Setting the Stage
April 15, 2013, started cool and sunny in Boston, Massachusetts, and the participants and spectators of the 117th Boston Marathon had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. The race started promptly at 9:32 a.m. in a Boston suburb and for much of the race, everything went according to plan. Just before 3:00 p.m., however, all that quickly changed as two home-made bombs were detonated near the finish line, killing three onlookers and wounding 260 more. Although the casualty toll was nowhere near as catastrophic as September 11, 2001, the event served as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of terrorism in American life.
Perhaps no one is more aware of these dangers than the public employees who serve as the first responders. Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and others are on the front lines whenever man-made and natural disasters occur, putting their lives on the line to save people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The following quote is from a New York Times editorial writer who, shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, observes that:
Firefighters stand apart from the rest of us, simply by the fact that they are trained to run toward a blaze and not away from it. That impulse, which amounts to a special vocation, is their greatest tool in protecting their communities. On Tuesday that learned instinct drew many of them into the World Trade Center at a time when the burning fuel from two crashed jetliners was creating heat that could buckle steel. There were people in those buildings, and the firefighters went to get them.1
This editorial presents a positive image of public employees. Far more common, however, is the negative stereotype of the government bureaucrat found in this version of the classic “light bulb” joke:
Q: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb?A: Two. One to ensure that everything possible is being done while the other screws the bulb into the water faucet
Other examples of this antibureaucratic bias can be found in books with titles such as Great Government Goofs, Porkbarrel
, and the Federal Subsidy Beast
, which tell readers what is wrong with government and government workers.3
Talk radio personalities who regularly denounce government workers provide another example. Then there is the image of the government bureaucrat portrayed on television and movies, which ranges from the inept and bumbling to the villainous conspirators of TV shows like Scandal
and House of Cards
. The media, however, are not alone in bureaucrat bashing. Many American politicians—both Republican and Democrat, including presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—have criticized “big government” and “bloated bureaucracy.” For example, Democratic President Bill Clinton, in his 1997 state of the union message, famously declared an end to the era of big government, shortly after he effectively put an end to the federal welfare program called Aid to Families
with Dependent Children (AFDC). Political “outsider” Donald Trump, as the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, took up this familiar refrain when, in addition to opposing free trade agreements and curtailing immigration, he declared himself in favor of cutting both taxes and regulations.
Police, firefighters, and emergency medical workers (such as those shown here) are “first responders” in a disaster such as 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
These examples show how common it is for politicians to use criticism of government and bureaucrats to score points with voters to win elections. Indeed, public trust in government, as shown in Figure 1.1
, has generally been low (beneath 50 percent) for the last twenty-plus years. Thus, campaigning against government is generally a smart electoral strategy.
Unfortunately, it usually takes a disaster like 9/11 to make us recognize the government’s vital role and the important contributions public employees make in society (for example, public trust in government enjoyed a resurgence after 9/11, as Figure 1.1
shows). Vignette 1.1
discusses the relationship between increased public support of government during a crisis. In most cases, however, as soon as the emergency conditions begin to fade, the public’s support of government returns to pre-crisis levels.
Few public employees, of course, actually risk their lives when they go to work every day. However, many, if not most, probably share with the police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers the belief that public service is a “special vocation.” Indeed, idealism, the belief that public service is a noble profession, motivates many public employees. Thus, many people who are attracted to public service often experience a “call to duty,” especially when they are young. This impulse to serve the greater good by working in government is perhaps best summed up by the stirring words from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
1.1 Crisis and Public Attitudes Toward Government
Shortly after September 11, 2001, the New York Times asked several prominent scholars to discuss the event’s effects on public support for the government. “Trauma and war bring out communal solidarity and remind people of why we have government,” said Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. “But the fact that the numbers keep moving around shows that it can be quite ephemeral. Foreign policy crises and national security threats are generally times of state-building, but only if government is seen as being effective. If we screw up the military side of things and the anthrax problem, things could change a lot.”
Pollsters are used to presidential approval ratings going up and down, sometimes dramatically within a short period, but trust in government has been a much less volatile index and one that social scientists consider a more useful barometer of the public’s attitude toward government (see Figure 1.1
). Trust in government went up during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but by only about 7 percentage points in a Washington Post
/ABC News poll, a fraction of the twenty-two-point rise reported shortly after 9/11. “Part of it is rallying around the flag in a time of crisis,” said Robert Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard University who has written extensively about the decline of public trust in his book Bowling Alone
, “but part of it reflects something deeper: the only people going up the stairs of the World Trade Center while everyone else was going down were government officials. The events made us all realize the government does important work.” He was quick to add: “This is a big jump, and if it should persist, it would change the whole political climate. But no one knows how the country would react to repeated terrorist attacks.”
“All of a sudden you have Republicans sounding like liberals,” said C. W. Brands, a historian at Texas A&M University and the author of The Strange Death of American Liberalism, which ascribed the decline of liberalism and of trust in government to the waning of the Cold War. “A crisis makes liberals out of everyone, in the sense of people seeing a positive role for government. My theory is that if this crisis persists, people will get used to the idea of looking to government to solve problems and it will spill over into other areas.”
By 2003, major polls showed that public trust and confidence in governmental institutions had declined again. A Newsweek poll conducted in October 2003, for example, found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) trust the government to do what’s right only some of the time. In September 2003, when the Gallup Poll asked citizens how much trust and confidence they have in general in men and women in political life who either hold or are running for public office, 54 percent said a fair amount and 36 percent said not very much. This figure represented a slight decline from 56 percent in the fair-amount category and a 5 percent increase in the not-very-much category from July 2000—before the events of 9/11!
SOURCE: Alexander Stille, “Suddenly, Americans Trust Uncle Sam,” New York Times, November 3, 2011.
Serving your country or community in the twenty-first century includes much more than working for a government agency, however. Today, public service encompasses careers in nonprofit organizations that also help improve society. Indeed, the idea that public service requires a broad vision that encompasses civil society as well as government is a central theme of this book.
Nonprofit organization An organization whose main purpose is to provide a service to the public, as opposed to making a profit; examples include the United Way, the Red Cross, and many hospitals and universities. See 501 (c) 3 (p. 6).
Civil society The domain of social life independent of government and private markets, consisting of voluntary and civic associations, necessary for the proper functioning of society.
Although the importance of public administration should be obvious by now, in this chapter we begin by discussing why public administration is a worthwhile subject of study. Clearly, an important step in arriving at an understanding of the subject involves a definition of the term. Thus, we develop a definition of public administration drawing on the contributions of several authors in the field. The next section of the chapter explores a topic that has long occupied the attention of students of public administration: the similarities and differences between public and business administration. One major characteristic of public administration distinguishing it from business is the legitimate use of public power by the bureaucracy, which is an issue we explore next in this chapter. Finally, there is recognition on the part of many people that government cannot—indeed should not—attempt to do everything by itself. As catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy show, voluntary associations and businesses must share with government the responsibility for making our complex society work. Thus, in the last section, we elaborate on a theme that we will return to frequently throughout the book: the importance of civil society and the role that public administration can play in helping to strengthen the bonds between citizens and between citizens and their government.
Why Study Public Administration?
When disaster strikes, citizens depend ...