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What About Fixing Government’s Infrastructure? Positive Public Administration Scholarship

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

By Bill Brantley
September 12, 2021

During my doctoral program, I told my advisor I wanted to write a research paper on how government projects fail. “You’ll have plenty of examples,” he told me. And he was right. After amassing an extensive database of failed government projects, I spent two years studying how programs and projects failed, resulting in my Organizational Failure Model. My model looks at three organizational levels (leadership, teams and organization) and how interactions between levels contribute to organizational failures. It has been 15 years since I proposed the model, and it still holds up well in explaining the latest government failure.

As I watch the two infrastructure bills make their way through the United States Congress, I wonder how the United States federal government will implement the new infrastructure demands if the bills are put into law. Also, state and local governments will have new challenges as they work to enact their parts of the infrastructure laws. Before governments can tackle much-needed infrastructure projects, maybe governments need to work on their internal infrastructure issues.

Good Enough for Government Work

Dr. Amy Lerman traces the growing distrust of government in Good Enough for Government Work: The Public Reputation Crisis in America (And What We Can Do to Fix It). Dr. Lerman found that citizens overwhelmingly support privatization of public services even though there is no evidence that privatization is better than government services. According to her research, it is not enough for governments to provide good services. Instead, citizens must access the services easily and know that the government is providing outstanding services.

Dr. Lerman writes, “[b]ut we’ve seen across the board declining trust at all levels of government. We need to think about if we’re doing all of the things that could build trust at each level of government.” No matter the level of government, are the government programs meeting people’s real needs? It is crucial to put the programs in place, but not enough attention is being paid to implementing them. An exemplary implementation is a key to winning back citizens’ trust in government, argues Dr. Lerman.

Government Wastes Your Time

A July 27th artcicle in The Atlantic entitled, “The Time Tax: Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens?” was probably the most forwarded article I received in years. Annie Lowrey writes:

“Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the ‘time tax’—a levy of paperwork, aggravation and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.”

If you are familiar with the literature on street-level bureaucracy, there is little surprising in Ms. Lowrey’s article other than that the same time tax existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Reading the new horror stories of lousy government service reinforces Dr. Lerman’s findings, including why distrust with government is growing in many citizens. The poor must spend hours navigating Kafkaesque processes to access services. In contrast, government services work so well for more affluent citizens that the wealthier citizens don’t realize they receive government benefits. Essentially, governments benefit from millions of hours of free labor provided by citizens working to gain their legal help. Or when citizens give up on the systems. “Florida Governor Ron DeSantis admitted during the pandemic. ‘It [the Florida unemployment system] was definitely done in a way to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.’ An estimated 9 million Americans left jobless by the pandemic never got a single unemployment payment.”

Positive Public Administration

Fifteen public administration scholars came together to launch what they call positive public administration scholarship (PPAS) with the core question: “Why is it that among all the day to day streams of government intervention and public service delivery, particular public policies, programs, organizations, networks or partnerships manage do much better than others in producing widely valued societal outcomes?”

PPAS is perfect for studying how to deliver government services better while increasing the public’s approval of the government. The PPAS founders advocate focusing on what works in public programs will lead to a virtuous circle of effective and efficient public management methods and policies. Thus, PPAS is a welcome pivot in public administration research. We have much research on what doesn’t work in government. Now, let’s see what works in better managing government organizations and delivering government services.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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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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