A New Public Ethos

Is the "greed is good" era coming to an end?

In reaction to the nation's financial crisis, government has begun a transformation that could usher in a new era of esteem for the public sector.

If this happens, it will counter a long-running trend that has seen only temporary bumps in the public's generally low trust in government following crises such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Today, public esteem remains low.

But scholars and longtime public servants who were present at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration in late November were talking about the emergence of a new ethos that could shift the balance of half a century's low regard for government and high esteem for the genius of the private sector.

H. George Frederickson, a University of Kansas professor distinguished not only by his academic record but also by his wit, asked the NAPA gathering to reconsider "the two political mantras of the 1980s. First: 'The era of big government is over.' That turns out to be true. It has been replaced by the era of really big government. Second: 'Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.' Well, it appears to the investment banks, to the automobile industry, to those holding bad mortgages, to state and local governments, and to firms lined up to be bailed out that government is the solution. How things have changed."

Frederickson went on to assert that "We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the long era of bureaucrat bashing, and of tearing down the managerial capacity of government, and the beginnings of re-regulation." There were, as he observed, few attacks on the bureaucracy during the campaigns of 2008.

Frederickson and academy fellows Neal Peirce, Donald F. Kettl and Thomas Stanton were among those arguing that with its hugely expensive moves to shore up private corporations, Washington is redefining the nature of government. It's clear, for example, that new, federally imposed limits on outsized private compensation packages signal a shift in power between public and private sectors. University of Pennsylvania scholar Kettl argued that we are in the midst of the largest change in the role of government since the days of Alexander Hamilton. "We are redefining what government is and rewriting the social contract," he said.

President-elect Barack Obama, with his ambitious agenda and powerful communication capabilities (some 10 million e-mail addresses), could benefit from the evident end of a half century of what Frederickson called "an individualistic, corporate, market and private ethos."

Let's imagine what a new public ethos might encompass: a more egalitarian society, where heroes aren't measured by their private jets; a return to the canny thrift that built our economy before debt took over; a move away from the rational individualism philosophy articulated by thinkers like Ayn Rand toward a more communitarian view of social well-being; and a greater willingness to help one another not only through privately sponsored service organizations but also through the more potent levers of government.

A new public ethos surely would embrace health insurance for all. It could cut through obstacles to infrastructure investment that would benefit so many citizens and businesses. It could help Washington reach urbanologist Peirce's worthy goal of supplanting urban program stovepipes with systems of support for the multijurisdictional "citistates" that are the engines of social and commercial interaction in our country. It should allow us to move away from the fractionated, special-interest structure of current government toward a more rational, economical, compassionate and effective approach to the common good our government seeks to serve.

From crisis can come progress, and Obama seems well-positioned to seize the opportunity.

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