The relevance of public management

The news is full of stories suggesting that change is coming to the federal government. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the government, and its employees, will be less-relevant for the next few years. 

On the contrary, I believe the average American knows that government is becoming more important, and that those same Americans will depend even more on the typical bureaucrat.  

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The typical bureaucrat works in local government, not at the federal level. Even with the rhetoric about federal hiring freezes, federal employment is at the lowest nominal level since the late 1960s. In contrast, there are more local government employees than at any point in the past, and even state government hiring is picking up. 
  2. The use of PPPs, like all other contracting, requires overseers. All credible public administration programs know that contract management is one of the most important skills. For years, the modal DOD employee has been a contractor, and similar dynamics have been in play at agencies like the CDC. Many PA programs train their students for placement in firms like Deloitte as well as traditional public management opportunities. PPPs are not new. 
  3. Every weak political appointee will require strong civil servant support if this Administration wants to accomplish anything. Consider how long GSA has worked to make marginal changes to federal contracting rules. Those rules create litigation opportunities for aggrieved potential contractors. Amending rules takes time and knowledge. Even K Street hasn’t historically focused on that level of play. 
  4. Pending federal retirements were already creating substantial demand for high quality replacements. Maybe you could hold them empty or staff with contractors, but see above. The demand for policy action just switches a level.
  5. Imagine that we’re in a new political regime defined by crony capitalism and kleptocracy. Who’s the bulwark – the defense? Usually the civil servants. Just as a reminder, the modal bureaucrat at the federal level is a military officer. At the state and local levels, it’s a police officer or schoolteacher. That won’t change. And as always, they are the defenders of democracy. (Throw in the independent agencies like the Fed for good measure.)

Public management has never been more relevant. Most American voters didn’t vote for this Administration. That creates unique challenges for governance and for claiming a mandate. 

It also makes our civil servant and military infrastructures even more important. Diligence is called for, especially with regard to civil service protections that have helped support the country’s social and economic development for the past century. But relevance isn’t under question.