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Welcome to Public Policy and Public Administration

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

By Benjamin Deitchman
July 31, 2021

As the halls of schools of public policy and public administration flood with students starting a new semester, and people find their way into this field as job turnover persists, it is time to share words of wisdom with those joining our ranks. The first piece of advice is to always be wary of advice from random columnists, or at least to learn more about the experienced professional sharing his or her advice before incorporating it into one’s own thinking. There are myriad career paths available. While I have a unique perspective as someone who has worked in state government, academia and nonprofit associations and have had career opportunities ranging from engaging leaders in clean energy policy across the country to throwing out the first pitch in a mascot costume at a minor league baseball game, my experience is still narrow in the scope of our endeavors. Consider seeking guidance from those who are most positioned as preferred for oneself, as the easiest advice is to tell someone how to replicate his or her own career.

The first word in our field is public. Our work is for the public interest; for the people and the planet around them. There always are multiple tasks and responsibilities that do not directly impact those whom we serve, but even amidst ideological turmoil and other societal disputes, society’s interests are our interests and the primary goal. Many public policy and public administration professionals serve the complex public interests of contemporary society from outside the formal public sector. There are inefficiencies in the public sector, but any consumer knows that there are also inefficiencies in the private sector. When understanding management, there are valuable lessons to learn from business, but the assumption that business runs more smoothly than government is sometimes flawed and often requires contextualization to understand the overlapping needs of administration on behalf of the public. Entrepreneurship, innovation and disruption are buzzwords, but to the extent one can drive change in business, there is also opportunity in public and nonprofit enterprises.

In entering the fields of public policy and public administration, there are seminal texts and ancillary readings that can formulate one’s understanding of these endeavors. These can socialize individuals into this academic and professional world and facilitate intelligent conversation around the key concepts and principles. As an interdisciplinary social science, however, it is also critical to have a range of knowledge. Public policy and public administration touch every aspect of our lives, and the breadth of humanity and the planet on which we reside is necessary to find and understand the public interest. Specialization within specific domains with technical skills where applicable is useful for jobs, but even in the most specific and rigorous of tasks, complex problems and overlapping needs across stakeholders often require a big picture perspective.

There will always be plenty of academic and nonfiction content to recommend, but watching how public administration and public policy appear in the popular media is an entertaining and worthwhile activity for both looking inward and seeing how the outside world perceives us.  When someone asks whether or not Parks and Recreation or The West Wing accurately portrays life in government the answer, to a degree, is that they do. The shows are funnier and more dramatic than everyday life, but particularly when the characters are working hard with positive motivations, they regularly are thematically on point with reality. We should always focus on real role models, but connecting professional struggles with fiction has its benefits and is part of the fun of the field.

Assessing and setting one’s own priorities in today’s world is difficult but fundamental. I would like to think that I would resign in protest or whistleblow if necessary, but through judgment, as well as luck, I have thus far avoided moral dilemmas. Staying true to oneself and one’s values even when it’s difficult, is easy advice to give, but harder advice to keep when the rubber hits the road. In a data driven world it is hard to bring one’s personality to spreadsheets, reports and regularly scheduled meetings, but finding a way to be oneself can provide unique value to the work. It may be the application that led to the school or job, but it is the person as a whole who fulfills the role. One of the great joys of working in this field is connecting with likeminded colleagues. Within the public interest is the interest of one’s community, one’s family and oneself. There is only so much value one can derive in his or her career if he or she does not focus on those closest to him or her. Other than saying that being a father is the most important thing in my life and I arrange my career around that, there is no correct way to balance work and life and I have both succeeded and failed along the way. To conclude, there is only one piece of advice that I offer unequivocally to those starting on this path this fall or into the future: have fun!

Author: Benjamin Deitchman lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. He has 14 years of experience as a student, scholar and professional in the fields of public policy and public administration and this is his 35th PATIMES Online column. His email address is DeitchmanB at Gmail dot com and he is on Twitter with the handle Deitchman.  

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