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Realising the public purpose

"Only after disaster can we be resurrected." This quote from the film Fight Club illustrates a common line of thinking in contemporary public policy. Believing that things must get to a certain point of chaos, confusion, or detriment before effective policy can be implemented is a philosophy most public administrators and policy practitioners have advocated since the inception of public administration as an academic field.

Policy generated only when the need arises or when social issues or uprisings cause policy to be drafted and enacted, often results in policy that is unsuitable for replication on a broad scale. Yet government leaders often try duplicating programs that were developed for a specific issue in a specific location on a regional or national scale. The result is often more chaos, confusion and detriment. For example, despite former U.S. President Reagan’s claim that ‘we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won,’ in reality the government has never committed the time or energy to learn the lessons of Reagan’s early successes and dedicate the necessary resources to bring programmes that work to the scale needed to make a significant difference.

The principle idea here is reinforced in work by Kamensky and Burlin and by Schorr: What matters is whether public purposes are being accomplished. The path to a social revolution of public purposes is through building networks and partnerships. But what does it mean to realise a public purpose and to build networks and partnerships to reach that goal?

Government has traditionally been built upon the idea that money should be spent effectively and resources used properly. But throwing money at a problem may often fail to meet the desires and needs of the public. Bill Clinton’s remarks at the Center for American Progress in 2006 underscore this:

A commitment to the common good means pursuing policies and community actions that benefit all individuals and balance self-interest with the needs of the entire society. It recognizes that government -- while not the only tool -- is essential for helping people pursue their dreams, and that the business, labor, faith and NGO communities play a critical role as well.

The potential in Clinton’s idea is that by collaborating with non-profit organisations and businesses, government can work to develop effective programmes that have clear missions, encouraging people to think about the results they are trying to achieve rather than the procedures they must comply with.

The problem is that most public administrators and policy practicioners are not trained nor equipped to think in a results-oriented mode. But with the necessray training and a refocus on the value of the ‘public purpose’, this new conversation about developing networks and partnerships to achieve results that affect society on a larger scale may inject a strengthened ethical core into human service systems that have often focused more on following an often outdated procedure than on meeting the wants and needs of the citizenry.

This article was written by Jeremy C Bradley.

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