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The New Public Administration Professional

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

By Emily Costa
October 22, 2018

Our response to the complexities of the Great Depression and World War II was an increase in the role of government and public administrators. As the twentieth century progressed, a greater need and understanding of public administration took hold. Americans understood that helping their less fortunate neighbors bettered society as a whole, in the long run. No longer were there poor houses or people begging on the streets. Whilst taxes may have increased, schools improved. As did infrastructure and services for the poor. A baseline was set for our society. In essence, public responsibility for the less fortunate living among us was accepted as a public policy to be enacted. Governments served as intermediaries. They allocated the funds to public administrators and nonprofits to who spent money proudly and appropriately.

The greatest challenge to public administration today is the loss of this belief system. While historically the twentieth century saw a great emergence in funding public programs, this has wavered in the first two decades of the twenty-first century dramatically. Public administrators face a modern population resolute with service fees instead of tax increases. We also come face to face literally with citizens begging for money on street corners every day. A reemergence from the nineteenth century no doubt, although mostly unseen before The Great Recession.

McSwire writes, “most citizens feel terrible about the plight of the homeless in their community… so it is left to the public sector… the consequence of this is that leaders perform their roles with an eye turned to their own career stakes and personal ambitions.” As a country, we are all turning away as well.

A subsequent challenge may therefore be privatization of public programs. Research states clearly profit driven methodologies are unsuccessful in the public sector. Yet, politicians move towards this, campaigning on it frequently. Our schools, hospitals and veteran affairs offices are all at risk. Privatization does not increase access; therefore, twenty first century public administrators must determine new pathways that reach those who will be left out.

My own experiences as a public servant have shown me the results of those left out of society. As a General Educational Development (GED) tutor at a local nonprofit in Rhode Island, I worked with adults at all different levels, some of which had never attended school whatsoever. One man in his late fifties, did not attend classes to apprehend his GED, he attended classes to learn the fundamentals of reading and telling time. Another student was a young woman with a non-violent felony conviction on her record. As the day to take her GED exam grew closer, her anxiety worsened. She knew she could pass the exam, but also knew she would never find employment because of her criminal record. If privatization were to take hold, both of these students may be seen as not worthwhile candidates to be in a GED preparatory program. Neither would boost statistics and value of a for-profit enterprise.

“Even if you would want to go work for the government—and why would you—wouldn’t you be better off getting an M.B.A or a Law Degree?” McSwire reminds us of the popular rhetoric spoken by college students. As funding for the public-sector decreases, so does the reputation of public sector employers. The pensions and perks of government employment are fading quickly too, leading the best and brightest to head down other paths. Confronting this means confronting our societal flaws and leading by example. In the example of the two students in the GED program, the nonprofit administrators and teachers are the heroes. They don’t value their work in monetary form, they value their students’ personal progress, regardless of where they began. Their lives are likely improved by attending the GED program, so the nonprofit was successful. Before joining the for-profit workforce, the public sector should lay out its major benefit to prospective graduates: move away from measuring your success through monetary rewards.

Our role as public administrators is to empathize with the greater world around us even though backgrounds may be fundamentally different than our own. Especially now, in a society devaluing the phrase, “we are the sum of our parts,” a public administrator’s role must change. Now only must we master efficiency and effectiveness but we must also become greater advocates. We should strive not to drive into the city everyday to work at a nonprofit, but to live in the city and bolster struggling communities while still working at a nonprofit.

Author: Emily Costa is a Master’s of Public Administration Student at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. She currently resides in Providence. [email protected]

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