It is easy to take for granted the many services we depend on from public administration agencies and administrators. For many the major snowstorm my region experienced in January 2022, one that left many commuters stranded on interstate highways throughout the state of Kentucky, was a bitter reminder of how these services — or a disruption of them — have a daily impact on our lives.
Though not directly affected by the most recent storm, I can remember a time years ago when I was in a similar situation to the one so many fellow Kentuckians found themselves in recently. I was going out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping a couple days ahead of the holiday. The weathermen for all of the news networks had issued a freeze warning for later that evening which promised to make the roads and highways a dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, I figured I could complete my shopping and be back home well before the freeze.
I realized my miscalculation around five o’clock p.m. when I walked out of a store to the sting of rain and sleet pelting me in the face. Due to the heavy traffic impact, I took a back road to cut the commute to the adjacent county where I lived.
In retrospect, taking a back country road was not the best idea on that particular day. Hitting black ice, I lost all control of my car. My brakes and steering wheel were now useless to me. I was frozen with helplessness as my car careened off the road and into a field striking a tree
While I was fortunate to have walked away from that accident unscathed, I found myself in a field, in the middle of nowhere, amid weather conditions that by now had deteriorated. To top it all off, the power to my car had shut down and I was getting cold. I had to “do something”, so I called 911 hoping to get assistance from the police.
The dispatcher told me the police were deployed to multiple accidents throughout the city. Road conditions were too dangerous to send out more officers. In short, I would just have to sit tight for a while.
I Realized I Was on My Own
It was in that moment, when I realized the police were not coming to my rescue and that I was on my own – at least for the time being – that I began to ponder how often we take for granted the first responders who serve the public. After another two hours, I contacted a wrecker service but upon arrival, the driver of the full-size diesel engine flat-bed tow truck hardly fared better in navigating the icy road. The weather had trapped us both. Nevertheless, he was there, and after another four hours sitting in his cab, I was extremely grateful for his company and the warmth from the truck’s heater. Between 12:30 and 1 a.m. the next morning, the temperature rose enough to melt the ice and the wrecker was able to extract my car from the field and I eventually arrived home around 3 a.m.
The memory of the narrative I have shared came flooding back as I watched the news reports of the present snow storm and how it left commuters stranded on several interstate highways. Commutes that typically take thirty minutes or less took seven hours or more during this time.
As it was for me then, I imagine that the thoughts of many of those commuters left stranded on those highways turned to first responders and the public agencies and public administrators responsible for maintaining roads and highways.
Citizens were quoted in newspapers commenting on state government officials, particularly the Department of Transportation. Most who travel highways rarely think about these public agencies. That is, until something goes amiss! Then, people take note of what “the government” does – or should have done.
Public Service Agencies
That people are not mindful of public agencies and public administration on most days is not surprising to me, as someone who has spent the bulk of my working career either teaching about or working in a public service capacity. In fact, this is how it should be, and this is a point I strive to impress upon students in our masters of public administration (MPA) program, many of whom will leave with an MPA degree in a little over a year and embark on a career of public service in some capacity, either in a public agency or in a nonprofit organization.
When public agencies and the administrators who staff them perform their duties and responsibilities as expected, the people served by these agencies will be protected and their lives go on without incident.
This is because the public has a right to expect nothing less from public agencies in a democratic form of government. It is only when these agencies fail to carry out their responsibilities, either because of incompetence, negligence, underestimation of a potential disruption, or because of legal or ethical malfeasance, that such lapses quickly come into focus for the community.
Increased media attention and public scrutiny came in the wake of these lapses. In worst case scenarios, the results of public agency failure are legislative inquiries and investigations, agency budget cuts, and calls for the heads of agency administrators and directors.
This reality illustrates the true impact of public administration on our daily lives. For those motivated by a desire to serve the public to and make a difference, a career as an administrator or manager in a public agency, or in a nonprofit organization, are more than viable options. This is because in numerous ways, public administrators and public administration affects the lives of so many people, even if the public only becomes aware of this when these agencies fail to live up to our expectations. As was the case with me fifteen years ago, it occasionally takes a natural or man-made disaster to make us realize and appreciate this undeniable fact of life.
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By: Dr. Randall Swain, Professor in the Department of Government