When people hear the term public servant, they think of presidents,
governors, legislators, cabinet secretaries, agency directorsthe
political officials featured on news broadcasts, on political talk
shows, and in newspapers. These officials are an important
component of our system of governance, deserving of our scrutiny,
praise, or, sometimes, disdain, but they are only a very small
portion of the legion of people responsible for governing the
The nations career civil servants implement the laws, carry out the
programs, deliver the services, and manage the resources that keep
the nation functioning. Many of them are public managers
responsible for directing the programs and organizations of
federal, state, and local government. They are selected through
merit systems designed to ensure competence and continuity in the
operation of government. They often operate in a hostile
environment, in which criticism, cynicism, and resistance greet the
actions of government.
Public managers also operate in an environment that affords many
opportunities to improve the lives of others and contribute to the
proper functioning of a democracy. The ability of the nation to
address its most pressing and complex problems largely depends on
the effectiveness of career public managers. The nations most
daunting challengesthose often beyond the capacity of the market
and other institutionsare assigned to government, and the hard work
of finding solutions falls uniquely on public managers.
The literature of public administration is replete with ideas about
the roles and responsibilities of managers and administrators.
These roles, such as resource management, strategic planning, and
internal and external communication, remain fundamental activities
for public managers. Each requires its share of knowledge
and skill, both elements of any managers effort to improve the
effectiveness of a program or organization.
Too many public managers emphasize operating and perfecting
processes, procedures, functions, and hierarchical structures. The
rules and accountability structures of large organizations impose
this orientation on them, but public programs are expected to solve
complex public problems. The traditional orientation of public
managers does not position them to confront public problems, which
appear in myriad forms and do not fit neatly within the authority
of one law or jurisdiction. Taken together, the problems
confronting public managers present a dizzying array of harms.
A successful public service that helps lead the country by
addressing its problems requires managers and leaders who
understand and embrace the new imperatives of public management.
These new imperatives mean that public managers need to serve as
strategists and entrepreneurs, masters of improvisation, champions
of effectiveness, reflective practitioners, and stewards of the
Strategists and Entrepreneurs
Public managers can no longer succeed if they remain in their
traditional roles as technicians and administrators concerned only
with controlling and refining organizational functions and
processes. They now need to be strategists and entrepreneurs who
identify emerging needs and demands, frame new opportunities for
their programs and organizations, and reposition those programs to
respond more effectively.
Public managers operate in an onrushing stream of public problems
that emerge in many forms: risks, threats, inequities, conflicts,
breakdowns, failures, and inefficiencies. These problems compete
for a place on the public agenda. Simply put, the formal mandates
to which public managers hold title are often inadequate to address
these problems, which do not fit neatly into existing laws,
programs, and hierarchical organizations.
Effective public managers now need to develop the diagnostic skill
and discipline to anticipate and identify problems, analyze them to
understand their causes and interrelated parts, characterize their
severity and urgency, and triage them to set priorities for action.
Public managers also need the skills and discipline to devise and
implement appropriate responses. To do so, they must develop a set
of tools (policies, programs, and capabilities) that can be applied
to problems; select the appropriate combination of these tools to
apply to each problem; look beyond their organizational boundaries
for partnership opportunities with parties that offer resources,
expertise, and authority for solving the problem; exercise both
agility and persistence in implementing solutions; and measure the
Masters of Improvisation
Public managers need a broad perspective not fixed on the status
quo. They must be comfortable with constant surprise, able to
function in the midst of significant change, and anticipate a wide
range of future scenarios.
Public managers often find themselves surrounded by ambiguityabout
the problem they are asked to address, authority they can bring to
bear on that problem, resources available over the long term,
challenges they will encounter, and difficulties of measuring
They need to develop a large appetite for dealing with ambiguity,
turning it from a liability into an asset. In ambiguity lies
opportunity, the chance to fill the gap left by statutory language,
better define a public problem, and design tailor-made solutions.
The worsening fiscal crisis in government can be a constraint or
barrier to innovation and improvement, but it also provides an
incentive or mandate for public managers to be more creative,
innovative, and improvisational. Although resources (funds and
personnel) are likely to continue to decline, demands for
government intervention are likely to continue and expand, and the
problems assigned to government may well become more complex and
threatening. The government takeover of stricken financial
institutions is the most recent, but surely not the last, of these
Public managers need to be masters at developing adaptive business
models that allow programs and organizations to adjust to new
circumstances and still produce valuable results. They need to
adapt to being conveners, leaders, or members of networks and other
collaborative structures that combine the resources, expertise, and
authority of multiple organizational entities. Such networks offer
opportunities for new creative partnerships that can address
problems and deliver services more effectively and comprehensively.
In doing so, public managers need to be mindful of the tradeoff
between the improved capabilities the networks provide and the
difficulty of ensuring accountability of the multiple public and
private partners in these networks.
Champions of Effectiveness
Public managers need to be relentless advocates for creating and
measuring results and outcomes. They need to use performance-based
management to ensure that their programs or organizations use
resources wisely, produce useful activities and quality services,
and achieve outcomes that support the mission or purpose for which
they were created.
The principal tool available to public managers who wish to focus
on results and outcomes is a set or system of meaningful
performance indicators. A critical skill for effective public
managers is a keen ability to identify, design, and use performance
indicators or measures. Such indicators need to be relevant (to
goals, objectives, and priorities), transparent (promoting clarity
and understanding), credible (based on complete and accurate data),
functional (encouraging effective and constructive behavior),
feasible (cost-effective), and comprehensive (addressing important
Most programs have some capacity to count or measure activities or
outputs (such as the number of enforcement actions taken by a
regulatory agency). Some measure final outcomes (such as an
improvement in ambient air quality or industrial workplace safety)
though the program may only be one influence on these results.
Intermediate outcomesthe territory between outputs and final
outcomeshold the greatest promise for achieving performance-based
These intermediate outcomes (such as reduction or elimination of
noncompliant behavior) have several advantages:
- They provide a more meaningful account of program performance
than outputs, offering a more compelling story about program
accomplishments for the public and political overseers.
- In contrast to final outcomes, they directly relate to outputs.
- Measuring them presents fewer technical challenges than
measuring final outcomes (if any).
- They manifest more quickly than final outcomes.
- They provide insight for managers and others about whether
activities contribute significantly to final outcomes.
Identifying, developing, and using performance indicators is an
iterative, incremental exercise: a journey rather than a
destination. The benefits for public programsbetter control of
operations, stronger justification for scarce budget resources,
enhanced understanding of patterns and relationships between
activities and outcomes, and clearer demonstration of program
effectivenessare well worth the considerable effort.
Effective public managers continuously examine current practices,
reviewing whether procedures and policies still make sense and
evaluating the impact of their programs and organizations. They
also continuously scan for ideas and approaches, assessing their
applicability and potential for improving effectiveness. They do
not allow the press of day-to-day business to hamper their ability
to raise issues about current reality or search
for new ideas. Moreover, they create a marketplace of ideas in
their organization and convey constant openness and receptivity to
better ways of doing business.
Practitioners should cultivate an active dialogue with academic
experts and thought leaders in public management and public policy
as sources of fresh thinking. Any gulf between public management
practitioners and academicians is unfortunate as they have
much to learn from each other, and both would be strengthened by a
closer relationship. Practitioners can help improve academicians
relevance, and academicians
can help improve practitioners effectiveness.
Given the magnitude and complexity of the public problems
government must address, the public managers success can no longer
be left to ad hoc approaches to learning about supervision,
management, and leadership. Instead, public managers need the
formal, continuous education other professionssuch as doctors and
lawyersuse to stay current with developments in their professional
Stewards of the Public Interest
The public interest is a lofty concept, but individual public
servants and managers can contribute to this public interest
through their day-to-day activities in their particular
sphere of public policy and administration. They can objectively
view the nature and causes of public problems and the options for
addressing and resolving them. They can ensure balance and fairness
in decisions affecting competing or conflicting interests. They can
open public policy processes for participation in collaborative
efforts to make decisions on public issues. They can use public
funds and resources prudently and effectively. Finally, they can
embody a passionate commitment to the mission of the organization
and serve as a model for its members.
Our public discourse is often driven by chronic partisanship and
short-term political gain. The tactics include fear, distortion,
intellectual dishonesty, and a cynical brand of simplification that
obscures the complex nature of public problems and solutions. Our
political culture sometimes glorifies and celebrates individual
freedom without regard for the common good, social equity, and need
for shared sacrifice.
This situation suggests a broader, emerging stewardship role for
public managers. In these times, the nation desperately needs
citizens who have not lost sight of the public welfare and demand
that the public interest receive the deference it deserves. Joining
are public servants who, as they tend to the public interest in
performing their job, provide a balancing force or countervailing
influence to the excesses of our public discourse and political
culture. They can help form the core of public-spirited citizens
who still believe we
have obligations to each other, responsibilities to preserve
democratic ideals for future generations, and a need to be
constructive citizens of the world.
Answering the Call
The public sector usually has responsibility for addressing the
nations most serious, sweeping, and intricate problems, and career
public managers must devise and take practical steps to identify
and implement solutions. The conventional wisdom sometimes is that
government is broken, incapable of addressing even simple tasks,
and not up to the challenges of the future. Much evidence in the
past ten years supports that view.
Contrary to that conventional wisdom, government also has an
impressive record of achievement. In Governments Greatest
Achievements, Paul Light examines the most noteworthy
accomplishments of the federal government in 19502000. Included
among his top ten achievements are rebuilding Europe after World
War II, expanding the right to vote, promoting equal access to
public accommodations, reducing disease, ensuring safe food and
drinking water, strengthening the nations highway system,
increasing older Americans access to health care, and promoting
financial security in retirement.
Many of these accomplishments may seem distant or quaint, but a
world in which these endeavors were not undertaken is hard to
imagine. From that perspective, many of these accomplishments have
made America the most successful democracy in history.
Light points out that progress was made on the pre-2000
accomplishments due to several common factors: passage of multiple
laws over a relatively long period, which required persistence;
involvement of both political parties and productive relationships
between the executive and legislative branches; collaboration and a
mix of policy strategies tailored to the problem; and continued
creativity. To these factors, we can add effective public
management, which calls for career managers who have the
characteristics described above.
The challenges on the horizon are just as daunting, if not more so.
Consider the magnitude and complexity of solutions needed to reduce
and reverse global climate change, develop alternative energy from
renewable sources, respond to terrorism, address the upcoming
fiscal crisis in entitlement programs, manage the federal
governments growing stake in the recovery of our financial system,
and somehow tame the monstrous deficits that stretch into the
These challenges will test Americas system of politics and
governance, but they can be conquered if our system is propelled by
a cadre of dedicated public managers who understand the new
imperatives of their profession.