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Where to in 2020? Reflections on the Practice of Public Administration

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 26, 2020

Communities are complex, evolving organisms, and, like any organism, they have needs. Public administrators are tasked with filling these needs to provide a higher quality of life for everyone. This requires innovative, entrepreneurial approaches. All of this occurs in a dynamic environment, and from time to time public administrators must reflect on current practice and current needs, and determine when innovation is necessary to fill the gap between the two. Relevant reflections might include those tied to mission clarification, talent management and leadership development.

Mission Clarification

Public agencies were created to achieve specific needs at a specific time. Over the intervening years, perhaps decades, communities have changed. The needs of the past may remain, but they might have evolved or disappeared. Over time, many agencies have been subject to mission creep, either through internal or external influence, which has contributed to mission ambiguity.

If we are to remain effective in achieving our mission, relevant to our communities, agency leaders must reflect upon this periodically, ensuring we are aimed in the proper direction, with all efforts focused on achieving desired ends. To be successful in this, mission clarification must be communicated throughout the agency. We cannot achieve a common mission if we all have a differing mission in mind.

Talent Management

Employers in any setting seek to recruit and retain human talent, and this applies equally to the public sector. Typically, recruitment and retention efforts focus on opportunities for professional development and challenging work, a pleasant workplace environment and compensation packages. Public sector agencies also try to leverage public sector motivation—the desire to serve a greater good. While the public sector is as subject to market forces as the private, it faces a unique challenge.

During much of our history, there was a cachet associated with public service, perhaps peaking in the mid- to-late 20th century. Over recent years, many politicians and members of the general public have been increasingly vocal in their belief public employees are incompetent, ineffective or inefficient, if not outright corrupt. In the worst case, they are presented as the enemies of the public, and not as public servants.

We need to consider the pressures this might impose on potential and current employees, and reflect on the means we might use to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. We need to find means to promote the professionalism, the altruism, and the mission-oriented esprit de corps of public agencies, once again making public service a laudable goal for any. Without such talent, customer service will be diminished.

Leadership Development

Leadership is often associated with the ability to identify opportunities, then act in an active, entrepreneurial manner to capitalize on them, providing higher levels of service. We see examples of this in many settings and disciplines. These examples can be powerful, but they might also be viewed as flawed, or as incomplete.

In 2008, the housing bubble burst in the United States, creating massive economic uncertainty. The turmoil began to impact governments not long after, and the effects were felt for years. We see this pattern repeated during times of economic crisis created by any number of causes, and the effects can be global, national, regional or local. In many instances, the effects on local government might be far longer in duration and much greater in severity, depending on the local economic and social environments.

Public administrators need to reflect on this. We need to develop leaders for the future, and if we are to develop them effectively, we must prepare them to lead in the bad times, not just the good. We might consider the reality that in some conditions, leadership is not about entrepreneurial growth to meet evolving needs, but about creative retreat, protecting the services we can, limiting their diminishment, disappointing as few in the community as possible, as little as possible, as we shift to a focus only on those core functions we can fund. Certainly we will seek ways to rebound when circumstances change, but without resilience skills, traditional leadership approaches might exacerbate the situation in such circumstances.

The Path Forward

During World War II, General Eisenhower reportedly remarked plans were useless, but planning—the ability to think conceptually and globally—was invaluable. Reflecting on where we are, where we want to be and how to get there will help public administrators develop their planning skills, supporting greater levels of service to our communities in the future and increasing their ability to adapt as necessary. The three reflections here are merely examples—there are many more. The main question for public administrators is not what should we reflect upon, but where we should begin.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, served in local government for over three decades, now serving as a core faculty member in Capella University’s public administration programs. He is the President of the Hampton Roads (VA) Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached 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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