Ralph Widner, elected in 1975, reflects on a wide-ranging career in public service and Grand Challenges in Public Administration
A riff through the bios of NAPA Fellows quickly proves that careers in public service can follow highly varied trajectories. Beginning in the late 1950s, I swung on executive, legislative, or academic ropes between local, state, and Federal governments, international organizations, universities, and public-private partnerships for more than five decades, an example perhaps of one extreme. Nonetheless, that “job-hopping” focused upon a common purpose: to help address and ameliorate the human and geographical consequences of economic and technological change and to help administrators and policy-makers deal with them.
My first thirty years were taken up with initiatives in the U.S., starting at Pennsylvania’s Planning Board; then through extensive studies and hearings by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Manpower (as legislative assistant to the chairman); then as the first executive director of the 13-state/Federal Appalachian Regional Development program; then as president of a think tank focused on urban and regional development issues across the nation; and, finally as the first executive of a public-private initiative to promote and facilitate transformation of a large metropolitan area economy.
When I began in the early 1960s, concerns were widespread about the consequences of automation for the American workforce. Employment in many basic industries— coal mining, steel-making, refractories, etc.—had plummeted. Many communities and regions of the country were in serious economic trouble. Sound familiar? Today, the nation again confronts profound differences in incomes, education, employability, and employment that divide us geographically by community and region. Policy-makers are challenged to respond. While there are important differences between the economic, technological, and social dynamics at work today and those we confronted almost six decades ago, a serious, objective appraisal of the lessons we learned from those past efforts—what worked and what didn’t—is an essential first step toward a more informed and sensitive approach this time around.
The final twenty years of my career focused upon helping other countries to address many of these same development issues (sometimes under NAPA’s auspices; other times sponsored by the U.S. State Department, World Bank, United Nations, or European Union). One aspect of that experience I especially treasure: a significant number of policy-makers, administrators, and students from these countries whom I came to know during those years became life-long friends who keep in close contact.
One bit of humble pie: I once had a face-to-face confrontation right in the Academy’s Washington offices with an administrator from one of these countries who was in charge of a project of which we were especially proud. I accused him of politicizing what should be an apolitical institution. Shortly thereafter, NAPA withdrew from the project. Today, that man is president of his country.
In 2006, my wife, Joan, and I retired from Washington, D.C. and moved to Princeton, New Jersey where our daughter, Jennifer, is on the faculty of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and carries on a web-based international “lessons learned” initiative that NAPA Fellows on the International Affairs Committee helped conceive early in this century. This includes a MOOC—on-line course—training mid-career institution-builders around the world “how to govern in hard places.” It’s a great success.
Theoretically retired, I am deeply engaged with local governments in Princeton and its surrounding area as we grapple with a range of complex existing and looming transportation, economic, and land use challenges. Every two years, I publish an economic, social, and physical report and have assembled an informal “think tank” of young, highly skilled professional volunteers to help area municipalities plan ahead. On occasion, I teach a course at our Senior Center on “What Makes Your Community Tick?”
Organize for Problem-Solving
As is apparent from remarks above, I would argue that one of the major domestic challenges we face is to armor ourselves organizationally, fiscally, and programmatically to address the nation’s increasingly profound economic, social, and physical development problems more effectively. Fresh, flexible approaches to how we assemble and manage talent and expertise, then implement initiatives, are essential to address not only these issues, but many others coming down the pike.
For many functions, particularly those that have a more or less repetitive character, the “industrial” form of specialized agencies serves us pretty well. For problem-solving on issues and needs that cut across the grain, this form of organization not only does not serve us well, but may actually serve too often as a major impediment. (I could draw upon a rich trove of experience from the 1960s to illustrate this point.)
The hospital administrator and his/her staff can attend to the institution’s predictable, day-to-day functions, but clinical teams deal with and make decisions about each new patient who comes in with a special problem. These teams are temporary, organized around their special knowledge and skills, and more or less immune to institutional in-fighting or empire-building.
We already have stellar examples of such “clinical teams” scattered throughout government. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is a particularly noteworthy example. Its national and international role in the Ebola crisis would deserve a Nobel prize were it eligible. There are others. We need more.