Where Leaders Lead, The Rest Will Follow

By Jason Bowns

Public administrators are today’s leaders. They head our government institutions, hospitals, schools, public safety services and nonprofit groups. It’s awe-inspiring to imagine the omnipresent role of public administration in our daily lives; from picking up the mail, to stopping at a red light, to paying taxes.

 National Park Service
National Park Service

Yet, there is a glaring problem in a world where news stories disproportionately depict what is going wrong in public administration and much less of what is going right. Consider some recent headlines.

There’s the latest indictment of former Connecticut Governor John Rowland. How about the California city manager, Robert Rizzo, who embezzled millions from the municipality he was entrusted to lead and is now going to prison for 12 years?

In the California State Senate, there’s the recent indictment of Leland Yee on gun and corruption charges.

Let’s not forget about Pennsylvania State Senator LeAnna Washington, recently “ordered to stand trial” on corruption charges by a state district court judge. There’s also Detroit – a bankrupt city with a convicted ex-mayor.

Then, of course, the well-publicized federal trial of former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien is ongoing (which followed an acquittal in Massachusetts state court), accused of facilitating a “rigged hiring system in which the politically connected got department jobs over more qualified candidates.” One recent defense court filing alleges a plethora of well-known government figures routinely made employment recommendations to the Massachusetts State Trial Court system and that “patronage is a normal part of government business.”

Taking in all of this, perhaps the icing on the cake is Harvard University Professor Lawrence Lessig’s opinion piece, bluntly dubbed “Why Washington Is Corrupt.”

Stories like these offer grim prospects for those who are, or who hope to be, working in some facet of the public administration field. It’s a realm where morale is low and where stories like these cast an even darker shadow. Ethics reform legislation is enacted regularly and then we reform the reforms. We have more transparency at the federal, state and local levels.

We’ve had a growing Inspector General (IG) movement since Congress enacted the Inspector General Act of 1978, and the Massachusetts General Court enacted the first state level IG office in 1981. With so many reforms, why do we still have so much corruption? Is it simply human nature to be corrupt, or are we not reforming the right things?

Maybe we need to reform the way we talk about government. In a news media culture which emphasizes wrongdoing, one may be at a loss for the kind of role models which the citizenry urgently needs. When leaders go astray, institutional integrity will follow. When we nurture an information culture which expects corruption, then there will be corruption; our leaders will consider this business as usual. The public will react to headlines like those above with heads shaking and a knowing declaration: “Another one bites the dust…”

The future must cast a brighter light upon what leaders do right – not towards what they have said they will do, but what they have actually achieved. How have they inspired others, and where have they led them? Did they do what they promised to do? Is the public better off than it was? These are a few gauges of leadership.

We have such noble historical leaders with names like Washington (who sought an Inspector General to oversee the Continental Army as early as 1777), Wilson, Adams, Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But who do we have today?

Who can we look up to and say, “That woman or man is doing a good job; I want to be just like that when I grow up…”

Where are our mentors? Who leads us?

In forging a public administration culture built upon honor, we must first remember what it means to lead – and then to start doing more of it.

That’s the real reform which public administration needs today, more than ever.

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