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The Remarkable Public Servant

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

By Kimberley Garth-James
October 29, 2019

Political and policy considerations continue to dominate the work world of public managers. These situations can frustrate those charged with enforcing administrative efficiency goals and managing political game-playing. One such consideration is the ongoing debate over the role of spirituality in the workplace and academic programs. In 2006, this issue was sensitively discussed by Corine Hyman and Paul Handal, Definitions and Evaluations of Religion and Spirituality Items by Religious Professionals, which sought to clarify terms and assess the impact of religious behaviors in work and college settings.  In the field of corrections, the well-being of offenders and administrators is an important factor when it comes to convincing qualified individuals to take advantage of the remarkable career available to corrections workers that seek promotions. The argument here is that spirituality has a role to play in discussions of workplace well-being in a corrections context..

In college settings, educators at all levels are responsible for showing students the path to success in public and nonprofit organizations. College instructors in particular must reach inquiring minds by overcoming the generational divide so that they may impart enduring wisdom and help their students to realize their potential in and out of the classroom. Thus Ken Bain, in his 2004 book What The Best College Teachers Do, argued that, teaching excellence should be defined, not as pedagogical endurance measurable in terms of the number of lectures delivered, total office hours held and the portion of problem-based exercises that contribute to practical learning, but rather as the ability to help students to think critically, deeply, and remarkably.

It is enormously satisfying when students of public administration engage in the learning process on an ongoing basis. When educators reach them spiritually as well as intellectually, they are better able to alter their interactions with others for the better. Thus, for instance, requiring students to memorize and regurgitate theories and models may prove ineffective if the goal is to develop remarkable students, including future public managers, who will apply new knowledge to solve real-world problems.   

The reformists’ goal of prison efficiency has often proved elusive owing to the political and cultural realities of modern corrections administration. Further complicating matters is the recent drive for public-private (or entirely private) prisons, such as the joint venture work model. There have been calls to eliminate privatized corrections entirely by those who view for-profit incarceration as a moral wrong. Thus, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law the Detention Facilities: Private, For-profit Administration Services bill that will end the state’s use of private prisons by 2028.

Current Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicate that some 123,000 United States prisoners, or 8%, are incarcerated in private facilities. A 2018 study of private prisons supported by the Wharton School Public Policy Initiative titled Private Prisons: An Evaluation of Economic and Ethical Implications reported that research into the effectiveness of these facilities is inconclusive, that any cost-savings are difficult to demonstrate and, more importantly, that public servants are frustrated by the operation of the private facilities.

Service is the distinctive aspect of public administration, and public servants appreciate the values of effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, and social equity. One path to greatness for public managers in the prison environment was mapped by Linda Ferguson in her 2001 book Path for Greatness: Spirituality at Work, in which she suggested that greatness is a matter of building character so that remarkable spiritual beings can inspire others at school and in the workplace while developing their own skill sets, particular gifts, and authentic selves.

Students in public administration programs need to recognize the challenging socio-cultural, economic and political-administrative challenges ahead, overcoming which will require of them integrity and a system of ethical values. Public administration programs currently have opportunities to adjust their curricula to develop programs that promote such widely held spiritual values and principles as forgiveness, compassion, honesty, and selflessness as part of efforts to help society’s most vulnerable. Thus Lionel Honoré, in his book The Issue of Workplace Spirituality, reported the increasing acceptance of the notion that it is important to develop workers’ spiritual selves and bring spiritual principles into the challenging environment of the modern organization.

The increasing interest in diversity in public administration academic programs (as discussed at the 2019 NASPAA Conference) likewise reflects a growing desire for ways to bring compassion and social equity into the workplace and for workers to become remarkable. It is often pointed out that spirituality is not the same thing as religion; rather, it is a matter of individuals using coping behaviors to function effectively in the workplace. While such traditional management principles as the unity of command (i.e., management issues orders to staff members), authority (the power vested in wardens and other administrators), and esprit de corps (group solidarity) remain useful in modern corrections contexts, increased attention to the spiritual aspects of corrections work can help set pre-service students and professional public servants alike on the path to remarkable performance in public and for-profit organizations.


Author: Dr. Kimberley Garth-James, Fulbright Specialist & Associate Professor Director MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs, Azusa Pacific University

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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