Public Administration in the Public Interest:

Thoughts About Public Administration 

Post September 11, 2001


by Paula D. Gordon


September 12, 2002


This article is also posted on the American Society for

Public Administration Web site at


 A new approach to public administration and governance may well arise from the ashes of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  This new approach may be one that nurtures intrinsic values identical to those that were present at the founding of America.   This new approach to public administration may well be one that reflects a deepened concern for the public good and for acting in the public interest.  In the present context, I would define "acting in the public interest" as "acting in such a way as to nurture and maximize the basic values of life, health, individual and societal freedom, and caring and concern."


Such an approach to public administration would also reflect a new commitment to grappling with the critical national and global challenges that threaten humankind. 


Such an approach to public administration is one that I more fully described in my doctoral dissertation.  There I called it the "Public Administration in the Public Interest" approach to public administration.  This approach is an amalgam of approaches to public administration that should be familiar to students, as well as academicians and practitioners.  The approach shares values and assumptions similar to those found in the Wilson/Appleby/Waldo lineage of public administration.  It also shares the pragmatic problemsolving, change agentry and value-based change orientation of development administration.  It differs from many newer schools of public administration that have been rooted in scientistic values and assumptions and a "rational" or "economic" as opposed to a "self-actualizing" model of man. 


Over much of the past century, such scientistic values and assumptions have achieved increasing dominance in public administration as well as in the social and political sciences in general.   The increasing dominance of the values of value-neutral scientism has been at odds with the basic values present at the founding of the American experiment.   Indeed, in order for a free and democratic society to flourish, all its citizens, including, especially, those in roles of public responsibility, need to champion the set of values that includes the valuing of life, health, freedom, and caring and concern.   The attacks of September 11 have served to regalvanize and reawaken this set of core values.


The Public Administration in the Public Interest approach to public administration embraces these values and is both proactive and practical in its orientation.  A valuing of common sense, ingenuity, experience, knowledge, understanding, initiative, and a sense of responsibility and stewardship are central.   Indeed, such an orientation was evident in the actions and accomplishments of the nation's Founders.


The crises we have been living through have served to reawaken such an orientation and have spurred changes in the way we think and act.   There is an increasing recognition that science and technology need to be used in responsible ways to meet human needs, manage societal problems, and address the challenges and threats that face humankind.   In expressing his views concerning the potential misuse of science, Thoreau had warned that man must not allow himself to become a "tool of his tools."  Science and technology need to be used to benefit humankind and help ensure the viability and the very future of civilization.  If and as the values of life, health, individual and societal freedom, and caring and human concern once again become central to public administration, the actions of those in public administration will be transformed and a renewed sense of responsibility and stewardship will emerge.  There will be a recognition of the significance of the obligation that those in roles of public responsibility have: to act in ways that serve the public good.  The nature of that obligation is spelled out in the Preamble of the Constitution.  There the stated mission of government is "to promote the General Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to us and our Posterity."


It is incumbent on those in roles of public responsibility to act out of a sense of altruism or what Maslow called "metamotivation".  Altruistic or metamotivated individuals are those who are as concerned for the welfare of others as they are for their own welfare.   The words of the Preamble reflect such a sense of altruism.


Those preparing to assume roles of public responsibility need to receive education and training that nurtures such values, cultivates such a sense of responsibility, concern for the welfare of others, and concern for the public good.  Their education should be designed to help them understand the nature of their obligations and the importance of carrying out their obligations well and honorably.  Ongoing education and training are also needed for those already in roles of responsibility to help ensure that such values and principles are imparted and similarly nurtured and kept alive.


Had the attacks of September 11, 2001 not occurred, I might be dwelling here on the many continuing unmet challenges of the field of public administration.  I might have cited examples of games of public policy Russian Roulette that have been played that could have had and could have cataclysmic consequences for the nation, if not the world. I might have expressed concern regarding the state of public administration theory and practice and education and training.  I might have bemoaned the fact that so few exemplars remain who so well represented the Wilson/Appleby/Waldo lineage of public administration remain, the likes of Roger Jones, Don Stone, Arthur Fleming, John Gardner, and John Macy.  I might have noted the irony that as elements of the private sector had become increasingly socially responsible, elements of the public sector had become less socially responsible while focusing increasingly on process and decreasingly on purpose.  I might have re-raised the fundamental question posed by Paul Appleby: "What makes government different?"  I might have made the point that too many in roles of public responsibility seem to have no answer to that question.  As Appleby had written, what makes government different is that government and those who serve in government are obliged to serve the public good.  They are obliged to act in the public interest.  This obligation is what sets the public sector apart from the private sector.  While those in the private sector are free to act as altruistically as they like, while they are free to balance making a profit with making a contribution to the public good; those in the public sector are obliged to devote their efforts to nurturing and serving the public good.


But the events of September 11 did occur and the thrust of my comments here has changed accordingly.  A re-awakening of values and a sense of purpose has been set in motion.   A great deal of on-the-job learning has also taken place and is continuing to take place.  Those in positions in public responsibility have been and are being tested in ways that they have not been tested before.  They have been forced to see their roles in a new light. 


The attacks of September 11, 2001 have shaken to the core freedom-loving people everywhere. They have jarred Americans and others throughout the world into a near instant recognition of the preciousness of life; the importance of the love of friends and family; and the significance of the tangible, as well as intangible bonds that unite neighbors, associates and co-workers, communities and countries, and, indeed, nearly the whole of humankind.  Using Mary Parker Follett's terms, one might say that the events have acted as an "invisible leader" and that invisible leadership, along with extraordinary visible leadership, have served to "unleash" incredible stores of "creative energies". The attacks have awakened and reawakened a sense of meaning, purpose, direction, and mission that seems to have lain dormant for decades and more. The attacks have forced an instantaneous transformation of the nation's agenda and the agendas of the nations of the world.    A challenge to those in roles of public responsibility in America is the extent to which the re-galvanized sense of core values and renewed sense of purpose and direction will be kept alive and drive our actions into the future.







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