The Future of Citizenship and Public Service - Syracuse University

By Terry Gerton

Syracuse University, home of everything orange and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, was our host for our third “Governing Across the Divide” event, The Future of Citizenship and Public Service. As we have examined how states and cities are responding to opportunities and challenges in governing, we wanted to examine how today’s political environment is impacting individual motivation toward, and perspectives on, public service. This day-long program was modeled on, and combined with, Maxwell’s highly successful Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility, that examines what it means to be an ethical citizen.  The Tanner Lecture Series seeks to expand horizons and spark new conversations about the problems and opportunities we collectively face as citizens of nations and of the world.  Dean David Van Slyke and Maxwell faculty and alumni presented and participated in a series of engaging discussions on strengthening citizenship and public service with a greater focus on intersectoral and intergovernmental participation.

The Honorable Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator and former Governor of New Jersey, provided the day’s keynote address.  Her challenging remarks reminded us that citizenship has both rights and responsibilities, and that the most important responsibility is to participate in the political process by voting.  When we fail to vote, for whatever reason, she warned that we abdicate our sacred obligation and begin the unraveling of the very fabric of our civil society.  She spoke about the importance of civics education, the need for moderates and independents to align with one of the major political parties and vote in the primaries, and the urgency of bold political leadership that seeks practical solutions with positive results. And, while cautionary in her assessment of the impact of our current political environment on participative citizenship, she ended on a note of hope that today’s younger generations demonstrate a strong desire to make a difference. Our challenge is to convince them to do that through the political process.

Our first panel examined the future of public service, or as moderator Tina Nabatchi asked, “How do we put the ‘rock’ back in bureaucracy?”  Suggestions ran the gamut from better job titles to infusing new technology into the practice of governing to recruiting employees with data science, analytic, and integrative thinking skills.  There was a sense across the panel members that the very nature of government work is changing, and that government systems and the government workforce are not keeping up.  Closing that gap through technology development, innovation in government service delivery, and modern recruiting practices are key to ensuring that the public service remains a vibrant and attractive opportunity.

The lunchtime panel explored the difference between “government” and “governance,” agreeing that “government” generally refers to institutions and organizations and “governance” refers to the rules and processes by which those institutions accomplish their purposes.  With that agreement, though, came an extended discussion on the increasing complexity of governance, requiring solution sets that are co-produced across and among state and non-state actors, and the increasing challenge of finding leaders who can operate effectively in that complex environment.  The panel explored the importance of investing intentionally in leader development, improving data sharing capabilities, and ensuring transparency in government performance reporting so that future public service leaders have the tools they need to be successful.

The day’s third panel discussed threats to citizenship.  Several ideas surfaced, tied to the concept of identity:  political identity associated with political parties themselves rather than the policies espoused by those parties, cultural identity that creates a “we versus they” perspective, and the practice of identity politics across a variety of vectors that seeks to divide rather than unite.  The panel also raised economic inequality, alternative facts, and changing policies regarding immigration as threats to active citizen participation.  They then considered what it would take to overcome these threats and settled on two essential actions summarized by initiative and engagementinitiative on the part of governments at every level to positively engage citizens, and initiative on the part of individual citizens to actively engage in government.

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service, wrapped up the day with an assessment of the current health of the federal civil service.  Max’s frank assessment was that our government is fundamentally unhealthy, like a rusted out car that we just keep changing the tires on.  To restore health to the government, he asserted we must restore the government workforce to health by focusing on four points:  recognizing that the demographics of the federal workforce do not match those of the nation and taking positive action to adjust; raising the morale of the federal workforce, which as currently measured averages 17 points below that of private sector employees; addressing the legacy General Schedule that does not reflect best private sector practices for skill and impact differentiation through pay; and finding a way to align the goals of short-term political leaders with the long-term health of their departments and agencies.  Max mentioned there were some bright spots in reform, but not enough, and he articulated specific roles for universities in the recovery process, including rotational assignments for faculty into government positions, improved career counseling for students seeking government employment, and convening discussions and research focused on big government problems. 

As our three sessions have unfolded, I am sensing some common threads that tie them together.  First, states and communities who are successfully advancing innovative policies take the time to deliberately engage their citizens face-to-face over long periods of time to communicate complicated policy implications and build trust and legitimacy through transparency.  Second, face-to-face democracy is hard.  It takes time, and requires risk-taking leaders who are willing to engage directly with their constituents.  Third, resilient communities require more than risk–taking, engaged, and innovative leaders.  They require active, informed, risk-taking citizens who decide to engage in the maintenance of civil society.

I hope you’ll join us, in person or online, as we pull those threads through the framework of Prioritizing Governance for Resilient Critical Infrastructure in our last session of this series at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government on October 30th.

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