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The Reluctant Troublemaker

This article is part of a Special
Section on “Volunteerism and Civic Engagement” that is currently running in the January/February 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on the print issue.

This is Part 1 of a three part series.
To see Part 2, click
the link in the ‘Related Articles’ box at the bottom of this page. Watch for Part 3 next Monday, February 14, 2011.

Jill Tao

Discretion is the better of valor. It is good to be brave, but it is also good to be careful; if you are careful, you will not get into situations that require you to be brave.–Proverb

Every fall, our incoming masters’ degree students participate in a convocation–an annual rite of passage where the faculty lay out the year to come, our expectations of them, and what to expect of us. Generally, we have an outside speaker come who is in public service, and who can inspire the students to live up to the meaning of the term “public servant.” Two years ago, our speaker was Michelle Hill, someone who had worked her way up through the ranks to become a senior budget advisor in the office of the Governor here in the state of Hawai’i. She was humble and funny, but she said something then that stayed with me long after. She told the students, “Be aware of the person you may need to become.” I thought it compelling advice for new graduate students, but I didn’t realize then that it might also apply to me.

One of the things I found attractive about graduate study in public administration was the focus on public service rooted in a sense of civic responsibility. When I began graduate school, I entered on the heels of several tumultuous years spent overseas. I bore witness to the civic unrest in the People’s Republic of China in the spring of 1989, where the government, after months of indecision, finally responded in brutal fashion to student demands for more democracy. I also witnessed the mass exodus of emigrants from Hong Kong to all corners of the globe in the aftermath. So, when I started graduate school in the fall of 1991, I wanted a discipline that focused on good government with a keen eye towards democratic accountability. Public administration seemed an ideal candidate.

Public administrators honor a long tradition of playing the role of the level-headed experts. Who else, as Woodrow Wilson put it, could “see a murderous fellow sharpening his knife cleverly” and yet “borrow his way of sharpening without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder?” Much of what defines the field, even today, is rooted in the idea that administrators best serve the public when they are divorced from the political passions of the moment, and can offer impartial (yet courteous) means for turning policy decisions into government programs.

But, as public administration and political science scholars from Frederickson to Fenno have argued, “impartial” does not always guarantee the “best” government, or even government that is good. Impartial can often be mistaken for impotent, or worse, it can be viewed as a stand-in for indifference in the face of decisions that can harm the very public that it is meant to serve. In academic settings, this kind of tension can be discussed and parsed in depth so that due weight is given to the nuances that comprise the foundations of good government. We are often called on by government agencies to offer advice and counsel, and we train those who would occupy such agencies.

But what happens when an academic is called upon to apply their expertise within the political arena? The glass wall between politics and administration is more imagined than real–we all know that agency personnel can shape policy proposals before state and national legislatures, and are often called upon for their expertise by the legislative and executive branches. But academics are a different story. Our strength is drawn in part from our impartiality. I’ve often watched the poor souls who get trotted out like sacrificial lambs on cable news networks, attempting to inject some modicum of thoughtfulness into a “debate” on a given policy issue, only to end up being fodder for some preconceived network conclusion. Who in their right minds would subject themselves to that kind of circus-like performance? In response, many of today’s top public servants prepare “canned” presentations that are not meant to be conversations or dialogue, but are instead a series of points to be conveyed. Period. End of discussion. This seems odd in a country where dialogue, often heated, is assumed to be part of democratic governance, but certainly not out of keeping with the notion of offering expertise, rather than dialogue.

So, given the somewhat pitiful portrait I imagined for academics called into the limelight to belabor points of policy, imagine my surprise when I was drawn into just such a position. In the fall of 2009, when a small group of parents reacted in outrage to a decision to furlough public school teachers here in Hawai’i for 17 school days in order to balance the state budget in 2009, I found myself in the crux of a dilemma. I am the parent of public school children and employed by a public university (which also faced cuts). So, as a citizen and a constituent, I had a direct stake in the outcome of this policy decision. I was being asked to help organize a group of similar constituents, and I agreed with the other parents that the policy decision was ludicrous–Hawai’i already had the shortest school year in the country, with far fewer instructional hours than the national average per day. The state’s public schools suffered from a poor public image, not entirely deserved, for producing students unprepared for work or college. So, as a policy decision, this simply made no sense.

But, as an academic who teaches students how to employ their expertise in objective ways, jumping into the fray seemed, well…rash. Everyone in the state was facing severe cuts, and there was much grumbling about “sacred cows” (such as the university). In addition, many of the players who were involved in the decision to furlough teachers were also people who worked with our public administration program: legislators, agency personnel at the state Department of Education (DoE), union leadership for the teachers, and the elected Board of Education members. I had worked personally with some key personnel, so I had access and knowledge about how the system worked that other parents lacked. Should I use that knowledge to help this group of parents launch an assault on the powers that be? That could backfire in many ways, not the least of which may have been damage to our academic program.

But public service also means taking action when there is injustice afoot. This was a decision that was borne disproportionately by the poor and rural students in the state. Hawai’i has the country’s only statewide school system–including the universities and community colleges–funded through the state’s general revenue fund. Local governments here have no jurisdiction over public schools. Thus the state Department of Education (DoE) is enormous, with 177,000 students enrolled at the K-12 levels, and 13,000 teachers in a state of approximately 1.3 million.

Jill Tao is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is also a founding member of SaveOurSchools (SOS) Hawaii, a grassroots organization created in October 2009 to oppose and force a repeal of the state’s decision to furlough public school teachers for 34 days. Email: [email protected]

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