The Thinker

Improving public administration one course at a time

Retirement is good, or so I’ve been told. I’ll let you know when I arrive after August 1. They say that it beats working for a living.

As I hang up my career though, I sure didn’t expect the opportunity to share my wisdom in any meaningful way. You expect cake in a conference room (got that), a dinner with colleagues after work (got that) and a farewell luncheon (that comes tomorrow). It used to be you expected a gold-plated watch, but as I’m a federal employee I won’t get that. Anyhow, in what feels sort of like a consolation prize, last month found me in Landsdowne, a conference facility northwest of Washington D.C. I was invited to help create a better curriculum in their masters of public administration degree.

My invitation came from my friend Tim, who got me into the federal civil service in the first place. Tim didn’t spend that long in the civil service. He did go back to school, got a PhD, ran a couple campaigns for Congress as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district (and lost badly) and most recently ended up on the staff of the American Public University System (APUS). The online university teaches careers in public administration, which is kind of what I spent the last thirty-three years doing. Since Tim knew me and knew I lived near Landsdowne, he convinced me to come and educate these educators on what public administration today was really about.

These days, you would think the last career anyone would aspire to is public administration. These people run governments: state, county, local and the federal government. Actually, they don’t so much run governments as administrate them. The sort of graduates APUS puts into the workforce aspire to positions like City Manager, where they get down and dirty into issues like making sure the city picks up the trash on time and fills the potholes. Some aspire to state or federal service, and it was the latter that made me of value to them.

Only I wasn’t sure I should have been there in the first place. For example, I was sitting in a room next the former mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser. Mark is an impressive guy and I could see how he managed to be mayor for four years. He is smart, grounded, political and pragmatic, with a clear understanding of what governing is really about. The other guy at the table was Andrew J. Duck, another friend of Tim who like Tim had run two campaigns for Congress, and lost. Mr. Duck now works for Northrup Grumman, which sells his expertise on intelligence issues to the Pentagon. Two guys, a facilitator, a note taker and the rather obscure me: a nerdy guy who manages a public information system. We were there to answer the question: what should APUS do to make their curriculum more relevant? The prize, such as it was for a couple of hours around a conference table, was an insulated coffee mug and a really good catered lunch.

I felt like the odd man out. Mr. Duck, for example, had not just keen insights into the intelligence business, but totally got public administration and the imperfect art of governing including the crazy disconnect between what the public expects and what is actually possible. (Attention citizens: with limited taxes not all problems can be solved instantly.) Mr. Funkhouser had actually walked the walk, managing a huge and diverse city and walking the fine line that politicians walk: being effective and political at the same time. It’s hard to be both. I felt outclassed. We browsed the course curriculum and were asked a number of leading questions while guys with cameras and microphones occasionally came in and captured our images and voices.

Their curriculum did not particularly surprise me, but a lot of it seemed marginally relevant. At least in the federal government, public administration is a very different beast. Citizens are less in your face than they are at the local level, while the amount of rules, regulations and policies you are supposed to adhere to often feel overwhelming. It’s a wonder we manage to do any governing at all. How many people would knowingly choose to spend thirty or more years of their lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy?

It was never my explicit choice; it just sort of worked out that way because I lived in the Washington D.C. area. How do you prepare someone for a life in the bureaucratic trenches? How do you inspire them? Most importantly, how can they be effective in this environment? It’s a grinding and grating world for most of us inside it, pulled between irreconcilable forces. There are the rules, which frequently change. There is your senior leadership, which is also frequently changing and who will push political agendas of the current president, which are often counterproductive and downright wacky. (Bush’s faith-based initiatives was one of the wackier ones.) There is Congress, which consists of people who generally belong in rubber rooms and most of whom haven’t a lick of common sense about how the real world works. There is the workforce consisting of generally good people who are often treated shabbily. And there is the bureaucracy itself: hard to understand and appreciate until you are stuck in the middle of it, where it sort of makes sense after a while, but makes no sense to an outsider.

Fortunately, I was able to contribute a few ideas that look that it will actually make it into their program in a year or two. First was the strange absence of acquisition education in their curriculum. Governments spend boatloads of money and much of it actually goes outside the agency to the private sector for goods and services. At least in the federal government, there is this confusing rulebook, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It was hard for me to imagine anyone doing public administration without knowledge of how to procure these things legally and get a genuine best value, and also do it intelligently.

Being in information technology, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of education in this area too. You are training to administer government, but you have no idea of an information technology life cycle? No idea that you will have systems written in house, and others that will be pulled off the shelf, and they all have to talk to each other all the time? No idea that systems are born and die, and their replacements have to be carefully planned and paid for? No appreciation for what a CIO or a CTO does? No one expects a public administrator to write code in C++, but you sure need to understand that solid and reliable information pins together public administration and something about the architecture that makes the magic possible. It all has to work together seamlessly and tell you things that are relevant. If it doesn’t, you can’t do your job.

So I did my part for future bureaucrats and administrators. If you are crazy enough to want to do this stuff professionally, thanks to Mark, Andrew and me, perhaps future public administrators will have the skills they need in today’s crazy world of government.

Okay, I gave back. Now maybe I’ll take up golf.



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