Politics decides and public administration does. The phrase is a cliché in our field that is meant to speak to the professionalism required to manage the public’s resources, and trust, on a daily basis. It is also feels kind of insulting, as it implies that administrators do not make important value-laden decisions. As I am busy prepping for my introduction to public administration class, I find myself pondering this statement in the context of the current presidential race. Specifically, what does the state of American politics say about administrators, and the field of Public Administration?
The first Republican debate was entertaining and slightly concerning. It was devoid of substance, as the majority worked to fit in their talking points without saying anything offensive. And of course there was Trump, who appeared to just want to say offensive things. I’m picking on the Republicans here, but this type of behavior occurs on both sides of the political aisle. For a process that picks the ultimate decision-maker in our country, it is shockingly devoid of substance.
Someone pondering a career in Public Administration might reasonably question whether they really want to devote their career to “doing” what these people “decide.” Someone working in government might wonder who the heck they work for. My answer? The sometimes-silly nature of politics makes it all the more important and interesting to work in the field of Public Administration. Consider, an elected politician is just someone who received more votes than their opponent. They naturally work to serve their base, as that is what allows them to maintain their power. The public administrator, however, must serve the public. And oh yeah, that public is hopelessly divided on many issues, culturally, racially, and socio-economically diverse, fickle, and often skeptical of administrative power.
Hence, working in government is a balancing act that requires professionalism, knowledge, communication skills, ethics, and more than a little persistence and humility. Administrative problems are not ones that can be messaged away or ignored as the misguided concerns of those who disagree with one’s political persuasion. No, Public Administration problems are those that deal with the process by which government works to maximize effectiveness, efficiency, and equity in the use of public resources. Or as I tell my students, it’s about being a good steward of the freedom and treasure people give up to be part of a governed society.
As many in the field have long pointed out, administrative values and political values often conflict. When they do, it is the job the administrator to do the work of government even when the decision-makers are openly hostile or uninformed. So, I am not concerned about the ridiculousness of our political debates. Political fads come and go, but the core work of running a government consistent with American values persists. It is that fact that makes it a privilege, a challenge, and whole lot of fun to work in this field.