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The Public Sector’s Call to Action: Evoking Post-Pandemic Opportunities for Societal Change

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

By Matthew Wheeler
January 29, 2024

The global COVID-19 pandemic was a time of great adversity across all sectors and professional disciplines. Yet, as public administrators, we also were offered the opportunity to promote and reiterate our values in new and previously questioned forums. As we emerge into a post-pandemic era characterized as our new normal, public sector leaders have a new and unprecedented prospect to bring about change. Accepting this opportunity to lead transformational policies and incrementally adopt and reaffirm our values as the sector of the people is today’s call to action.

We all understand the constraints of the public sector. In order to exist to serve our representative communities, we accept public dollars in exchange for large-scale transparency and regulation. Change in the public sector is hard, particularly as we combat the “we’ve always done it that way” sentiment. However, as the world grappled with COVID-19, all eyes were on public sector leadership. As public administrators, we were the ones to lead our organizational “pivot.” This included fully virtual public meetings, remote access to government services and accepting a declaration as essential to our society. We answered the call to serve—the reason most of us entered this profession initially.

Arguably, the private sector had to respond as well, and in some cases, its response was less successful. Given that motivation in the private sector is solvency and, in many cases, further profit, the corporate world played a high-risk game of chess. This zero-sum game created a high differential between winners and losers, but like the public sector, in many cases its stated (corporate) values offered a blueprint for consumer confidence and provided salvation. Capitalizing on this consumer sentiment, open to transformation and societal values, realignment is the opportunity that public sector change agents have waited for.

But our pivot in reaffirming public sector values under the guise of the pandemic is only the beginning. Our opportunity has just begun. The events of the preceding four-plus years brought forward at an expedited rate the need to adopt a new lens of equity. In our recruitment efforts, in our promotion efforts and in our leadership circles, we have learned that opportunity within our institutionalized organizations and systems does not rest in the need to democratize equal opportunity. Rather, we now see opportunity as something that needs to be distributed impartially based on demonstrated societal need. A one-size-fits-all approach only exacerbates social injustice and now, through captured learning, we can see the disparities and divide.

Viewing public sector prospects through an equity lens is not easy: It elevates many uncomfortable conversations. It requires us to discuss systemic racism, gender gaps, financial inequities and, above all, our values as a collective, representative society. These conversations were sporadic at best before COVID, but now, as we work through new processes and procedures, in addition to adopting lessons learned, we can usher in these new practices.

The public sector always has been the sphere of influence in thought leadership. Our guidance has furthered efforts to mitigate climate change, combat racial injustice, address discriminatory hiring practices and salary disproportions, in addition to developing roads and access to education. Now, as our global community has accepted transformation, we see the opportunity to seize the moment and evoke new principles of social change. As a sector, we need to recruit outside traditional job fairs and collegiate events and promote the laudability of public service in other circles. We need to question our benefit packages, realizing that lifetime healthcare and full-salaried retirements are history, but flexible work-schedules and intrinsic values can be monetized. We need to create equitable channels for internal promotion and value the generational diversity currently within our workforce.

This sentiment for change recalls President Theodore Roosevelt’s theory of Big Stick Diplomacy where we can speak softly and confidently knowing that we have the weight of the government behind us to validate action. The world is open to change, which is a collective mood we have not seen in possibly 60 years or more. Given our call to service, now is our time as public sector leaders to promote the progressive change our communities are summoning. This call is elevated even further if we personally identify having received social privilege. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” stated Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, please.

Author: Matthew Wheeler serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Wheeler Company, a California based organization management and public affairs firm. He is a recent graduate of the Yale University School of Management’s program on Fostering Inclusion and Diversity. Additionally, Dr. Wheeler serves as a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Price School of Public Policy, instructing classes in intersectoral leadership, nonprofit management, and advocacy. Dr. Wheeler earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Policy, Planning and Development from USC.

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