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The Public Manager

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

By Rhonda Allen
October 19, 2019

Public managers are at the heart of government service. They are the pulse that signifies the delivery of services and programs in public organizations. While public administration has changed dramatically over the years, public managers shift and adapt to ensure services and programs continue to operate. Three areas of constant focus for public managers include:

  • Accountability (liable for actions). 
  • Effectiveness (success in producing desired results).
  • Responsiveness (reacting quickly). 

As public managers move within the constraints of the bureaucracy to achieve program outcomes, some may become weary; there must be a better way. How can public managers be more useful in their citizen-facing, citizen supporting roles? Is there enough flexibility in bureaucracy to design mechanisms for which they can achieve organizational goals? As public organizations continue to grow more complex, so do the constraints. Even with the knowledge and experience that public managers have, they continue to struggle for the proper balance among the baseline suppositions. As a result, public managers frequently choose one goal over the other. 

As we continue to analyze program effectiveness, agency responsiveness and accountability, one cannot help to notice the complicated and often highly fragmented environment in which many public managers operate (especially at the federal level). Sometimes the fragmentation and the many participants lead to power being so dispersed that the result is gridlock. Adding to the gridlock is the system of checks and balances that can be unintentionally counterproductive; leading to a lack of effectiveness and responsiveness.

While excessive fragmentation can negatively affect efficiency and decrease managerial capacity, modifying the fragmentation of government by eliminating the overlapping units could simplify the process. Creating a system of multiple controls subject to flexible opposition would permit the transmission of various influences from differing sources. The results would enable public managers to maneuver as needed and operate in an increasing political atmosphere. Cutting time, effort and use of resources will result in higher levels of accountability, effectiveness, and yes, responsiveness. 

Using an Open Systems framework for this discussion, public managers are expected to respond immediately and often without adequate time to plan. There are no considerations given to external environmental factors, thus making the public manager’s job of implementing policies and programs more complicated. Outputs become challenging to analyze. Some agencies may emphasize outputs instead of outcomes; leading to the question, do the potential benefits outweigh the limitations. To that end, public organizations work best when there are reasonable controls and held accountable. 

In support of public managers, their organizations must engage them and their citizens. Give both employees and the citizenry a vested interest in the process. Employing the use (or continued use) of technology and social media to reach citizens will assist in collecting and disseminating information. Relying on input from citizens and employees for improving government services remains vital for public administration.

Public managers want to do the best job possible, but with limited budgets and human resources, they are stretched thin. This situation is a real dilemma for operating within public organizations. There are no new earth-shattering models that seem to address the issue. It is time for cutting waste, red tape and rhetoric so public managers can do their jobs without roadblocks.                     

After all this time, public managers continue to have a compelling desire to work on problems and make government better. Public managers aspire to work on issues—and to accomplish their tasks. The key is finding what is most important and then attaching the limited resources to those programs/services. Employ the use of technology to gather and share vital information (internally and externally) for public programs. Public managers must arm themselves with as much information as possible to increase responsiveness and to some degree, effectiveness. Last and certainly not least, accountability cannot disappear in the bureaucratic and political system. Public managers must remain responsible for their actions in order to address inadequacies. 

The system is far from perfect, yet public managers continue to focus on fulfilling the requirements of public service. It is hard work, but let it not undermine the foundation of managing the government. Employ strategies that engage citizens & employees to ensure responsiveness, identify the priorities and attach resources, implement for effectiveness and evaluate to remain accountable for the public good.

Author: Dr. Rhonda Allen, Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs | Northern Arizona University. Contact info: [email protected]



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