Government Remains Unpopular

Even as the American public demands more, it remains ambivalent about government. The only 'solution' is enlightened leadership.
by | October 20, 2010

I recently stepped down as president of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), an organization of over 8,000 practitioners and academics focused on public service and management at all levels of government and throughout the world. Needless to say, budget crises and public restiveness about government are of particular concern to this group of professionals.

When I first took office in the spring of 2009, I spoke to our members about what appeared to be an inflection point in our recent history, where we seemed to embrace government as the solution and not just the problem. Many of us posted our new president's inaugural remarks on our walls and refrigerators: "It's not a question of right or left but what works." Well, that is the unique calling card of professionals and academics in public administration. ASPA members are the first people that political leaders turn to when they get serious about improving the delivery of public services throughout the nation.

By the time I turned the leadership over to the next ASPA president, the environment had changed drastically. In the short space of one year, we went from what was heralded as an era of hope to one of seeming despair and public anger.

The irony and paradoxes are everywhere we look. A November 2009 Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of Americans have a positive impression of the federal government, even though 60 percent report a positive experience when they interacted with a federal employee. Only 6 percent of Americans agree that the federal stimulus effort has created new jobs, even as a Congressional Budget Office report and other economists generally put the number of new jobs created at 2 million.

The persistent recession plays a role, but I would argue today that these incidences have roots in our deep ambivalence about government. We have a growing appetite for public services, even while we keep taxes at a lower share of the economy than nearly every OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nation. We turn to government to solve all manner of private troubles, be it obesity or housing prices, yet are perennially disenchanted with government and public servants who are necessary to deliver on political leaders' bold promises. While we ask government to do ever more, we limit and constrain them at the same time.

This commonly accepted duality in American politics reflects two prevailing sentiments. It's "get the government off our backs," on the one hand and "there ought to be a law," on the other. Many subscribe to both these values without admitting the contradiction between the two!

It's the fact that we want incompatible things from government that makes governing so difficult and time consuming -- and seemingly irrational.

Our history shows that we are wary of government expansions, period. Even during the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced heated opposition from the business community. Upon proclaiming that he would go to jail to defy the Wagner Act (which covered collective bargaining and established the National Labor Relations Board), Arthur Young, vice president of U.S. Steel in charge of labor relations, received a medal from the American Management Association. One Southern Democrat, Carter Glass, expressed his frustration with business-government partnerships by charging that the federal government was transplanting "Hitlerism to every corner of this nation." One Republican congressman from New York charged that the new Social Security program would make elderly Americans feel "the lash of the dictator".

In a haunting parallel with today, a movement emerged calling themselves the Taxpayer Leagues, inspired by their opposition to the massive expansion of government ushered in with the New Deal.

Despite our, at best, mixed view about public service and public values, we are adding an ever-more daunting array of problems to government's agenda. The issues for public managers to solve have grown beyond the simple delivery questions. We know how to get Social Security checks out the door and pick up the garbage. And for the most part, we have competent management that both avoids blatant corruption and keeps the trains running on time.

But the most daunting and expensive problems seem to defy anyone's understanding -- health-care reform, financial market restoration and building stable societies in vulnerable regions. These problems suffer partly from the "many hands problem" -- too many actors with too many different agendas required to "fix" the problems. Moreover, the solutions all involve tradeoffs with other values we care about -- and we are reluctant to choose one cherished value over another. Thus, we could wipe out toxic assets from the banks but we don't want to do that by wiping out shareholders. We could limit health-care expenditures by providing a constraint, but we don't want to regulate access to health care or to specific doctors.

Many of these new problems are placed on managers doorsteps due to the overweening ambition of policymakers themselves. The agenda explosion encompasses many of the issues placed on the table today -- obesity, smoking in public places, housing prices, quality of schools. These are all issues that were at one time not the province of government at any level, let alone federal government. This is no longer the case. Political leaders can't help themselves, and private troubles increasingly become public problems.

This is the environment that makes our work as stewards of public values and the public trust so challenging. The cruel fact is that public administrators and public programs will be both more prized and more damned at the same time. As epitomized by the health-care reform just enacted, the problems we are taking on have higher stakes, involve many more actors who are independent of the state and are difficult to control through government action alone.

Those of us in public administration have to fall back on John F. Kennedy's memorable words. We enter our profession not because it is easy, but because it is hard. When the going gets tough, it is our business to rise to the challenge. The battering of the public sector from the Great Recession is instructive. As the only port in a terrible economic storm, public-sector programs and staff have become more critical for many Americans out of work and out of luck. Once again the public sector has performed its time honored role of saving capital markets from their worst excesses. As they fill the critical gaps in our economy, thousands of public servants themselves must persevere through deep budget cuts, furloughs and painful program reductions.

I usually try to end my columns with some kind of upbeat conclusion, highlighting promising policy options that might resolve challenges I bring up. There is no "solution" for the cloud of ambivalence that shadows all major public initiatives. However, enlightened leadership can assuredly help us weather the storm. The Bush administration was in no small part undone by implementation failures in Katrina, Iraq and even food safety. The current administration may very well learn similar hard lessons. Political failures may be the necessary wake up call to make presidents, governors and other high officials appreciate that the quality of public servants and the design of public programs matter for the public and their own careers.

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