Thoughts on Public Administration and the Paris Attacks

Waking up this morning reminded me a bit of waking up in my dorm-room on September 12, 2001. I had a hopeful, delusional thought that the Paris attack, which was so surreal, might have been a dream. Alas it was all too real. Admittedly, on September 12th I was in Philadelphia, a lot closer to New York than Oshkosh is to Paris. But these attacks resonate with so many of us because they are both an attack on a place, but also a way of life. The attacks serve as a reminder of the fragility of an open and free society.

The backbone of an open and free society, and the administrative state in general, is rationality. If I follow the laws, the instruments of the state, most obviously the police, are there to protect and represent me. If I play by the rules, I have an equitable shot at economic success. I can express my pleasures and displeasures through free public discourse, and express myself politically through voluntary action and the ballot box. Now, this does not always work out perfectly in practice, but it has enabled a society that balances freedom with individual rights, provides a social safety net, and provides remarkable opportunities for creativity and personal fulfillment…that whole pursuit of happiness thing.

But what happens if someone rejects the basic rationality that serves as the foundation of our society and administrative state? Well, our rational institutions struggle to make sense of it, and react to it. We saw this in Paris yesterday. How do you prevent something like Paris? There is always the specifics of intelligence, etc., but the fact remains that the rational basis of an open and free society enable such events when someone makes a specific choice to reject it, and exploit the rest of us who embrace it. The understandable impulse, which I think we saw in the United States post 9-11, is to question, or curtail some of our society’s freedom and openness.

This is a mistake. Why? It doesn’t work. Freedom and privacy for some, and in some places and situations, ultimately means no one can be assured of their privacy and freedom. That might work for a little while, but it cannot be sustained. The real answer, in my opinion, is to double down on those core goals of public administration: Representative Bureaucracy, and Social Equity. It is impossible to force someone to play by rational rules, or to feel part of an open and free society. So we must demonstrate, in our government and nonprofit organizations, a commitment to ensure no group feels, or is, unrepresented or underserved by their government. We must consider social equity in everything we do.   Efficiency? Yes. Efficiency in exchange for citizens feeling alienated? No.

Equity and representation is not always the most efficient option, and I worry that the next generation of Public Administration scholars may deemphasize these values because they are difficult to measure and test. We cannot afford to do this. No matter how efficient a program or policy may objectively be, if a group feels like it does not serve them because of who they are, the program or policy is not working. There will be natural desire for accountability after such a horrific event. I encourage any of the Public Administration folks out there to look within, at what we do. How can we be accountable to the ideals and institutions that enable a free and open society?

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Public Administration and the Paris Attacks”

  1. Prof. Ford, I can’t shake this notion of Social Equity you expressed here two months ago. I’m the efficiency guy that you’re worried about. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about feelings. They are individual and very difficult to quantify. They aren’t a metric easily measured or compared across years. I can’t trend line feelings compared to expenditures or debt service or operational efficiency. I do not think that public administration should be worried about feelings. There are facts and there are feelings. People’s feeling of security with regard to the country, their neighborhood or subdivision is a reflection of their perception. In my limited experience, the biggest public outrages, the ones that fill up the council chamber, are incited by feelings and are often tangentially related to facts. Among the many issues that governments face, I just don’t see a value in concerning ourselves with how every constituency feels. A great discussion piece. I enjoy reading the blog, keep it up!


    1. Thanks for the comments and for reading Jeremy! All fair points, and all part of a debate that I think makes PA such a fun and important topic to study.


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