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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration, American Public University
In their 2015 book, “The New Public Service: Serving, Not Steering,” leadership education experts Janet and Robert Denhardt advocated a change in the field of public administration. They emphasized the need for citizen input in local policy-making and noted that public administrators needed to work more with citizens. This method is preferable to “steering the community” with little to no citizen input.
Book’s Authors Note that Public Administrators Need to Concentrate on Community Service, Rather Than Control
The Denhardts say, “In ‘The New Public Service,’ we argued that an increasingly important role of the public servant is to serve citizens and communities by helping citizens articulate and meet their shared goals, rather than attempting to control or steer society in new directions.”
This type of public service focuses on the core elements of human behavior, such as dignity, trust, empathy, service and citizenship. It advocates that the ideals of fairness, equity, responsiveness and empowerment are equally as important as efficiency and effectiveness.
Public Administration Hampered by Lack of Communication, Citizen Interest and Knowledge
The Denhardts also state that if public managers value citizen engagement, dialogue and responsiveness to what citizens say, then that “will likely have positive effects on decision making.” They encourage government agencies to ensure their approaches include two-way citizen dialogue to produce positive effects on decision making.
One problem with this approach is the lack of citizen interest in local politics and a lack of knowledge regarding local issues, which would allow people to provide informed input to decision makers. Government communication with the people they serve is just one way – there is feedback from local citizens, but there is less communication from elected officials to individual constituents.
However, there is a more fundamental problem with this approach to local government. It goes counter to representative democracy.
In America, we elect people to represent us in policy-making roles. Given the wide variety of issues that need consideration every year, citizens generally leave it to the elected officials’ best judgment. After each term of service, if citizens are not satisfied with the policy choices made by those leaders, they can vote for new representatives.
Activists Have Their Own Influence over Policy-Making
When unelected activists in the community decide to participate in policy-making, as advocated by the Denhardts, they can unevenly influence public policies. When a small number of citizens get involved in policies, then the minority position on issues is more likely to prevail.
If citizens want to influence policy, they should join special interest groups. This way, the influence is spread out among groups of like-minded people and not individuals (who already made their input when they voted). This concept is known as political pluralism.
To Determine Public Opinion, It Is Better to Use Scientifically Controlled Polls
If policy makers really want to know what their constituents think about issues, they can simply review current public opinion polls to find out, instead of directly asking the people that elected them. These polls are scientifically derived and accurately reflect public opinion, usually within a three percent margin of error.
The bottom line is that “The New Public Service” is counter to representative democracy and can undermine pluralism. If local communities followed the Denhardts’ New Public Service model, the resulting policies would probably be more provincial than productive.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006.