moving, so should our capacity for serving the next assembly of citizens under a constitution of good words. For those citizens, we must remember to stand guard when it matters the most and also to stand guard when no one is looking. 

In Loving Memory of Harry Leon Tribbit, Jr.   

The @Relativish image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye. 

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye is OSO Director for the District of Columbia at America Works in Washington, D.C.. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].  

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