The New Public Service: Putting Citizens in the Captain’s Chair

Posted on June 14, 2015

By Sam Taylor — Deputy City Manager, Morro Bay, CA
Government is about people. In a simple form, government is really the agreement by people to come together for the sake of a common good.
They join resources in order to better manage their affairs as a community – and that community is scalable from the smallest towns to the largest nations. Management of those entities, of course, can be widely different. Sometimes it feels like the rules are part of the Thunderdome.
So why is it so easy for some government entities to seemingly make decisions that don’t appear to mesh with the people they serve? Why is a “it’s good for them whether they realize it or not” approach something still done so much at the local government level?
giphyA recent ELGL article on a Municipal Heirarchy of Needs got me thinking about this issue again. The article absolutely didn’t advocate for ignoring citizen input, but ranking the services most important to communities still struck me as going into municipal management without an open mind. Who’s to say quality of life isn’t a larger priority for a community? Of course, I think about these ideas a lot – how to engage community members; how to inform them of what their government is doing and why and how to get them to share educated thoughts with their elected officials and government staff members. And I’m not blasting that municipal hierarchy – but it nearly falls into the same old trap of public administrators knowing what’s good for folks more than they know themselves.
I think there’s a better way. It starts with public service. And it’s caused through communication and facilitation of community engagement.
History of Public Administration (it’s important, no really!)
For much of history, public administrators have sought various forms of efficiency in the management of government. Those have included Old Public Management’s aims of simply “rowing” to achieve the ends of elected policy makers and New Public Management’s goals of “steering” agencies with wide latitude toward economic, market-focused management solutions.
hammertimePublic administration throughout America’s history has placed the public in the back of the boat. That is to say, the public under old management theories has been made to sit idly by while public administrators “row” or “steer” the government vessel on their behalf (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). Understanding this history is as important as understanding how M.C. Hammer was influential to the rise of pop rap in America.
Over time, however, a new theory of public administration has emerged as new scholars and a new generation of government managers began to call for the public to have more involvement in a government intended to be “by the People, for the People.” This New Public Service, so termed by Denhardt and Denhardt, is intended to sit the public citizen directly in the captain’s chair.
A Better Way
Public administrators are there to serve through responsiveness to the community – to members of the public as citizens in a democracy, not as clients or customers who, under previous forms of public administration theory, were considered only self-interested actors or incidental casualties as it were to the policies formulated by “expert” administrators and policy makers.
we-need-your-help-oUnder New Public Service, according to Denhardt and Denhardt, public administrators are not simply in it for a paycheck or to find efficiencies in government – or due to an “ideological desire to reduce the size of government” (p. 29). Instead, New Public Service administrators do it because they have a desire to contribute to society – to assist the public by facilitating democracy and ensuring an active role for the community in preserving, enhancing and, most of all, defining the public interest.
People reading ELGL may think this is all common sense. But we should realize that the way local governments are working to engage community members now is in reality a relatively new phenomenon.  And, more importantly, we should never forget where we have been and where we should be.
I want to leave you with Denhardt and Denhardt’s lists of ways to engage in Public Service as opposed to old, crusty styles of municipal governance. I strongly encourage folks to read their work. It’s short and sweet and it’s inspiring. Let’s continue to engage citizens. Let’s empower them to take the reins of their community government. We’re here to help them do that.
Here is the academic prescription for public service from Denhardt and Denhardt:

  1. Serve Citizens, not Customers
  2. Seek the Public Interest
  3. Value Citizenship over Entrepreneurship
  4. Think Strategically, Act Democratically
  5. Recognize that Accountability Isn’t Simple
  6. Serve, Rather than Steer
  7. Value People, not just Productivity (p. 43-44)

Denhardt, Janet V. Denhardt, Robert B. (2011). The New Public Service: Serving, Not Steering. M.E. Sharpe, Inc.: Armonk, N.Y.

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