Emeriging Issues: Trends in Public Administration Affect Local Practice, Outcomes

April 12, 2010

by Bill Barnes

From new leadership styles to e-democracy to generational change, trends in public administration are affecting city governments, elected officials and communities.

Antoinette ("Toni") Samuel brought a message to the NLC staff at a recent staff seminar, a speaker series with thought leaders and people who are developing new and important ideas.

Samuel is executive director of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and a former member of the NLC staff. Founded in 1939, ASPA has 8,000 members. Its mission is to promote the theory and practice of public administration and a professional public service.

To prepare for the NLC presentation, Samuel asked a prominent ASPA member, James Svara, professor of public administration at Arizona State University and liaison to the Alliance for Innovation, to review the research literature and identify the "top 10 trends." She then solicited comments from other experts about Svara's list.

Here, then, are the resulting "Top Ten Trends in Public Administration," according to Samuel, Svara and their commenters.

New Governance
Public managers are often initiators, activators or coordinators in collaborative arrangements that involve increased use of networks and partnerships across jurisdictions and sectors. This type of governance (a broader term than "government") requires a focus on results to be obtained rather than process directives to be followed.

New Leadership Styles 
Facilitation and visioning have emerged as effective styles of leadership across forms of government. These are seen as well-suited to situations where no one is in charge, as in cross-sector or multi-jurisdiction efforts. Top administrators rely less on formal authority and more on negotiating skills.

Generational Change and Succession Planning
The profession is preparing for waves of retirements that will accelerate over the next decade, producing a "brain-drain" and the challenge of finding the cash to pay for pensions. Concerns include attracting and retaining young professionals and anticipating and preparing for retirements. Though some retirement-eligible employees are postponing their retirements, governments will be re-focusing attention to succession and workforce planning. The upside - young professionals bring great IT skills and strong public service values.

Strategic Management/Performance Measurement
Amidst service-delivery and efficiency demands in the face of budget constraints over several decades, increased emphasis has developed on setting priorities in budgeting and on measuring performance, including statistical monitoring. There's also an awareness of the prestige associated with awards in this field (for example, the Baldridge.)

Citizen Focus
There is increased attention to citizen participation, as well as broad ideas about social equity and citizen engagement in governance. Motivators may include hopes for a more cooperative public and improved outcomes.

Reorganizing Work Structure and Process
The whole question of how work is organized is in transition. Tendencies include flattening the organizational hierarchy, using matrix arrangements within and across departments, flexible schedules and compressed work weeks, and external partnerships and outsourcing.

E-Government and E-Democracy
For many years, administrators have worked at incorporating information technology into internal and external processes.

Online forms of providing information and obtaining input have developed. More recently, there is experimentation with social media. Concerns arise about security and privacy/identity. In some places, there has been a rise in the stature of the Chief Information Officer.

New Thinking about Service Delivery
"Reinventing government" has included selective outsourcing as well as 3-1-1 and other systems for citizen inquiries and complaints. In many places, there's been a reassertion of commitment to service as counterweight to inappropriate outsourcing. Meanwhile, there's a related shift from direct service production to managing service contracts.

Beyond new practices associated with other trends, there has been a broad effort to increase capacity for creativity and continuous improvement. Benchmarking and a search for best practices illustrate the trend.

Ethics and Transparency
Increasing numbers of local governments have adopted explicit ethics codes. There has also been more concern to expand access to information, especially through electronic media.

Plus Two
To his Top Ten, Svara added two "Big Current Developments" that are currently impacting research and practice, but can't yet be termed long-term trends. Efforts to improve sustainability and new priorities emerging from the fiscal crisis will be factors to watch.

Details: View the full Powerpoint presentation. To browse and read more columns go to Emerging Issues.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org.

NOTE TO READERS: Do you see these 10 trends happening in your municipality? Do you see other trends that seem just as important as these? Place your comments on the NLC blog atwww.citiesspeak.org or from www.nlc.org.