Expanding the Public Service View
Guest post by Staci M. Zavattaro
When people ask what I do, I used to reply that I am a professor of public administration. Inevitably, the follow up was: “What’s that?” I might reply with: “You know what an MBA is, right? Well, I teach our MPA students who want to manage in government and nonprofit agencies.” Now, I say public management, which really is not much different rhetorically, but people seem to understand the word management more than administration and gladly shake their heads up and down at me.
Then the next question somehow would be: “So, what’s going on with these elections?” No, not political science. No, I do not study elections. Yes, I study people who work for government, but there are more than politicians in government. Given this problem is not unique to me, I wanted to put together an edited volume that expanded our horizons when it comes to what exactly is public service. Oftentimes, when we think of government it’s the hyper-visible cops, teachers, counselors, road repair, perhaps parks employees. Our students, too, might adopt a narrow view of government, so the goal of the book is to show the public, our students, and each other the breadth and depth of public service.
During the pandemic, I reached out to my friends Alexander Henderson, Jessica Sowa, and Lauren Hamilton Edwards to bring this idea to life. We were shocked by the overwhelming response to our call for chapters; apparently other academics and practitioners feel this disconnect. Authors from across the world tackle topics such as higher education in Pakistan, emergency management, affordable housing, arts and cultural management, public defense, tax collection, and much more.
Portraits of Public Service mixes voices from academics and practitioners to drill down into street-level public service, those people serving the public directly and how those interactions can sometimes turn into policy decisions via exercising discretion. In her chapter, Alicia Schatteman details the history of America’s public libraries and how they become these contested spaces in the country’s culture wars. Librarians, then, become targets of critique, and Schatteman details how they navigate these challenges trying to deliver crucial access to knowledge.
And given authors were writing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that emergency management emerged as a theme. For example, Kelly Stevens interviewed several meteorologists working for government agencies, detailing how they go through in-depth forecasting and the conditions they sometimes endure (hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, public distrust) to provide us with life-saving information. Stephanie Dolamore and Geoffrey Whitebread explain how American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters provide vital information to the D/deaf community during emergencies, making them front-line workers and a visual representation of the citizen-state encounter, especially when providing translation on television.
Our edited volume is important because too often there is a misconception about the role of government in our lives. Public confidence is government has always been low but has severely dipped in recent years. While the low numbers reflect distrust at the federal level, local government support remains relatively high when compared to Washington. It is at this local, personal level where our book sits. By focusing on the public servants who deliver resources to us directly, we are aiming to show the myriad possibilities of working with and for governing agencies. Our authors uncover sometimes hidden people and roles through this book, and readers will find topics of interest spanning a wide variety of areas. We hope after reading the book, the answer to “so what is public administration?” becomes a bit clearer and yet also opens up the world of possibilities to work, to learn, to study, to teach.
Staci M. Zavattaro is Professor of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida.