The Soul of Public Administration
By Bob and Janet Denhardt
There's been a lot of talk recently about the soul or spirit of public administration. What values lie at the core of public service? What is the essential character and meaning of what we do? What is the moving force that compels our actions? What gives us strength and inspiration when the trials and turmoil of our work gets us down? These questions and other like them have, of course, been debated throughout the history of public administration in this country and elsewhere. But there seems to be more concern for these issues today than before and we seem to be finding it more difficult to come up with satisfactory answers.
Certainly there are some "driving forces" that we have witnessed in public administration over the past couple of decades. The New Public Management, the National Performance Review, the Managing for Results movement, and Total Quality Management - to name just a few. But while all of these influences on our field have been important, none have satisfied our more basic yearning to answer several key questions - who are we, why are we here, what does this all mean?
People in public administration throughout the history of our field have been encouraged to make things work, but that's only a partial answer. We also want to do something of societal value. And therein lies the soul of public administration. Think about what brought you to the public service in the first place - a desire to make a meaningful contribution to society, to do something "significant."
Perhaps you have heard the story of Jacqueline Mayer Townsend, a former Miss America who suffered a massive stroke only eight years after her "crowning" moment. Her muscles drooped, her eyes were down-turned, and her mouth was sagging... She could hardly talk and she felt others saw her as "deformed, mumbling, and ... pathetic." She vowed to fight back: "Until I put an entire sentence together, until I put an entire speech together." And she was successful - to the point that she dedicated her life to speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association, keeping an incredibly demanding schedule. After one speech, she was asked by a reporter how she kept such a regimen, even though reminders of her illness - numbness, exhaustion, and occasional slurred speech - were still present. She replied, "The pursuit of happiness has nothing to do with joy. It's the pursuit of significance that matters."
What is most significant, and most valuable, about public administration is that we serve citizens to advance the common good. Public administrators are responsible for improving the public health, maintaining public safety, enhancing the quality of our environment, and myriad other tasks. Ultimately, what really matters is not how efficiently we do our jobs, but how we contribute to a better life for all. And therein lies the soul of public administration. It may be a soul that is often obscured by cries for efficiency and productivity, for doing more with less, but it is nonetheless a soul that provides the foundation and meaning for our work and our lives.
Elsewhere in our writing, we have called for an affirmation of the soul of the profession in what we term the New Public Service, grounded in the values of service in the public interest, democratic ideals, and civic engagement (Public Administration Review, November, 2000). In this column we will look at various dimensions of the New Public Service. Specifically, we hope to explore various ways in which the soul of public administration manifests itself in the way we do our work, in the way we interact with political leaders, in the way we engage with citizens, and in the way we bring about positive changes in our organizations and in our communities. We invite you to share your stories with us, stories that show the soul and meaning of public service in action. And in turn we'll share with you some of the ways the soul of public service might be become more prominent in our lives - perhaps even more prominent than the techniques of public administration.
Arizona City/County Management Association
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Phone: (602) 258-5786
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