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Tanner Day at Maxwell: On the future of citizenship and public service

November 9, 2017

What are the challenges to public service today? What will public service look like in the future? How can citizens across all sectors sustain and nurture their own commitments to public service?

On October 4, 2017, leaders from across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors participated in Tanner Day at the Maxwell School to answer these questions and others during a series of lectures and panel discussions focused on the "Future of Citizenship and Public Service," hosted in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration.

Portions of Keynote Address

Public Service Workforce for the Future

Governance Challenges and the Future of a New Public Service

Threats to Citizenship in a Changing World

Closing Remarks

As keynote speaker, the Honorable Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator and former New Jersey Governor, opened the daylong public forum by underlining the importance of citizenship. According to Whitman, while we often hear about Americans' rights as citizens, "We do not, however, hear enough talk about citizens' duties, and when people fail to meet those duties . . . a government of, by and for the people is in jeopardy." Whitman noted that the School’s founder, George Maxwell, put citizenship in the Maxwell School's name "because it was the primary object of this school as he saw it . . . That is a very important principle that needs to be embraced by everyone." Without citizen participation - policymaking, governance, and government lose their way and purpose.

For Whitman, the most fundamental form of citizenship is exercising the right to vote. Voting is "citizenship at its very basic core," said Whitman. In the last U.S. presidential election, only 56% of those eligible to vote went to the polls, with only about 30% of the eligible electorate electing the 45th president of the U.S. "That’s an embarrassment. It’s a disgrace," said Whitman. "People need to start seeing the right to vote not as an inconvenient civic duty easily ignored, but as a sacred obligation that they are determined to meet." 

While participation in the general election was low, it was even lower in the primaries, a trend that is shaping American politics today. Primary voters tend to cast their ballots along strong ideological lines, which has gradually led to a situation in which the major party nominees hold the more extreme line for their party. This polarization has created a political climate in which politicians have a harder time accomplishing effective policy. This, in turn, leads to voter frustration and low voter turnout, thus perpetuating the cycle. 

Face-to-Face Politics
For Whitman, while voting is the fundamental duty of a citizen, participating in our communities and striving to improve the lives of its members constitute the lifeblood of citizenship and of our civic duty. "And this doesn’t mean posting a sarcastic remark on Facebook, or a pithy saying on Twitter, or slapping a bumper sticker on your car," declared Whitman. "That may make you feel as if you are making a difference, but it very rarely changes policy."

Elizabeth Cohen , associate professor of political science at Maxwell, echoed this sentiment during the afternoon panel. "We need more face-to-face interaction," said Cohen. "When we’re face-to-face, we know each other; and we know each other’s identities; and we understand each other; and we like each other better than when we are abstract." 

In follow up, Jamie Winders, chair and professor of geography, shared the outcomes of her work with teachers in public schools, which illustrated how interaction can change people’s actions. Winders’ research showed a discrepancy between teachers’ self-reported views on immigration, and the support they gave to immigrant families in their own schools and communities. "This is where social science can help," explained Winders. "We can help them recognize what is at stake. What do the findings show and what do they mask?" 

Stephen Hagerty '91 BS/'93 MPA, mayor of Evanston, Illinois and member of the Maxwell Advisory Board, believes in bringing the government to the people as a means of encouraging citizenship and face-to-face interaction. When Hagerty took office, one of the first initiatives he launched was the Hagerty Huddle, a series of meetings "we do around town, and we do it under the banner of 'Civic' - 'Civic Bites,' 'Civic Beer,' 'Civic Custard,'" explained Hagerty.

Evidence-based Policymaking
This face-to-face interaction and collaboration is just as important at the institutional and agency level where collaboration further empowers policymakers to make effective decisions. This includes an interdisciplinary approach to gathering facts and data to inform policy. Andrew Maxwell '06 MPA, former director of Policy and Innovation for the City of Syracuse, supports "having evidence-based policymaking as the foundation for how we advance civic discourse and policymaking within communities," a practice used in the private sector he would like to see emulated in the government sector. 

David Sulek ’88 BA (PSc), vice president for Booze Allen Hamilton and member of the Maxwell Advisory Board, echoes A. Maxwell’s sentiment. "In the private sector, we are looking for people who can be facile with data, because we think that’s the future," shared Sulek. According to Sulek, public sector leaders are facing "two decision dilemmas" – being asked to make more decisions faster, in an environment of uncertainty and interdependency. Evidence-based policymaking is "very important because unlocking the power of data can help solve these dilemmas." 

During the lunch panel, Dustin Brown ’01 MPA, acting deputy director for Management at the U.S. Office of Management & Budget, shared an example of how collaboration, data, and leadership quickly proved beneficial. At the OMB, Brown noticed a trend wherein interagency meetings and task forces consistently provided a platform for great discussion, but there lacked resources for supporting follow-through. 

As a result, Brown worked with Congress to get people and resources dedicated to supporting cross-agency collaboration, at the same time tracking outcomes to see where data support these changes. Because of these efforts, a 10-person team is now place "whose full-time job is to unlock barriers that exist between agencies." Brown is already able to share positive outcomes. The upfront investment of a few $100,000 to set up the central team "produced a gain of $300 million financing on a benefit to one individual project by accelerating the timeline through greater up-front coordination," shared Brown. 

The Role of Education in the Future of Citizenship and Public Service
In his closing remarks, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, outlined four areas that he sees as broken in the U.S. government workforce: demographics, morale, structure, and leadership. The common thread for all four areas is that they are outdated, under-resourced, or both, and are, therefore, unable to meet the public service needs of today or be prepared for the needs of tomorrow.

According to Stiers, steps are being taken in the right direction. Congress is passing legislation to address areas of concern. Resources are being allocated to improve and update information technology systems and workforce. The White House is directing agencies to reorganize and be more effective. Alongside this progress, Stiers sees the role of the university as more important than ever.

Universities have three assets: faculty, students, and an "overall convening intellectual capability as a community." Stiers would like to see faculty spend systematic "sabbaticals inside the government" in order to gain knowledge and experience that they could then share with their students.

Lastly, Stiers would like to see the arm of collaboration between the federal government and universities extend its reach, to have "the entire university drawn into the conversation of what is the right vision for government and the plan of attack. That would be a game changer," said Stiers.

David Van Slyke , dean of the Maxwell School and Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy, amplified the important role of education, and schools like the Maxwell School, in improving the future of citizenship and public service.

"With contemporary challenges, such as rising authoritarian regimes, ongoing crises of war and refugees, and deep, sometimes violent political divisions, we must call for a rebirth of the teaching and practice of citizenship," shared Van Slyke. "There has never been a more important time to be a school of citizenship and public affairs, and to reaffirm our commitment to the values of the Athenian Oath, to leave our city greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

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