When people hear the term public servant, they think of presidents, governors, legislators, cabinet secretaries, agency directorsthe political officials featured on news broadcasts, on political talk shows, and in newspapers. These officials are an important component of our system of governance, deserving of our scrutiny, praise, or, sometimes, disdain, but they are only a very small portion of the legion of people responsible for governing the nation.

The nations career civil servants implement the laws, carry out the programs, deliver the services, and manage the resources that keep the nation functioning. Many of them are public managers responsible for directing the programs and organizations of federal, state, and local government. They are selected through merit systems designed to ensure competence and continuity in the operation of government. They often operate in a hostile environment, in which criticism, cynicism, and resistance greet the actions of government.

Public managers also operate in an environment that affords many opportunities to improve the lives of others and contribute to the proper functioning of a democracy. The ability of the nation to address its most pressing and complex problems largely depends on the effectiveness of career public managers. The nations most daunting challengesthose often beyond the capacity of the market and other institutionsare assigned to government, and the hard work of finding solutions falls uniquely on public managers.

The literature of public administration is replete with ideas about the roles and responsibilities of managers and administrators. These roles, such as resource management, strategic planning, and internal and external communication, remain fundamental activities for public managers. Each requires its share of knowledge

and skill, both elements of any managers effort to improve the effectiveness of a program or organization.

Too many public managers emphasize operating and perfecting processes, procedures, functions, and hierarchical structures. The rules and accountability structures of large organizations impose this orientation on them, but public programs are expected to solve complex public problems. The traditional orientation of public managers does not position them to confront public problems, which appear in myriad forms and do not fit neatly within the authority of one law or jurisdiction. Taken together, the problems confronting public managers present a dizzying array of harms.

A successful public service that helps lead the country by addressing its problems requires managers and leaders who understand and embrace the new imperatives of public management. These new imperatives mean that public managers need to serve as strategists and entrepreneurs, masters of improvisation, champions of effectiveness, reflective practitioners, and stewards of the public interest.

Strategists and Entrepreneurs

Public managers can no longer succeed if they remain in their traditional roles as technicians and administrators concerned only with controlling and refining organizational functions and processes. They now need to be strategists and entrepreneurs who identify emerging needs and demands, frame new opportunities for their programs and organizations, and reposition those programs to respond more effectively.

Public managers operate in an onrushing stream of public problems that emerge in many forms: risks, threats, inequities, conflicts, breakdowns, failures, and inefficiencies. These problems compete for a place on the public agenda. Simply put, the formal mandates to which public managers hold title are often inadequate to address these problems, which do not fit neatly into existing laws, programs, and hierarchical organizations.

Effective public managers now need to develop the diagnostic skill and discipline to anticipate and identify problems, analyze them to understand their causes and interrelated parts, characterize their severity and urgency, and triage them to set priorities for action.

Public managers also need the skills and discipline to devise and implement appropriate responses. To do so, they must develop a set of tools (policies, programs, and capabilities) that can be applied to problems; select the appropriate combination of these tools to apply to each problem; look beyond their organizational boundaries for partnership opportunities with parties that offer resources, expertise, and authority for solving the problem; exercise both agility and persistence in implementing solutions; and measure the progress made.

Masters of Improvisation

Public managers need a broad perspective not fixed on the status quo. They must be comfortable with constant surprise, able to function in the midst of significant change, and anticipate a wide range of future scenarios.

Public managers often find themselves surrounded by ambiguityabout the problem they are asked to address, authority they can bring to bear on that problem, resources available over the long term, challenges they will encounter, and difficulties of measuring success.

They need to develop a large appetite for dealing with ambiguity, turning it from a liability into an asset. In ambiguity lies opportunity, the chance to fill the gap left by statutory language, better define a public problem, and design tailor-made solutions.

The worsening fiscal crisis in government can be a constraint or barrier to innovation and improvement, but it also provides an incentive or mandate for public managers to be more creative, innovative, and improvisational. Although resources (funds and personnel) are likely to continue to decline, demands for government intervention are likely to continue and expand, and the problems assigned to government may well become more complex and threatening. The government takeover of stricken financial institutions is the most recent, but surely not the last, of these emerging challenges.

Public managers need to be masters at developing adaptive business models that allow programs and organizations to adjust to new circumstances and still produce valuable results. They need to adapt to being conveners, leaders, or members of networks and other

collaborative structures that combine the resources, expertise, and authority of multiple organizational entities. Such networks offer opportunities for new creative partnerships that can address problems and deliver services more effectively and comprehensively. In doing so, public managers need to be mindful of the tradeoff between the improved capabilities the networks provide and the difficulty of ensuring accountability of the multiple public and private partners in these networks.

Champions of Effectiveness

Public managers need to be relentless advocates for creating and measuring results and outcomes. They need to use performance-based management to ensure that their programs or organizations use resources wisely, produce useful activities and quality services, and achieve outcomes that support the mission or purpose for which they were created.

The principal tool available to public managers who wish to focus on results and outcomes is a set or system of meaningful performance indicators. A critical skill for effective public managers is a keen ability to identify, design, and use performance indicators or measures. Such indicators need to be relevant (to goals, objectives, and priorities), transparent (promoting clarity and understanding), credible (based on complete and accurate data), functional (encouraging effective and constructive behavior), feasible (cost-effective), and comprehensive (addressing important operational aspects).

Most programs have some capacity to count or measure activities or outputs (such as the number of enforcement actions taken by a regulatory agency). Some measure final outcomes (such as an improvement in ambient air quality or industrial workplace safety) though the program may only be one influence on these results. Intermediate outcomesthe territory between outputs and final outcomeshold the greatest promise for achieving performance-based management.

These intermediate outcomes (such as reduction or elimination of noncompliant behavior) have several advantages:

  • They provide a more meaningful account of program performance than outputs, offering a more compelling story about program accomplishments for the public and political overseers.
  • In contrast to final outcomes, they directly relate to outputs.
  • Measuring them presents fewer technical challenges than measuring final outcomes (if any).
  • They manifest more quickly than final outcomes.
  • They provide insight for managers and others about whether activities contribute significantly to final outcomes.

Identifying, developing, and using performance indicators is an iterative, incremental exercise: a journey rather than a destination. The benefits for public programsbetter control of operations, stronger justification for scarce budget resources, enhanced understanding of patterns and relationships between activities and outcomes, and clearer demonstration of program effectivenessare well worth the considerable effort.

Reflective Practitioners

Effective public managers continuously examine current practices, reviewing whether procedures and policies still make sense and evaluating the impact of their programs and organizations. They also continuously scan for ideas and approaches, assessing their applicability and potential for improving effectiveness. They do not allow the press of day-to-day business to hamper their ability to raise issues about current reality or search

for new ideas. Moreover, they create a marketplace of ideas in their organization and convey constant openness and receptivity to better ways of doing business.

Practitioners should cultivate an active dialogue with academic experts and thought leaders in public management and public policy as sources of fresh thinking. Any gulf between public management practitioners and academicians is unfortunate as they have

much to learn from each other, and both would be strengthened by a closer relationship. Practitioners can help improve academicians relevance, and academicians

can help improve practitioners effectiveness.

Given the magnitude and complexity of the public problems government must address, the public managers success can no longer be left to ad hoc approaches to learning about supervision, management, and leadership. Instead, public managers need the formal, continuous education other professionssuch as doctors and lawyersuse to stay current with developments in their professional field.

Stewards of the Public Interest

The public interest is a lofty concept, but individual public servants and managers can contribute to this public interest through their day-to-day activities in their particular

sphere of public policy and administration. They can objectively view the nature and causes of public problems and the options for addressing and resolving them. They can ensure balance and fairness in decisions affecting competing or conflicting interests. They can open public policy processes for participation in collaborative efforts to make decisions on public issues. They can use public funds and resources prudently and effectively. Finally, they can embody a passionate commitment to the mission of the organization and serve as a model for its members.

Our public discourse is often driven by chronic partisanship and short-term political gain. The tactics include fear, distortion, intellectual dishonesty, and a cynical brand of simplification that obscures the complex nature of public problems and solutions. Our political culture sometimes glorifies and celebrates individual freedom without regard for the common good, social equity, and need for shared sacrifice.

This situation suggests a broader, emerging stewardship role for public managers. In these times, the nation desperately needs citizens who have not lost sight of the public welfare and demand that the public interest receive the deference it deserves. Joining such citizens

are public servants who, as they tend to the public interest in performing their job, provide a balancing force or countervailing influence to the excesses of our public discourse and political culture. They can help form the core of public-spirited citizens who still believe we

have obligations to each other, responsibilities to preserve democratic ideals for future generations, and a need to be constructive citizens of the world.

Answering the Call

The public sector usually has responsibility for addressing the nations most serious, sweeping, and intricate problems, and career public managers must devise and take practical steps to identify and implement solutions. The conventional wisdom sometimes is that government is broken, incapable of addressing even simple tasks, and not up to the challenges of the future. Much evidence in the past ten years supports that view.

Contrary to that conventional wisdom, government also has an impressive record of achievement. In Governments Greatest Achievements, Paul Light examines the most noteworthy accomplishments of the federal government in 19502000. Included among his top ten achievements are rebuilding Europe after World War II, expanding the right to vote, promoting equal access to public accommodations, reducing disease, ensuring safe food and drinking water, strengthening the nations highway system, increasing older Americans access to health care, and promoting financial security in retirement.

Many of these accomplishments may seem distant or quaint, but a world in which these endeavors were not undertaken is hard to imagine. From that perspective, many of these accomplishments have made America the most successful democracy in history.

Light points out that progress was made on the pre-2000 accomplishments due to several common factors: passage of multiple laws over a relatively long period, which required persistence; involvement of both political parties and productive relationships between the executive and legislative branches; collaboration and a mix of policy strategies tailored to the problem; and continued creativity. To these factors, we can add effective public management, which calls for career managers who have the characteristics described above.

The challenges on the horizon are just as daunting, if not more so. Consider the magnitude and complexity of solutions needed to reduce and reverse global climate change, develop alternative energy from renewable sources, respond to terrorism, address the upcoming fiscal crisis in entitlement programs, manage the federal governments growing stake in the recovery of our financial system, and somehow tame the monstrous deficits that stretch into the foreseeable future.

These challenges will test Americas system of politics and governance, but they can be conquered if our system is propelled by a cadre of dedicated public managers who understand the new imperatives of their profession.