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What Comes Next?

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

By Michael R. Ford
September 12, 2020 

A few weeks ago I was driving through a rural area of Wisconsin and saw a billboard that said, “Be happy, turn off the news.” It is a tempting proposition. The United States is mired in social unrest, political division and a raging pandemic that calls into question our nation’s ability to mount a unified response to a national crisis. Then came Kenosha. Another police shooting of an African-American man, more unrest, culminating in multiple shootings involving an underaged armed vigilante. How does one process all of this? How does our field, a field that values professionalism, evidence-based decisionmaking, and the wisdom of institutions, react to our current crises?

We could take the route of Francis Fukuyama and accept that American Public Administration (PA) is in decline. We could throw up our hands and blame the rise of populism as a political force undermining the ability of the administrative state to function. We could retreat into the comfort of academic PA and spend our time advancing theory and pointing out the missteps of our institutions. Or, we could do like the billboard said and just stop paying attention. Obviously I do not advocate any of these solutions. American PA is not in decline, the role of politics in administration is par for the course, advancing theory ultimately advances practice and widespread disengagement makes democratic governance impossible.

So what can we in PA, right now, be doing?

Well there is the usual stuff I write about all the time; teach well, be relentless in responding to misinformation with facts, be actively transparent in government, push social equity and fairness, etc. But right now, in this unique moment, I think we need to plan for what comes next. The Covid-19 pandemic will end. The unique politics of Trumpism will change. The economic crisis will not be permanent. But the nation will still be here. The residents who participated in protests, rejected the science of masks, shamed those for not wearing masks, believed Covid-19 to be a hoax, were sickened by Covid-19, vehemently supported or demonized Trumpism, lost their jobs or spewed love or hate in this time of crisis, will still be residents.

I could be accused of creating a false equivalence here, but that is not my intent. I am thinking of the first day of class when I tell my students every one of us gives up our freedom and treasure to be a part of a governed society, and every one of us owns an equal share in that government. That share is not forfeited when one takes a position that is disagreeable, or even reprehensible. It is part of the bargain of self-government, and the system that PA scholars and practitioners study and implement. As I am keen to say, public administrators work in the world that exists, not the world we want to exist.

It is imperative that we articulate roles for all members of society moving forward. At the personal level, that means not judging supporters of a candidate or cause by the most extreme examples of others who support the same candidate or cause. The fact that alt-right groups support President Trump does not mean all Trump supporters are members of the alt-right. Similarly, the fact that some self-identified socialists support Black Lives Matters does not mean all Black Lives Matters supporters are socialist. But our divisions run deeper than the personal, and our solutions must go beyond the personal.

We must do the work to restore faith in our institutions. Research by Samantha June Larson and Crystal Soderman provides a possible model in which truth and reconciliation commissions can be a vehicle for acknowledging historic inequities in a constructive environment designed to rebuild common cause rather than exploit divisions. The goal of this work must be to acknowledge uncomfortable truths in a space for real dialogue. Most important, any steps must begin with an assumption that no one is disqualified from being a part of the American experience.

Clearly I do not have all the solutions here. Our divisions run deep and too many Americans are living parallel truths in isolation from each other. But those of us in PA can take the lead in creating processes that restore common goals for a fractured nation. This can include the truth and reconciliation model, but also smaller steps like broadening membership in boards and commissions at the local level, challenging our own assumptions in practice and research and continuing to diversify the “classics” of PA so that more voices and models can be part of our common intellectual foundation. Will these steps be enough? No. But the question of what comes next should be on our minds.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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