Why Public Service Matters and What It Means For You

Why Public Service Matters and What It Means For You

Robert Durant, American University's School of Public Affairs Professor Emeritus and visionary behind the Online Master of Public Administration and Policy, recently wrote for The Public Purpose Journal on why public service matters and the skills needed for a career in public service. The piece was featured in the journals' first edition which is sponsored by American University's School of Public Affairs and Student Graduate Council.

The Public Purpose

Below are some excerpts from Why Public Service Matters – and What It Means For You. The full text can be accessed at The Public Purpose Journal.

Why Public Service Matters

The seven ongoing, powerful, and interrelated pressures for organizational change and development include:


  • Reconceptualizing organizational purpose refers to calls for many agency and program missions and policies to be rethought in light of changing circumstances, needs, and political priorities. These include downward global economic pressures on the visible size of government, structural budget shortfalls, aging workforces, a spiraling national debt, and the rise of so-called "wicked" policy problems such as global warming where compromise has proved elusive internationally and in Washington.
  • (Re)connecting with citizens and stakeholders. Reconnecting to create a "coproduction service" ethic impels managers and analysts to stop seeing policymaking and implementation as a one-way flow of expertise from their organizations to a largely passive, malleable, and receptive public.
  • Redefining administrative rationality pressures stem from the alleged shortcomings of conventional bureaucratic structures. Critics claim that bureaucracies are too focused on processes and procedures, too remote from the citizens they serve, too centralized to be effective, and too inflexible to adapt on their own to be effective. Others argue that these "pathologies" are exaggerated or are actually functional in offering procedural protections for citizens. Your organization will be expected to become priority-based, customer-focused, information-driven, results-based, learning organizations. In the process, you will continue to be pressed to work collaboratively in networks with other agencies, as well as with private and nonprofit providers of goods and services.
  • Reengaging financial resource pressures stem from downward pressures on tax revenues in a global economy, structurally induced budget deficits, the shifting purposes of organizations, and our evolving understanding of what works and does not work in addressing public problems.
  • Recapitalizing human asset pressures are also likely to drive agency and nonprofit dynamics for years to come at all levels of government and in nonprofit organizations. This is largely because of the accelerating rate of "baby boomer" retirees that is currently underway, but it also reflects the difficulties of recruiting top-notch experts to government. Regardless, policy and program success depend critically on hiring and retaining persons with the right kinds of skills, in a timely fashion, and with credible retention plans. Equally important is ensuring that the public and nonprofit personnel performing these tasks reflect the sociodemographic characteristics of the clients they serve and the societies from which they come.
  • (Re)aligning organizational subsystems refer to pressures to consider how well existing agency resources are "aligned" with—that is, support—present and future mission needs and policy priorities. What has to be aligned are administrative systems dealing with human resource management, financial management, capital investments and acquisition, IT management, and contract management. The greater number of these systems that are not aligned with policy or program goals, the less likely organizational, policy, or program success.
  • Revitalizing a sense of common purpose informed by democratic constitutional values should be a constant concern for you during your public service career, regardless of your choice of sector.This means that your agency, consulting firm, or nonprofit organization must think about more than efficiency and effectiveness.

Skills Needed For a Career in Public Service

"What kinds of knowledge, skills, and values does one need to have not just for a personally successful career but for a career that really makes a difference in citizens' lives?" You might think of these as "literacies" for public service that will make you assets in whatever organizations your career takes you.

So let's call them collectively AU's "ASSETS" regimen for public service. It goes without saying that the ASSETS regimen means reading deeply into topics related to your concentration area and widely across different fields and disciplines to understand today's and tomorrows "wicked" policy problems. But if you want to be a leader in the public service communities, you must consistently improve your abilities to think:

  • Analytically
  • Systemically
  • Synthetically
  • Ethically
  • Technologically
  • Strategically

Read more on Why Public Service Matters – and What It Means For You.

About the Author
*Robert F. Durant is the visionary behind the Online Master of Public Administration and Policy program and is professor emeritus of public administration and policy at American University's on-ground programs. Among other awards, he is the recipient of the Dwight Waldo Award from the American Society for Public Administration for distinguished contributions to research in public administration and the John M. Gaus Award and Lectureship from the American Political Science Association for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in the joint tradition of political science and public administration. His latest book is Why Public Service Matters: Public Managers, Public Policy, and Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He resides in Marietta, Georgia and can be reached at rfdurant@gmail.com.

To learn more about American University’s online Master of Public Administration and Policy, request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.