Primum non Nocere – Mantra for ASPA?

By Craig Donovan

On September 11th in 1975, a professor of mine first introduced me to ASPA. I have been reflecting on that this year, how

some things change and how some don’t. I remember that the ‘big’ thing from that year or two was ASPA having a woman president for the first time. It was evidence that ASPA, like America, was changing. Feminism was on the rise and women were taking their place in leadership positions.

Then, most people I saw at ASPA were white. The majority of folks were middle-aged and older men, but it was changing. Many of the younger people had long hair, at least many of the younger men did, while the women were as likely to have a shorter cut as a longer one. No one talked about their sexuality though we flaunted same in our leisure suits and short skirts.

When you went to meetings you saw a lot more faces then than now. Not people, faces. Lacking cell phones to stare at in our laps, we all had to actually look at each other and attempt face-to-face conversations uninterrupted by calls, texts or tweets. Back then, people worried about the future of public administration, the future of ASPA, our declining membership and future revenues.

We were all more behind then in our ‘what’s what’ since the news came on only once in the evening and the only tv shows we could talk about were the ones on the three networks we had seen the night before…no VCRs or DVRs. Work may have piled up but we did not have any emails to check or voicemails to answer. Things seemed a bit more relaxed and peaceful.

Our chapters then were more active. We were just a more social bunch participating in group activities, from ASPA to the Elks, to local bowling leagues. Today, many of our chapters have gone virtual to the extent they meet at all. We seem to have less time even to get together for lunch as we work nearly 24/7 in response to the never-ending electronic onslaught.

I suppose we are more productive today. We can walk and talk and read and write from anywhere, anytime. Sitting at the airport is just as good as sitting at my desk for checking references while preparing for class. We mutlitask, doing all equally poorly.

We may be healthier. No more smoking in restaurants or in the office. We can get a cup of gourmet coffee on every corner, and our foods and restaurants are reviewed in real time in an app. Treadmills and bo-flexes are in our gyms, at home. Our foods are organic, our nutrition is labelled, even as our waists are expanding.

Over the past four decades I have gone from being a student observer to full-fledged (lifetime) member, I have served on chapters and sections, even been on the National Council. We have gone from an American society to an international one. We have added new sections on issues like ethics and LGBT. We are more diverse, more advanced and more inclusive than ever – in some ways.

But the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. While our council has shrunk in size, they still argue and circle around the same issues decade after decade. The wall or war between academics and practitioners still remains and academics still dominate the tenor and voice of the organization. We have ever more competition from other organizations focused on specific professional areas and more challenges from online resources available to those who would be members. Things have not gotten as bad as we had sometimes feared they might, but neither have they really gotten a whole lot better.

I am glad I have not outlived ASPA. There were times we worried it might fade away and no one would notice. The Gala we held at the 2013 conference was a wonderful celebration of the ASPA past (kudos to the organizers!). But I also look back with regret at what we have not done. Public administration is still unknown by most citizens and an afterthought even by our own elected leaders. We still trail the glamour and value given to our business school compatriots. There have been some bright spots and some bright leaders. But just not ceasing to exist is not enough, for me.

For four decades we have seemingly held to the principle, primum non nocere (at first do no harm). I only wish that at an ASPA conference, sometime in the near future so I can be there, we can celebrate just as hard about a wonderful new, re-invented ASPA. One where we did something more, something good: something really, really good. I want to see a time when there is an ASPA that everyone knows and that no one ignores; an ASPA that is making a real difference in the lives of our citizens, schools, and governmental/non-profit entities which we serve now and for the century to come.


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