Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Reply to Kettl: Scholarly interest in public service hasn’t wavered, but the vocabulary has changed

newcomerKathryn Newcomer responds to Don Kettl’s commentary The Merit Principle In Crisis: Framing questions to address in any area of research or evaluation is the first, and most critical step. We live in an era of evidence-based policy, and the evidence that is offered to inform decision makers will only be deemed useful if the questions raised are on target. For those of us who are committed to improving the quality of democratic governance, we must carefully consider which questions to address and determine what evidence will convince the targeted audiences.

Don Kettl has raised a number of important questions, and I agree with many of his points, but I suggest we focus our scholarly attention on one fundamental question: How should government agencies plan for, recruit and develop the workforce they need to accomplish the mission-driven objectives that are democratically established for them?

As Kettl notes, the realities of how public services are delivered and policies implemented on the ground have changed dramatically since 1863. The significant changes in the composition of American society have been mirrored by equally drastic changes in the nature of our government over the last 150 plus years. Our government is an incredibly complex, adaptive system shaped by the tensions and strains imposed by responsibilities and powers being shared across the branches, across governmental levels and across (what used to be distinct) sectors. The challenges these shared responsibilities and powers present are especially treacherous because the structures that have evolved to address them were, in large part, created haphazardly with little strategic foresight. For example, government agents have contracted out services and even some inherently governmental functions, e.g., budget office staffing, reactively due to fiscal or political pressures with little intentional planning, creating a patchwork that make little sense to external observers.

The terminology that scholars, and citizens as well, use to discuss how well government works and how governmental bodies should address ongoing and emerging societal problems, needs to change to keep up with the changes in both government and society. There are some terms that simply do not even correspond to the new realities – such as government (only) bureaucracy, and a (unitary) civil service system. The current generation considering public service employment is not familiar with some terms such as “merit principles,” even though they understand what working in positions that are “temporary” or “without benefits” entail. Many, if not most, of this generation are not considering staying for their entire career in government, and or in one organization, in any case.

Today, there is a vast number and variety of federal responsibilities, and a multitude of hybrid agents working in networks to achieve many convoluted policy objectives established at the national level of a highly complicated intergovernmental system. With such complexity, a “one size fits all” approach to planning, recruiting and developing workforces across the entire federal government is highly unlikely to work (For example, see Beryl Radin, 2012).

There are innovative approaches underway in agencies at all levels of the U.S. government to plan for, recruit and develop the workforce they need. Recognizing that twenty-somethings approach career planning differently than past generations, creative federal executives and managers have not waited for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to provide top-down guidance on talent recruitment and development. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s Professional Development Program (PDP), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Emerging Fellows program present models for other agencies to emulate. Some states and local governments have shown forward thinking in workforce planning and development as well, for example, the Capital City Fellows program in the District of Columbia. And public agencies have received help from creative thinking/problem solving in public service interest groups as well, such as the ICMA (City Management Fellowship) and the Partnership for Public Service.

I disagree with Professor Kettl’s dismissal of recent scholarly research on public service. Scholars in academe, as well as researchers working with public interest entities such as the Partnership for Public Service, the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Brookings Institution, have not been standing still. They are addressing topics that may be framed and labeled differently than in earlier eras, but they are researching issues pertinent to the new public service. There is also the question of strategy – how do we advance public service? Is it by highlighting halcyon days for public employees or by underscoring the important work public employees accomplish working with others today?

The U.S Department of Defense and the U.S. Postal Service, for example, of today are very different organizations compared with even fifty years ago (no need to go as far back as 1863). These differences pertain to internal organization as well as the manner in which these public organizations work with other organizations to deliver services. Pandey’s (2010: 568) comment on this regard is apropos, “public organization performance increasingly reflects the performance of private organizations, and yet we simplistically believe that the causes of performance failures lie almost completely within public organizations.” Examining what the new nature of publicness entails and why that matters (Bozeman 1984; Bozeman and Moulton 2011), and how and when networked governance (Milward and Provan 2006) works is relevant and timely –given the new normal. We are not so much off track as we are addressing emerging and unexpected issues simply not anticipated in the past.

Dr. Kathryn Newcomer is the Director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University (GWU), and was recently elected President-Elect of the American Evaluation Association. The Trachtenberg School is a focal point for public affairs education, research and public service at GWU. The School’s MPA, MPP and PhD degree programs draw upon a rich tradition of education for public service, and benefit from an extensive alumni network throughout the nation’s capital, and beyond. Webpage:


Beryl Radin. 2012. Federal Management Reform in a World of Contradictions. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Bozeman, B., & Moulton, S. 2011. Integrative publicness: A framework for public management strategy and performance. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(s3): i363-i380.

Bozeman, Barry. 1984. Dimensions of “Publicness”: An Approach to Public Organization Theory. In New Directions in Public Administration, edited by Barry Bozeman and Jeffrey Straussman, 46–62. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Milward, H. Brinton, and Keith G. Provan. 2006. A manager’s guide to choosing and using collaborative networks. Washington, DC: IBM Center for the Business of Government

Pandey, Sanjay K. 2010. Cutback management and the paradox of publicness. Public Administration Review 70(4): 564-571.

Written by Governance

September 23, 2015 at 1:00 am

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