Emerging Issues: Whither the Public Service?

11.25.2013 | This “Emerging Issues” column by BRR member Bill Barnes first appeared in the PA Times, a publication of the American Society of Public Administration. Back issues of the Emerging Issues column are available online.

The forty-year assault on government is a clear case of mumpsimus (“a view stubbornly held in spite of clear evidence that it’s wrong” according to Garg’s wonderful A.Word.A.Day.)

It’s time for something else, perhaps lots of something elses.

We have experienced a long, negative phase of a sort that recurs in American history. It followed the long activist (and intermittently progressive) phase from the New Deal to Nixon’s New Federalism.

Moving now toward a more constructive phase requires considerable nudging. Public administration professionals have a lot to contribute toward a vision of better government that would be part of a broader movement.

Solutions? There are no “solutions”; only more work.

There are nonetheless responses and adaptations that seem likely better than others. Some options are rooted in practices inside governments. Others must be sought outside. The strongest strategies will encompass both.

In media-speak, the inside game is what happens inside the metaphorical “Beltway” that surrounds every governmental entity. It engages players in the organization and in its governmental environment — administrative leaders, elected officials and their staff, and interest groups.  It’s important and necessary. But it’s not sufficient, and it’s not the only thing that matters.

An approach that deserves emphasis, for example, is the under-used “outside game” with users, constituents and citizens. A regular component of any agency’s performance should be to help build a constructive civic discourse. That involves engaging the public about the purpose to be served, encouraging shared ownership of the problem/opportunity to be addressed, and exhibiting the capacity to hear, understand and act upon people’s concerns. (One/off outreach in response to funding threats and lectures-without-listening are regularly dismissed as self-serving.)

War metaphors (see this column’s first sentence, for example: “assault,”) mislead us to see only win/lose, all-or-nothing possibilities. Images of attack and defense help keep us from the unpleasant task of taking criticisms seriously and considering whether they ought to be acted upon.

Thus, another chore is to tease apart and consider separately the various strands of what is often mistakenly seen as a coherent anti-government position. Extracted from their vociferous context, some of these strands deserve careful thought. Equally careful responses can be useful in constructing a broad reform agenda, an agenda that is not merely defensive but is an alternative vision that is capable of motivating and energizing.

A Longer View

Serious, quite fundamental, and greatly different ideas and values are at stake here. For some people, the starting point and enduring framework for understanding social and political life is the “virtuous citizen” and what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of family and civic associations. For others, democratic representation, incrementally expanding public sector roles, and accountable government is that point and frame. For still others, government is the first authority and manager for all issues — from moral to economic.

For a small tribe of folks, the foundation is what Garry Wills calls “anti-government values.” In A Necessary Evil, Wills usefully and vigorously surveys 200 years of the more extreme American adherents to this view.  Readers may recall examples — some adherents of the New Left fifty years ago; Norquist’s drown-government-in-the bathtub rhetoric; and parts of today’s Tea Party. Unfortunately, there are also violent illustrations — McVeigh in Oklahoma City comes harrowingly to mind.

Sorting all this out taxes even the most adept minds. Government-oriented people are tempted to over-estimate the enduring value of the way government currently does its work and to under-estimate the importance of the evolving societal context. Civil society-oriented people often make the opposite errors.

Moreover, distinguishing between politely stated anti-government values and a strong civil society framework can be difficult. Henry Thoreau was rhetorically extreme — “That government is best which governs not at all” — but he didn’t blow up public buildings. President Reagan claimed that government is the problem; what he meant is still contested. And even proponents of government as a “necessary good” (Wills’ phrase) sometimes admit (or should) that everything done by government is not wonderfully good or wonderfully done.

America being a rich and wasteful place, we have every possible combination and permutation of these themes. Most of us believe contentedly in some rattle-bag of elements from across this spectrum whose contradictions we are intelligent enough to ignore.

Let us say that these threads are, well, significantly various. Taken together, they weave the tapestry of American political history and provide the substance for the shifting patterns of dominant ideas.

What next?

What if the drift against government continues and strengthens? Maybe the nation transitions to a dramatically constricted new governmental normal and  the public service transitions accordingly.

If we are agile and brave enough to contemplate that possibility, then we can also consider other possibilities.  Maybe the current controversy and gridlock will persist and we will learn to live with it, leaving everything unsettled and fraying everyone’s nerves. Or, maybe the nation will shift to a surge of affirmation for governmental roles. (Or, construct your own probable scenario(s)….)

The current phase will also pass, but not without more and perhaps even more intense political effort. And not soon enough to avoid damage — much already done — to our capacity to act collectively and, unforgivably, to our fellow citizens.

So, now is not the time for public administrators to hunker down. Neither is it time for defensive, public relations-type celebrations of all things governmental.

It’s time for a reform movement that envisions better American governments that will fit and enhance 21 century American life. Such a reform process could articulate and advocate a coherent picture that draws upon practice and research around, for example, inter-agency networks and collaboration, regional problem-solving, better workforce arrangements, and civic engagement processes. It could also learn from, respond to, and incorporate usable aspects of critiques of government.

For public administration folks, the outside game is tricky and risky. The way forward is cluttered with hyper-partisanship, fiscal stress, tax phobias, budget-cutting, and electoral tactics that excoriate agency and worker performance.

PA folks, however, can make unique contributions that speak from within their expertise and experience; avoid a mumpsimus of their own; and also navigate carefully through, around and over outside game Scyllas and Charybdises.

Reflective practitioners and open-minded scholars could offer a constructive re-thinking of the possible futures of how government gets done and how to get there. (The job here, roughly speaking, is about the administrative “how”, not the policy “what”. Offering still another clever policy scheme for Federal budget-balancing or for ending urban sprawl lies outside this remit.)

We need ideas and leadership for a confident, self-critical, forward-looking public discussion that energizes a wave of public administration reform for each and all our governments. That reform would be grounded not in current management requirements and perspectives but in the political values of the nation.

Whether government should govern least or most or not at all is not a useful formulation. The issue is whether we have the will and the capacity to define and tend our commons effectively.

Contributing to that re-framing would be a public service.

Bill Barnes recently retired after a long career at the National League of Cities. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Pubic Administration and a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Building Resilient Regions Research Network.

Photo / David Schott

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