Parsing Politics From An Education

By Jason Bowns

Invoking its Latin language roots, “to educate” means “to lead away” from where you were into a new place, for better or for worse. Thus, to educate inherently means to change.

Photo Credit: CT Monuments.net

Photo Credit: CT Monuments.net

Education is a decisive factor in predicting the permanence of reform. UNESCO, too, recognizes how “…education is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future.”

Episodes of short-lived change, while no doubt serving as fascinating academic case studies iterating what not to do, are per se inefficient and an ill-advised investment of resources.

Consider your next museum visit, where you may find such quizzical relics as a bill of sale for another human being, denoting a base price, taxes and applicable fees. Neatly penned in broad, longhand strokes, this is not unlike what one may present at a neighborhood Department of Motor Vehicles today, following an automobile purchase.

America’s Civil War pitted the federal government against the secessionist States, ultimately reaffirming the supremacy of that national power which the Founders had intentionally designed to form a more perfect union.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Photo Credit: National Park Service

The Reconstruction Era following our American Civil War lasted for 12 years, from 1865-1877. Politicians in Washington, D.C. agreed to withdraw troops from the South, ignoring segregationist practices there. Ending Reconstruction was a bargaining chip, because members of one political party wanted their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, to be selected as President of the United States, following a very close election in 1876.

This development eventually culminated with the Plessy v. Ferguson holding in 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that racial segregation was completely constitutional.

In this tumultuous battle for political control, government leaders expressly endorsed that very same spirit of separation, which Abraham Lincoln had ominously decried by declaring, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It wasn’t until nearly 60 years later that change directed its arrow into that place nearest to the roots of new beginnings: School. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka concluded, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Suddenly, racial equality was an issue that directly affected the chief livelihood of children, as they saw desegregated schools photographed and talked about everywhere in the news.

These were revolutionary and controversial events, but for today’s schoolchildren hitting the books 60 years later, imagining a place where certain races were banned from classrooms is to visit another world.

This is how long term change materializes, from the inside out. People slowly adjust, another generation is born and then the world begins all over again with a reformed line of sight. When our human eyes change, so, too, does the view.

The courts didn’t overrule the way people felt inside any more than Reconstruction changed attitudes after the Civil War, ending in a heartbeat when federal military troops left the South.

A comparable scene played out with Boston’s forced busing beginning in 1974, best summarized as a court-mandated debacle that did little to alleviate the underlying racial inequities.

Historian Jim Vrabel said, “The last 40 years we’ve been pursuing a mathematical solution to desegregate the Boston Public Schools, instead of an educational solution to improve them.”

A CNN news analysis also reported, “Many Bostonians we spoke with – white, black, Hispanic, Asian – agreed that if busing failed to integrate as some people once hoped, its even greater failure lay in shifting the spotlight off the issue of quality schools and onto the more mechanical issue of sitting white and black children next to each other.”

Photo Credit: Wikispaces

Photo Credit: Wikispaces

In surveying long term impacts, one student affected by the forced busing mandate poignantly noted, “There is a role for government, but we have to be very, very careful that we don’t lean on them…You know, it has to start in our communities.”

To succeed at change, our political leaders must utilize compromise and communication.

That’s exactly how a strike was narrowly averted after failed negotiations between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Long Island Rail Road workers. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, facilitating an agreement that kept trains running and appeased transit workers who had already worked without a contract for four years.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, known for his frankness, has similarly commented about the role of government actors: “I think it’s always irresponsible if you’re running the government to be advocating for shutting it down. That, by definition, is a failure.”

Undoubtedly, America’s three branches of government offer many potential avenues for promoting change, but we traverse the most enduring paths with skills practiced in school – how to think, to communicate and to compromise.

Those lessons cannot be forced; they are only learned. These are tools that political leaders must wield when quelling the seas of dissent, to educate each other as well as the citizenry.

Meanwhile, as political debate swirls and policies shift yet again, many stand at the wheelhouses of public administration, steering in whatever new directions our captains point toward next.

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Filed under Government, Education, civil rights, History

What Happens When Government Makes an Error?

By Geoff McLennan

We live in a year of recalls and increased quality control. Most automakers have been besieged by recalls, costing millions in recovery and litigation. Regulatory agencies have that authority. Yet what happens when government makes a mistake, costing the public and businesses millions?

Geoff july 17Take for example a licensing agency’s mistake on one or hundreds of licensees. Consumers are encouraged by the agency to check the online license record and it wrongly displays the licensee is out of compliance. The consumer skips that business thinking it is dishonest due online status. Weeks or months later, the media discloses that the licensing agency has a huge backlog and the online records are not reliable. Meanwhile, several licensees and some small businesses may have lost business with considerable damage to staff and suppliers. What recourse does the small business have? The same scenario could happen to a licensed practitioner such as a nurse, doctor or therapist. Recent media stories have described these government mistakes without any remedy to those harmed.

Typically, government mistakes are disclosed by audits, court orders or legislative budget augmentations; let’s say close to a “recall” for quality control. Reaction by the offending agency could include changing management, increasing staffing, replacing or taking legal action against vendors or consultants. Meanwhile, what about recompensing the licensee harmed by the apparent mistakes? Could a fee refund help? What about a letter of apology issued to all licensees with a plan to prevent future mistakes?

Has your agency, board or commission been subject to what seems like a recall on services? What happened to reconcile the parties harmed by the mistake?

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The New Separate and Unequal Access

By Winnie Eke

Eke july 15Like most people in the country and the world, I have come to depend on the Internet for almost all activities, personal and formal. It is worrisome that the only avenue accessible to everyone to access and send information is on the “chopping block.” I am concerned that the Federal Communication Commission is seeking to change Internet usage rules due to a January appeals court ruling that questioned its legal authority to allow unfettered access to all.

A primary concern is that the idea of considering separate communication lines for corporation and private users at commensurate fees equates to separation and unequal access to the Internet access. This type of division continues to work against the middle class and the poor. What happens to providing access to Internet and information to all? We are worried about the achievement gap between the races, yet this ruling may change and add to the inequality and wider achievement gap in the society.

It is time for Congress to act. Economics and party ideology should not always trump morality.

Your thought.

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Filed under Communications, Technology

Once We Were Giants

By Craig Donovan

People choose a career in the public sector for a variety of reasons, but most of us were in large part motivated because we wanted to do more, to be a part of something bigger and more useful than a for profit company whose goal was to make money. When we first started to learn about public administration as opposed to political science, we learned about some wonderful things that our government and the folks who worked in it had accomplished.

Our government (federal, state, and local), once built dams, bridges and roads. We electrified the nation. We developed and enforced safer working conditions. We built a public health system. We cleaned up the air and water that for-profit companies had polluted. We saw to it that our food was safe and our medicines effective. We kept the banks and financiers honest. We developed the largest public education system from kindergarten through college open to one and all. We built the greatest infrastructure any country has ever known and put a man on the moon. For three quarters of a century, the people who worked for government could be proud of the roles they played in the building of our modern nation and the lives of the people in it. Once, we were giants.

Today, things are quite different. Our elected officials, who once fought to lead us in serving and protecting our fellow citizens, became our greatest critics who fight to be the biggest leaders in dismantling and destroying us. The visionaries who laid out the new challenges we rose to meet have grown silent. If you want to be a part of the great things governments can do, you must look elsewhere.

We are not building the greatest high speed rail system to connect our vast and far flung country together. We are not upgrading our aging electrical grid. Not only are we not building new roads and bridges but we are letting the ones we have, crumble beneath us. Our internet system is not cutting edge or even available to all. Our public health system is mostly gone. We have no new bold initiatives to harness the sun or the winds or the currents. We are not planning for the changes our evolving climate is producing. Our government is not building the biggest, newest, best or most innovative anything here in America.

As someone who was once a business owner and government practitioner, now turned academician, it is harder and harder to inspire each new class of students with the visions of what they might accomplish as part of their government.  Today, working for government is mostly just about getting a job. Many in government still make less than their private sector counterparts and will top out far below what they could make elsewhere. By and large we still have decent benefits, compared to the private sector, but those benefits are under continual attack.

After 9-11, there was resurgence in interest and pride in our government and those who were part of it. But again, no visionaries came forward to harness this rebirth of spirit and it ended up being channeled into ‘going shopping.’ I was part of a group who worked to form a national public service academy, along the lines of the public military academies. Not because we do not have a variety of excellent pathways into public sector education and leadership, but because, just like for the branches of the armed forces, we would benefit as a nation from having a focused point of pride that says public service is a major pillar of and value to our country. No such academy was ever created.

Once, those of us who chose a lifetime of public service were giants doing giant things for our country no matter what our position or place of employment. We will never again be a truly great nation, never again be a true leader and model for the other nations of the world, until we have the heart and the vision to dream and build great dreams as a nation—inspiring our future generations of American youth to dedicate their lives to their country and their fellow citizens.

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Filed under General, Government

Eighteen Months and Seventy-Four School Shootings

By Robyn Jay Bage

How could this happen?

Who would want to hurt little children?

Why aren’t kids safe in school?

Is this school safe? What if one of us had a gun?

What would happen if a stranger came in with one?

Who can protect us?

Mark Wilson/Roswell Daily Record/AP Photo

Mark Wilson/Roswell Daily Record/AP Photo

In February 2013 I wrote about the heart breaking questions my student’s asked in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the questions I couldn’t answer. Today—18 months and 74 school shootings after that December horror—there are still no answers.

1/08/2013          Fort Myers, FL

1/10/2013          Taft, CA

1/15/2013          St. Louis, MO

1/15/2013          Hazard, KY

1/16/2013          Chicago, IL

1/22/2013          Houston, TX

1/31/2013          Atlanta, GA

2/1/2013            Atlanta, GA

2/7/2013            Fort Pierce, FL

2/13/2013          San Leandro, CA

2/27/2013          Atlanta, GA

3/18/2013          Orlando, FL

3/21/2013          Southgate, MI

4/12/2013          Christianburg, VA

4/13/2013          Elizabeth City, NC

4/15/2013          Grambling, LA

4/29/2013          Cincinnati, OH

6/7/2013            Santa Monica,CA

6/19/2013          W. Palm Beach, FL

8/15/2013          Clarksville, TN

8/20/2013          Decatur, GA

8/22/2013          Memphis, TN

8/23/2013          Sardis, MS

8/30/2013          Winston-Salem, NC

9/21/2013          Savannah, GA

9/28/2013          Gray, ME

10/4/2013          Pine Hills, FL

10/15/2013        Austin, TX

10/21/2013        Sparks, NV

11/1/2013          Algona, IA

11/2/2013          Greensboro, NC

11/3/2013          Stone Mountain, GA

11/21/2013        Rapid City, SD

12/4/2013          Winter Garden, FL

12/13/2013        Arapahoe County, CO

12/19/2013        Fresno, CA

1/9/2014            Jackson, TN

1/14/2014          Roswell, NM

1/15/2014          Lancaster, PA

1/17/2014          Philadelphia, PA

1/20/2014          Chester, PA

1/21/2014          West Lafayette, IN

1/24/2014          Orangeburg, SC

1/28/2014          Nashville, TN

1/28/2014          Grambling, LA

1/30/2014          Palm Bay, FL

1/31/2014          Phoenix, AZ

1/31/2014          Des Moines, IA

2/7/2014            Bend, OR

2/10/2014          Salisbury, NC

2/11/2014          Lyndhurst, OH

2/12/2014          Jackson, TN

2/20/2014          Raytown, MO

3/2/2014            Westminster, MD

3/7/2014            Tallulah, LA

3/8/2014            Oshkosh, WI

3/21/2014          Newark, DE

3/30/2014          Savannah, GA

4/3/2014            Kent, OH

4/7/2014            Roswell, NM

4/11/2014          Detroit, MI

4/16/2014          Tuscaloosa, AL

4/21/2014          Griffith, IN

4/21/2014          Provo, UT

4/16/2014          Council Bluffs, IA

5/2/2014            Milwaukee, WI

5/3/2014            Everett, WA

5/4/2014            Augusta, GA

5/5/2014            Augusta, GA

5/8/2014            Georgetown, KY

5/8/2014            Lawrenceville, GA

5/21/2014          Milwaukee, WI

6/5/2014            Seattle, WA

6/10/2014          Troutdale, OR

The President tells us we are the only developed country in the world that experiences this level of crisis in our schools. But it isn’t just about the sheer numbers. The details matter: Between December 15, 2012 and February 10, 2014, there was an average of two school shootings each month at K-12 schools. Where the shooter’s age was known, 70 were perpetrated by minors.

The epidemic of school shootings is too complex a problem for the solution to be as simple as gun control or more

mental health assessments. As a professional in youth services for many years, I have to wonder if these tragedies are indicators of the plight of today’s youth. In the aggregate, is this a symptom among a cluster of many, depicting a mood of hopelessness wounding this generation?

Research tells us that youth need adults who care about them, opportunities to have input into decisions that matter to them. They need nutritious food, health care, education and a system that rewards good work with jobs that sustain them, instead of mountains of student loan debt. Again, I am not making a political statement of any sort.

I’m making a plea.

Let us honor the memories of all who have suffered, by arming our youth with knowledge, meaningful skills, empathy, optimism and love, so they are empowered to make decisions in the best interest of their current and future selves. And may the next 18 months—and beyond—offer healing and hope.

 

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Filed under Nonprofit Management, Practitioner Perspective

Drawing A Line In The Public Interest

By Jason Bowns

During an Associated Press banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, Mark Twain once quipped, “No public interest is anything other or nobler than a massed accumulation of private interests.”

Today, public servants are universally bound to protect this broad public interest. Those officials include elected leaders, career civil service members and political appointees, among others.

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics reminds us, “Advance the public interest. Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.”

Members of the media are also duty-bound to defend the public interest. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) notes that “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

What exactly does the public interest mean? Is it a sum of many parts, or is it something larger than us all? Is it the lesser of enumerated evils, or is it the greatest good? Is what’s best for the public interest always the same as what’s best for you? It may even be hard to choose.

Photo Credit: www.arb.ca.gov

Photo Credit: http://www.arb.ca.gov

In 1789, the First Congress proposed to amend the U.S. Constitution with a Bill of Rights enacted “…as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.” These rights fortified the people’s faith in the government.

Just this past week, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chelsea Manning, writing from Fort Leavenworth. While leaking classified documents was illegal, she claimed to have acted “out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” Warning that the military still lacks adequate transparency and accountability, she concluded with a glaring fact: “Opinion polls indicate that Americans’ confidence in their elected representatives is at an all-time low.”

Edward Snowden faces a similar dilemma after publicly releasing top-secret American intelligence documents. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has defended him by noting, “Snowden’s disclosures are a true constitutional moment, where the press has held the government to account using the First Amendment, when the other branches refused.”

Sometimes, the public interest is in the eye of the beholder. Individual actors may concurrently claim to act in the public interest, yet they choose divergent paths. They may defend different public interests – such as the right to know, obedience to the law or national security.

Does one interest ever trump the other? Does national security ever trump obedience to the law, and does the public have a right to know everything?

Questions like these have serious implications for public administration.

Public administrators must define the public interest in order to know what exactly they defend. Obeying the laws and upholding state and federal constitutions are inherent in this; but there may still be grey areas and organizational practices which run counter to the public interest.

Public administrators are the lifeblood of the government, putting its ideas and words into motion, sculpting smoke and mirrors into form and substance.

Cicero, a famed Roman orator, lauded patriotism as the greatest virtue in the Roman Republic of his own time, adding:

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Nor is it sufficient to possess this virtue as an art, unless we reduce it to practice.”

Rather than running from one crisis to the next, the public must hold onto its own interest in the people – in service to one another and to our core American ideals. The public must find faith in state and federal governments, whether by supporting existing leaders or by choosing new ones.

People sometimes forget that they are a part of the government, not apart from it.

As recipients of government services, the public comprises the hub of public administration. Indeed, it’s the public which public administration exists to serve.

We the people forget that most of us want the same thing: what’s in all of our best interests.

We should not believe the ignoble lie that we are helpless to lead the world towards change.

Manning critiques the government for thwarting balanced media coverage, but the public too often chooses to believe information read or heard, without a more searching inquiry. The news is not the cure for this scarred public confidence we face. Activist Noam Chomsky has even asserted that major media’s primary role is “manufacturing consent” among the masses.

Conversations must consider what the public wants, instead of telling it what to want. The public must use its voice – not through a media which speaks, but instead by speaking for itself.

Perhaps then the public will better learn to defend its own interest and to trust in itself.

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Filed under civil rights, Government, Practitioner Perspective

Telephone Intakes as Public Service

By Geoff McLennan

As a longtime civil servant from Northern California my future posts will focus primarily on customer service, both internally (co-workers, control agencies, etcetera) and externally. I will also address how technology and software applications affect customer services.

My first post considers the telephone; that common device that takes up space on our desks and walls, hangs in our ears, and charges in planes, trains and cars. We can walk, run, work or drive, eat and sleep with it. It rings in all sorts of tones and even vibrates.  Many of today’s phones are also multitasking devices. So why do people call a government agency when other means of contact, like texting, exist?

Usually when there is a time sensitive problem or a service that has gone terribly wrong, such as a licensee not receiving confirmation of a licensing action, or a driver’s license was withheld, customers need to get through to a person and not an automated message service. What do customers experience when they call?

Lately, I have observed that large organizations, both public and private, have gone mostly to telephone answering networks, featuring the “Welcome to Agency X. Please state the reason for your call. I did not understand that answer. Can you say a ‘rubber ducky?” response.  I frankly don’t like the journey on which most automated telephone systems takes us. The experience can be long, incomplete, lacking in shortcuts, and often end with “We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls. Your estimated wait time is 20 minutes. Please continue holding, or press ‘three’ now to leave a message.”  Then the torturous, ear-piercing music begins.

I have also noticed that most public agencies provide a toll free number for telephone service requests. Considering toll-freethat first impressions often last, do we want public customers to experience an impersonal, automated phone service?  In my opinion, it is not good customer service in this age of technological enlightenment. So why have we created this default manner of customer intake?  What are our choices, and how much will it increase costs to provide live intake staff?  Or will social apps such as “311”, hash tags, or other texting services make government telephone access obsolete?

An ASPA Founders’ Fellow recently provided an excellent historical summary of how Americans have expected better service, and more recently, more technologically driven improvements from the past three federal administrations. It is time to adapt to new technology. It should be an effective transition for all.

So how can public agencies adapt to electronic customer intakes knowing the heterogeneous public that we serve? For example, will electronic intake meet the needs of the disabled and elderly persons? What about the poor who are without access to modern devices such as cell phones, laptops and personal computers, or subject to slow internet service?

What say you?

 

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