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The Uniqueness of Public Administration

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

By Tom Barth
October 8, 2019

On the first night of my Public Organizations and Management core class in our MPA program, we start out by discussing the differences between managing in the public versus private sectors. We cover the classic suggested differences around the organizational environment, goals and structures as well as values and motivations (I recommend a 2002 article by Greg Boyne, “Public and Private Management: What’s the Difference?” in the Journal of Management Studies). However, nothing illustrates the unique challenges of the public sector like a good case right at home such as the decision of the City of Charlotte to host the Republican National Convention in 2020.

From a purely business perspective, hosting the convention makes a great deal of sense. For an emerging metropolitan area that aspires to continue to grow in national prominence, the opportunity to showcase the city on an international stage and bring in an enormous number of visitors to patronize hotels, restaurants, etc. is enormous. As the Chair of the host committee states, the RNC will, “Be our chance to show the world the best of Charlotte—the diversity and talents of our people, the amenities that make our neighborhoods special, the power of our education and training programs that build a thriving workforce and our inviting business environment which continues to attract capital investment and thousands of jobs each year.”

However, decisions in the public sector are rarely just about business. The Mayor and City Council who voted 6-5 to host the convention discovered there were more than a few citizens who found that the divisive, exclusionary rhetoric of the incumbent President (likely to be nominated for a second term at the convention) outweighs the business benefits; that is, hosting the convention is akin to endorsing the values of this individual. This likely explains why Charlotte was the only city to apply for hosting the RNC!

In response to these anticipated concerns, the Mayor stated, “The current political climate with all its divisive rhetoric and harmful policies, does not represent my values or the values of most Charlotteans. But if Charlotte is the site of the RNC, we can show that our city is about inclusion and leverage it as an opportunity to demonstrate our values of respect while honoring our differences.” Things were calming down somewhat until the President became embroiled with four minority female members of Congress, tweeting that they should, “Go back,” to, “The crime infested places from which they came.” This unfortunate choice of words led to supporters at a Trump rally in Greenville, NC chanting, “Send her back,” in reference to one of the four. Trump later distanced himself from the chant, even though he paused for 13 seconds to allow the chant to continue. This incident resulted in the Charlotte City Council passing a resolution condemning the remarks of the President, stating, “Charlotte should always be welcoming and inviting of people of diverse and different ethnicities and background,” and that it, “Strongly condemns all of President Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic tweets and comments.”

So there you have it: the conflict between business and politics in a goldfish bowl rarely seen in the private sector. The Mayor argues it is possible to separate the event from the person starring in the event, but has asked the community for ideas as to how the city can display for the world a picture of what Charlotte represents at its best amidst predicted protests and other distasteful rhetoric and images likely to be present. I put this charge to my future public administration leaders, and here are some ideas:

  • Put on an international festival to showcase the diversity of the city.
  • Consult with psychologists and sociologists to craft a message that will appeal to the hearts and minds of people, showing that the convention is an opportunity to demonstrate how we embody the essence of what it means to be an American who respects freedom of expression and opinions of others regardless of political affiliation; an appeal based on economic and reputable benefit is insufficient.
  • Set up volunteer events that benefit the city. These could include painting murals, cleaning streams, planting trees and urban gardens or any other activity that may be seen as positive no matter the political affiliation of the volunteers. An interesting wrinkle may be to have the volunteers list their political leanings or party affiliation when they register. Volunteers can be assigned in buddy pairs with someone else from the other side of the political divide.
  • Highlight during the convention the rich array of existing events and organizations that are already diverse and inclusive, such as the events put on by the BOOM festival and Open Streets 704, which bring together constituencies from across different neighborhoods, industries and backgrounds.

This case raises three other questions for students of public administration to ponder:

  • What is the proper role for citizens in determining which conventions (or other mega events) are hosted by a city?
  • What is the appropriate balance between political and business considerations?
  • Is organizing an alternate vision during a political convention crossing the line of political neutrality by a government entity?

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor and MPA Director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics. He is a member of the National Council of ASPA representing District III.

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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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