Paul Posner

Paul Posner, director, Master’s in Public Administration program, George Mason University:

We face among the most difficult governing challenges of this generation. An aging nation with an increasingly complex economy turns to government to solve collective-action problems that are beyond the capacity of the private market to solve. This could include not only health reform, but public infrastructure and education. It also no doubt includes stronger regulation of markets to save them from themselves.

In some respects, these have been the best of times for government, as the public service has never been more relevant. Yet, they are also the worst of times. This is not only due to a wrenching recession that has drained revenue from governments, but also due to a profound ambivalence about government. While we ask government to do ever more, we limit and constrain it. The commonly accepted duality in American politics — “Get the government off our backs” and “There ought to be a law” — reflects the dilemma.

It’s the fact that we want incompatible things from government that makes governing so difficult. We and our political leaders reserve the right to speak out of both sides of our mouths. Republicans vote against stimulus and claim credit. Democrats voice the many billions of unmet needs even while they champion continuation of 95 percent of Bush administration tax cuts.

The cruel fact is that the public sector will be both more prized and more damned. The issues for public managers to solve have grown and seem to defy anyone’s understanding — health care reform, financial market restoration and building stable societies in vulnerable regions.

Many of these new problems are placed on managers’ doorsteps due to the ambition of policymakers themselves. An agenda explosion has hit the public sector as all sorts or private troubles become public problems, whether obesity, housing prices or distracted driving.

Today, commissions and task forces prescribe downsizing of the federal role, but so far without significantly reducing government responsibilities. Certainly, cost cutting is important but so is capacity building, particularly at a time when government will be suffering from an unprecedented brain drain of retirees.

Public servants today are left with the strong and memorable words of John Kennedy: We choose public service not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Those words have never been more true than today.