Addressing Grand Challenges in Public Administration

We must prepare a new generation of innovators to confront the most important questions of our times.

Public Service Recognition Week provides an opportunity to highlight the incredible contributions of ordinary individuals accomplishing extraordinary things on behalf of their fellow citizens. We at the National Academy of Public Administration are proud to highlight the accomplishments of our Fellows, whose amazing careers exemplify the values of selfless service and devotion to country. Each of them has contributed to making our government, at every level, work better.

And yet, our government needs to work better still. The recently released President’s Management Agenda documents declining public trust in government and proposes a multi-generational effort to reform a “Federal Government [that] has become overly bureaucratic and complex in ways that have prevented agencies from seamlessly transitioning services to meet the needs of the 21st Century.” The Government Accountability Office specifically addresses the speed of development of new technologies as one of eight key trends affecting government and society. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summarizes the dilemma in his recent book, Thank You for Being Late: “If it is true that it now takes us ten to fifteen years to understand a new technology and then build out new laws and regulations to safeguard society, how do we regulate when the technology has come and gone in five to seven years? This is a problem.”

It is precisely this problem—how to enable government to move faster, while still supporting the objectives of efficiency, effectiveness and equity—that the Academy is moving to address. We began the work in 2017 with a series of four interactive summits across the country focused on “Governing Across the Divide.” Now, just as The National Academy of Engineering in 2008 identified 14 Grand Engineering Challenges for the 21st Century, we believe it is time to consider Grand Challenges in Public Administration.

For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued an overall grade of D+ for the country in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card and estimated that $4.6 trillion would be needed to address the challenge. GAO identifies the federal government’s unsustainable long-term fiscal path as a serious risk and notes that a growing structural imbalance in resources is squeezing out our ability to invest in the critical infrastructure required to sustain economic growth. The Academy recently partnered with the National Academy of Construction, the American Geographical Society, and Arizona State University to host a summit that explored the use of geographic information systems to develop a map of the nation’s infrastructure that could inform a prioritized national investment strategy.

This is not primarily a data or technology challenge, but it is a public leadership challenge of marshaling the support of key stakeholder communities for a positive vision—a national infrastructure map. This map would provide political leaders and citizens with readily available, systematic, comparable, location-based information about the nation’s infrastructure, in order to support an informed political process for determining priorities and acting on them. Our summit identified best practices employed by local and regional bodies to inform their infrastructure investment strategies and proposed solutions to expand these regional solutions to the national level. This initial conversation will be expanded through new university-level interdisciplinary research initiatives at ASU that integrate their schools of Public Affairs, Geographical Sciences, and Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

There are similar public administration challenges related to the integration of big data across government levels—data creation and storage technology is outpacing our ability to analyze and protect the very information we should use to improve program effectiveness and efficiency. Artificial intelligence and robots are proliferating across nearly every aspect of our lives before we have developed regulatory processes to ensure citizen safety, transparency of decision making, and clear alignments of accountability and responsibility. Our creaky intergovernmental system does not enable the federal, state and local levels of government to work together to effectively and proactively address the challenges posed by changes in our physical environment.

In each of these scenarios, and in many others, our government simply does not respond quickly enough to the rapidly changing circumstances all around us. When we do respond with speed, we often fail to address the underlying issues of transparency and accountability. Consequently, we do not serve our citizens well, and citizen trust in government continues to decline. It doesn’t have to be this way.

During this Public Service Recognition Week, we must celebrate those who persist in public service despite the system. We must also call a new generation to public service—a generation not of new public administrators, but of public administration innovators who can keep pace with technology innovators. We must prepare them to address the most important questions of our times, to consider not just how quickly new science can be deployed, but to also consider whether, how, and to whom that science should be deployed. We must convey the value not just of public service, but of government service, and the opportunity to help solve real life-or-death issues at scale. And we must enable our government to anticipate and prepare for changing circumstances, not just respond slowly to forces beyond its control.

The Academy, over the coming months, will address these issues as we explore the Grand Challenges in Public Administration. We believe that by mobilizing around these critical questions, we can identify and deploy new approaches that will enable our government to work better, and to work for all. Join the conversation at www.napawash.org/grandchallenges.

Teresa Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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