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The Human Face of Governance: Public Service in Times of Crisis

This column originally ran in the October 2010 print issue of PA TIMES.

Meredith Newman

I am taking a liberty for this issue of the President’s Column to draw from a keynote presentation I made at the 28th International Congress of Administrative Sciences held in Bali, Indonesia, July 12-17. Over 450 participants (including many ASPA members) from more than 50 countries participated. My abridged address follows.

We should never forget that we are here as public servants. And public service is a privilege…We must stand up together and answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century.

As we come together in Bali, these words from President Obama’s Inaugural Address 18-months ago capture the themes of this joint IIAS/IASIA congress. They provide a foundation for my remarks this morning. I want to highlight “service” and “challenges” by focusing on the human face of governance, and public service in times of crisis. In doing so, my purpose is to bridge the two themes of our joint congress; namely, “Public Administration Facing New Dynamics: Constraints, Innovation and Sustainability; and Public Sector Strategies for Overcoming Growing Global Inequality.”

I will address the themes of the human processes of governance and crisis through the lens of public servants on the front lines of crisis response, and underscore the relationship between social inequality and disasters. I will discuss our global challenges, and conclude by identifying the emotive skills that public administrators need if they are to rise to the challenges in service to the public. I hope that you will be able to take away some lessons from my remarks that may provide insights into the human processes of public service. But first, the context.
Despite the impressive strides made by nations like China and India, absolute inequality between the richest and poorest countries is greater than ever before.

  • •In 2000, the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s people earned 415 times more than the earnings of the poorest 1 percent – up from 216 times in 1980.
  • •The global distribution of household wealth is even more unequal. In 2000, the top 10 percent of adults (over age 20) in the world owned 85 percent of such wealth, while the bottom half owned barely 1 percent.
  • The number of people suffering from hunger has now topped 1 billion globally, the highest since 1970.
  • Soaring prices for food and fuel have pushed more than 130 million poor people across vast swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America deeper into poverty in the past year.
  • The global food crisis has devastating human consequences, with particularly severe impacts on women and children.
  • In the United States in 2008, nearly 17 million children (22.5 percent) lived in households in which food at times was scarce, 4 million children more than the year before–representing significant and growing food insecurity.
  • Two-thirds of the 1 billion illiterate in the world are women and girls.
  • Minorities, women and indigenous peoples are acute victims of inequality traps. They face disproportionate impediments to accessing capital and education.

Beyond these statistics, what does inequality look like up close and personal? Looking through the lens of crisis response provides a snapshot of the human dynamics of governance, and the emergency personnel as the face of government.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us that we live in an era of crises, in a risk society. Crises situations are ubiquitous, including crises or disasters involving whole communities, regions or nations. The September 11 attacks in New York in 2001, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed more than 230,000 in a dozen nations, Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, earthquakes in China in 2008, Indonesia in 2009, Haiti and Chile this year are just a handful of recent crises that engage public servants around the world.

The human toll of these crises in developing nations becomes exacerbated by the areas’ relative poverty and questionable construction standards and the concomitant limited state capacity and infrastructure. It is the interaction between nature and society that produces the vulnerability of places. In Haiti we are seeing, as we did with Hurricane Katrina, the profound importance of social factors in so-called natural disasters.

While the initiating event was natural, the factors that turned this 7.0 magnitude geological event into a catastrophe are entirely human. We have known for years the role that poverty plays in creating vulnerability to natural hazards. Limited state capacity, poor physical and social infrastructure and educational opportunities combine to create tragic consequences when a crisis strikes. Consider that in Haiti (the poorest country in the hemisphere), the earthquake claimed at least 220,000 lives and left a million homeless. Devastation was so complete in the Haitian capital, that the government virtually disappeared.

By contrast, the earthquake’s toll in Chile–with a magnitude of 8.8–was limited to about 700 deaths by sound planning and the nation’s enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes. Laws requiring construction that can withstand temblors, and an immediate-response network of rescuers and emergency personnel was able to quickly spring into action. President Michelle Bachelet was visible in the first hours after the earthquake, clearly in charge, speaking to the public and overseeing rescue efforts.

Closer to home, the revelations of inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath are not just about failures in the overall emergency management system. They are also about failures of the social support systems for America’s impoverished–the largely invisible urban poor. The landscape of social inequity has increased the division between rich and poor in the United States and has led to the increasing social vulnerability of our residents, especially to coastal hazards. One of New Orleans’ nicknames, The City that Care Forgot, illustrates that government is ultimately judged by how its most vulnerable citizens are treated.

Socially created vulnerabilities are largely ignored in the disaster literature because they are so hard to measure and quantify. Social vulnerability is partially a product of social inequalities–those social factors that create the susceptibility of various groups to harm, and in turn affect their ability to respond, and bounce back after a disaster. But it is much more than that. Social vulnerability involves the basic provision of health care, the livability of places, overall indicators of quality of life, and accessibility to lifelines including goods, services, and emergency response personnel; capital, and political representation. These are amongst the foci of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This is the calling card of public service.

Crises and disasters happen. Indeed, we plan on it. To lessen their impacts in the future, we need to reduce our social vulnerability and increase disaster resilience with improvements in the social conditions and living standards in our cities–whether we are speaking about Port au Prince in Haiti, Mianyang City of southwestern Sichuan Province, Padang in West Sumatra, or New Orleans. In other words, we need strong governments and highly trained public servants to tackle these challenges. Let’s take a look at some of these public servants on the job–those working in times of crisis, some of the most demanding, dangerous and challenging of all public service jobs.

Like the expression that all politics is local, most disasters are really local disasters. Natural and man-made disasters in the United States are primarily the responsibility of the local governmental jurisdictions in which they occur. Local government is often the first and only operational responder through organizations such as fire departments, emergency medical services, hospitals, police departments and county rescue squads. As the “face” of government, first-responders and emergency services personnel carry a unique responsibility.
They are the government, up close and personal, on the worst day of a citizen’s life. Look closely and you will see the human processes of governance superimposed on their work.

The human tragedy in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti continues to unfold. As with Hurricane Katrina, disaster victims rely on government to take the lead in coordinating the response, and to rally local, national and international donors and relief organizations. The images coming out of the capital of Port-au-Prince and the coastal city of Jacmel illustrate life and death, hope and despair, in stark relief. First-responders become the lifelines–to a schoolgirl trapped beneath the rubble, to a pregnant woman rescued days later, to the dazed and bloodied father searching for his family.

Responsiveness also exacts a toll on those who respond. The line between victims and non-victims is not as obvious as might appear at first glance. Beyond those who have been hurt physically–or have incurred losses of possessions–are a wide variety of hidden victims. Rescuers themselves are impacted by disasters. Like personnel in emergency organizations, such individuals constitute a portion of the hidden victims of disaster. The emotional toll on those working at “the edge of chaos” can manifest itself in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other physiological or psychological symptoms. A large percentage of emergency workers experience powerful physical and psychological “aftershocks” to their work. The burden of being the face of government can be overwhelming. Responding in these environments can be career-changing, even career-ending. As part of my ongoing research with my colleagues Professors Mary Guy and Sharon Mastracci, we have interviewed emergency services personnel in Colorado, Illinois and Florida to learn how they do this work. This research extends our earlier work on the concept of emotional labor: putting the service in public service.

Crisis response can be defined broadly of course. Challenges abound and government responds in each arena. The UN Millennium Development Goals provide a framework for looking at human processes writ large. Governments and their public servants have the obligation to aggressively address each of these global challenges. This is easier said than done of course. To wit, the World Bank has estimated the MDGs for overcoming global poverty have been set back at least seven years by the global financial crisis. It calculates that increased malnutrition last year may have caused an additional 44 million children to suffer permanent physical or mental impairment. I will mention one of the UN goals only–gender equality and women’s rights.

The case is Haiti, but it could be applied in any number of nations. Gender equality in every aspect of Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction process is vital to the country’s future prosperity. Before the earthquake, Haitian women had a low level of political participation and held about 4 percent of seats in Parliament. Lack of representation limits their voice in economic and social policy decision-making.

Currently, Haiti has no specific legislation protecting women from sexual discrimination, nor does it criminalize gender-based violence. Given the traditionally limited role of women in decision-making processes at the household, village and national levels in most cultures, their needs, interests and constraints are often not reflected in policy-making processes and laws which are important for poverty reduction, food security and environmental sustainability.
Access to decision-making and equal representation of men and women in positions of political and administrative power is key to addressing poverty, poor healthcare, sexual discrimination, and education deficiencies. Women must be able to participate in decision-making and political processes that affect them. The recent establishment of a single UN agency to promote equality for women, known as “UN Women” marks a significant step in the advancement of women’s rights. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “By bringing together four parts of the UN system dedicated to women’s issues, member states have created a much stronger voice for women and for gender equality at the global level.”

Challenges surround us. But the context in which we are functioning is nothing less than a fiscal storm. The global crisis continues to unfold, with state and local governments going through their own fiscal ordeal. These challenges need to be met by a highly trained public service. Public administrators who excel in both cognitive (technical) competencies as well as emotive skills are likely to be more effective.

Our graduates should become proficient in management, analytic skills, and policy. These are essential cognitive skills. But these skills are necessary but insufficient for preparing our students to be effective public servants. Feedback from graduates often indicates that their training failed to adequately prepare them for the human processes involved in the administration and delivery of public services.

Although provided with training in cognitive skills, they are left on their own to acquire an appreciation for, and to develop skill in, nuanced emotive skills. This is especially the case for graduates who work in service delivery programs that are emotionally intense, such as disaster services and emergency medical services.

One such emotive skill is expressing compassion. Focusing on the human processes of governance points up the centrality of person-to-person interactions in the citizen-state exchange. Being able to express care and concern for citizens in dire circumstances is an important skill for officials and public servants alike. For people whose lives have been disrupted or who are in shock, symbols of competent caring on the part of their government are extremely important.

As we have seen with the events of September 11, 2001, governments suffer if they exhibit apathy. President George W. Bush’s reaction to the news of the World Trade Center attacks (characterized as a paralyzing lack of emotion), and the more recent criticism of President Obama’s reported “lawyerly and passive” response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill illustrate both how the media’s portrayal can shape public perception, and the importance of serving “with feeling.”

To conclude, the issues surrounding the human processes of governance and social inequality are both difficult to ignore and difficult to resolve. They are compounded in times of crisis. Crises and disasters are income neutral and color-blind. Their impacts, however, are not. Gender differences in deaths from natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. Gender inequalities become magnified in disaster situations.

We can probably agree with President Obama’s words–that what is important is not what is right or left, but what works. Public servants and public sector officials–those of us gathered here today–do this work not because it is easy but because it is hard. The most daunting challenges are assigned to government. Emergency personnel tackle the consequences of social inequality on a daily basis.

With my colleagues Mary Guy and Sharon Mastracci, we are continuing our research into public service at the razor’s edge to shine a bright light onto how emergency services personnel do their work in some of the most traumatic circumstances. I would like to end where I began–we are here as public servants. Public service is a privilege. Let us find ways together to meet the challenges of our new century. We are in this together–let’s get to work!

ASPA member Meredith Newman is the Society’s president and a professor and director of the department of public administration at Florida International University. Email: [email protected]

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