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We Need A New Status Quo

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

By Carroll G. Robinson and Michael O. Adams
July 9, 2020

The two biggest threats to being a great public administrator are fear and incompetence. Fear of making a decision or the fear of not knowing and not knowing whose advice and expertise to listen to and trust, in order to make a good decision.

No one person knows everything or has all the answers. Trusting the process alone is not enough when it comes to public sector decisionmaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Wrong people in the process means bad recommendations.

Public administrators must not only build a process for information flow, but also must make sure that the correct people and experts are a part of providing input into the process and are a meaningful part of substantive decisionmaking.

The people in the process must be a diverse group from race and gender to culture and age, from experience and expertise to geographic distribution of the specific community, county, state or nation. You also need people of different income levels.

We also now clearly know that we need business leaders and economists to be a part of the ongoing planning and preparation process.

When you build a process, it should be built to be both foresighted and inclusive of hindsight. It has to know, study and understand what happened in the past while planning for new contingencies in the present and future.

A good process should plan for both the reasonable and the unreasonable to happen. 

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that public administrators should no longer be comfortable living in the land of the probable. The new status quo must become: if it’s improbable or impossible it’s likely to happen and must be factored into what should now be a proactive and ongoing strategic and sustainable planning process. 

Communities need to move from Emergency Management to all-the-time planning, gaming/table top scenarios and preparing. Community Emergency Response Teams(CERT) or Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams(NERT) should be incorporated into our public-school curricula and not viewed as one-offs in response to natural and man-made catastrophes. Annual exercises are no longer good enough. This has to become a daily process. Response can no longer take too long. Too long is now too costly in terms of lives and economic impact.

The time for minimum standards has now passed. Public administration educators have to up our game or the public sector will start to respond as the private sector has been doing for decades; building their own education and leadership programs to compete with public administration programs for talent and students.

A big part of great leadership is identifying the right people with the right expertise; people who know more than you, the leader and decisionmaker, and  who are confident enough to have the courage to receive input, hear it and utilize it.

Incompetence becomes a problem when you don’t know and don’t know enough to know that you don’t know what needs to be known to deal with a specific problem or situation.

What is even worse is knowing you don’t know but pretending that you do know because you don’t want to be embarrassed or you are fearful of losing you stature or position of authority, official or unofficial.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear, to us, that there is a greater burden of leadership on public administrators now than ever before. Going forward, public administrators must be fearless leaders willing to speak truth to power to protect lives and offer well-reasoned solutions to the American people to solve any crisis of the moment.


Authors: Carroll G. Robinson, Esq. & Dr. Michael O. Adams. Robinson and Adams are members of the public administration faculty at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.

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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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