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Transitioning From an Empire to a Leading Contributor

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

By Geoff Rabinowitz
July 17, 2020

Has another empire fallen? Has the great American experiment finally revealed its limits? Scholars, philosophers, politicians and pundits may debate this for decades, but trust in the American government (federal, state and local) has been waning for decades. Economic prudence and governance has been declining for almost as long; so perhaps, we, as the administrators of the needed public services, should be focusing on transitioning from the global moral and economic leader to that of a significant contributor that is part of the greater global collective.

Like most empires, not a single act is responsible for its downfall. This holds true for the United States as well. The very foundation of America as established in the preamble to the Constitution, “…in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare…,” has been perverted by divisiveness, ideology and polarizing zero-sum approaches. However, the administrative state tasked with providing the services must still continue.

We may have turned away from our most marginalized and vulnerable populations but that should not equate into an acceptance of the status quo. There is much discourse as of late about a lack of federal leadership and a general lack of leadership at all levels of government. Recent debates and shifting guidance on masks is but one example of a lack of good leadership. However, this should not be viewed as a new phenomenon but a culmination of a migrating culture. Partisan politics and near dogmatic adoption of ideologies (by both political leaders and citizens) have changed the landscape; the administration of public services is no longer linear.

To cite another recent example, governments are simultaneously expected to protect the population they serve while there is mounting pressure to defund some of the very agencies tasked with that protection. As public administrators, we can no longer rely on the Wilsonian concept of the Politics-Administration Dichotomy; it’s no longer clear if we can even cite Wilson as a champion of this idea. The system is now blurred, to say the least.

Enter the modern public administrator that must confront shifting goals and the mandate for immediate results developed in a non-strategic vacuum. It is no wonder each level of government is falling behind in achieving its goals and mandates. As most experienced public administrators understand, properly shifting programs, policies and goals take years to fully implement and measure. The public we serve, which includes ourselves, is demanding immediate results. Even the punctuated equilibriums of the 1960’s and 1970’s took years to come to fruition. Now, change is being demanded in weeks or months. 

The inability of the federal government to provide the international leadership it once did (this criticism is not just aimed at the current administration) means that the state, municipal and local governments must carry the mantle of leadership onto the international field. Not to belabor this point, but the direction in which many leaders are taking the country is reflective of the chaotic divisiveness of the citizenry. The blame cannot be applied solely to government, as we the people must share that blame.

How can this change occur? Cooperation and understanding.

Government, as we know, is arranged at different levels because services cannot all be provided at the same level; cities cannot provide for the general defense of the country nor can the federal government be expected to fix a broken stop light on a main street. It is through this differentiation that the levels of government, through their public administrators, must purposely agree on who is providing what services and how redundant services can be combined. Resources, methods and goals must be shared not only between levels of governments but also between neighboring jurisdictions or even non-neighboring jurisdictions. The leadership to stop the current decline in the American hegemony will not come from the federal, state or local politicians. It will come from the understanding that overall, we all share many more common goals, than divisive ones.

People want to drink clean water, want to breath clean air, want to live in a safe community that promotes prosperity and do not want to live in a draconian state. The leadership to achieve these goals will come from the public administrators dispassionately and equitably providing public services in the best manner possible. Our approach should not be within jurisdictional vacuums but rather to utilize a shared cooperative of expertise. This is all a long-winded way of saying that, to be an influential player in the collective world, we cannot take a zero-sum approach and we must keep our egos out of the administration. Administrative leadership is not about being smarter than everybody else—it is about effectively and efficiently guiding individuals to help solve the tough and challenging problems we share.

Is this naïve? No, is this overly optimistic—almost definitely; but, in this case, I would very much enjoy being proven wrong.

Author: Mr. Rabinowitz is completing his Doctorate in Public Administration from Valdosta State University. He has over 15 years of experience working for multiple federal, state and local agencies in environmental protection. He received his MS in Executive Management from the Florida State University and BSs in Marine Biology and Ecology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Please contact him at [email protected]

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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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