Saluting the Bold and Noble
ASPA's 2017 Annual Conference, which took place March 17-21 in Atlanta, centered around the theme, “Saluting the Public Service: A Bold and Noble Profession,” and sparked discussions about what "bold" and "noble" public service looks like in the United States. It also provided a number of opportunities for ASPA and its conference attendees to honor public servants in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and across the country.
Official conference events and activities included 170 panel/workshop sessions, five plenaries, a Welcome Reception, numerous networking receptions, an exhibit hall and a career fair—and saluting public service was always top of mind.
While the conference officially began on March 17 with Section- and Chapter-led symposia and workshops, ASPA President Susan Gooden launched conference activities earlier in the week with two opportunities to honor public servants in Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia.
The first was a trip to the Fulton County, Georgia Board of Commissioners on March 15 to accept a proclamation announcing March 17-21, 2017 as ASPA Days in Fulton County. Presented by Commissioner John Eaves, this proclamation was one of 10 given out to a variety of public service organizations and civil servants. The second opportunity, ASPA’s Salute to Public Service at the Georgia State Capitol, took place on March 16 and celebrated public servants.
“We are here to honor the great work public servants are doing here in Atlanta and throughout the country,” Gooden stated during her remarks at the event. She was joined by Virginia Tech professor emeritus and honorary conference co-chair Charles Goodsell, who provided remarks about bold and noble public service, and more than 30 fellow attendees, who enjoyed this opportunity to celebrate public servants.
These events became springboards into official conference activities and set the tone for the rest of the event.
"I developed this theme to shed a positive light on the ways our discipline impacts public servants, which will be born out through the panels and presentations given while we are here, as well as through plenaries, lectures, receptions and more," Gooden observed early in the conference. "I had the privilege of witnessing for myself some of the bold acts of public service taking place here in Fulton County when I accepted their proclamation honoring us. That same morning the County also honored emergency responders, Boys and Girls Clubs, Parks and Recreation, the Fulton County TB Taskforce and others. If that's not public administration, what is?"
Learning to Live in a Longer Now?
The opening plenary keynote, provided by indigenous nations scholar Dr. Jeff Corntassel, started the conference with an expansion of the theme and coincidentally addressed some of public administration's current and ongoing challenges. As academics and practitioners alike continue to struggle with the Trump administration's actions, as well as the ongoing negative image public servants have contracted, Corntassel's speech reminded the audience that context matters.
"There's a Cherokee concept, 'Learn to live in a longer now,'" Corntassel stated. "This doesn't mean you 'get over it'—the injustice you are facing. Instead, you discuss the context of the injustice—whether it took place yesterday or a century ago—and how that impacts today."
This concept carried through remarks heard during many of the lectures and presentations that followed throughout the conference, as speakers emphasized that public administration's job is to contextualize government's actions and recognize the past while planning for the future.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Gail Christopher's remarks at the Carter Presidential Center Library and Museum. More than 75 attendees gathered for a ticketed presidential panel looking at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Initiative, in which ASPA is a partner.
"We've had a civil war and a civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter—but our fundamental beliefs guide everything," Christopher noted. "Fear of diverse demographics is increasing in our society; love and fear cannot exist in the same space at the same time."
Christopher went on to outline the TRHT framework and the ways in which the Kellogg Foundation is working with localities across the country to start changing the conversation around race.
"It's not about race," Christopher stated. "It's about knowing our history and working to transform our society into something new."
Christopher's discussion was one of nine presidential panel discussions that related to the conference theme, while also discussing important issues within the discipline.
Led by an ASPA past president and featuring scholars and practitioners who would bring a variety of perspectives to the discussions, each of these forums brought interesting research as well as real world experience together, giving attendees a better understanding of the issues at hand.
"It was important to me that I use these panels to discuss some of the most pressing issues within public administration today," noted Gooden. "Not only did I want to honor some of ASPA's past presidents by having them lead the discussions, but also I wanted to honor the public administrators who are actively engaging in this critical work and have tremendous knowledge and leadership to share. I think we accomplished that."
"The only thing that makes me special is I was involved in a lot of events and I wasn't fired."
Thus began Admiral Thad Allen's Nesta Gallas lecture on Sunday morning and the rest of the speech that followed was just as direct and self-effacing.
Allen, best known for his performance directing the federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and his role at Unified Command for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, was the 23rd commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and, since his retirement, advises government personnel and others on emergency management through his role at Booz Allen Hamilton.
"Everything I've said this morning is true no matter who is in the White House," he stated. "This is beyond politics."
Observing that complexity (mingling of agencies) and coproduction (teamwork) are critical elements for successfully overcoming crises, Allen argued that today's failures of government are largely due to two factors: not keeping pace with technology and allowing regulatory frameworks to stymie problem-solving.
"No one organization or entity can solve these challenges," Allen stated. "You need to work together and make things work without regulations guiding you. Crises dictated by virtual borders—the Internet, weather, germs—do not know or care when they cross state or country lines. Government's job is to fix the problem."
The Value of People
This year's Elliot Richardson lecturer, former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, took the plenary stage on Sunday afternoon in front of a packed audience as he provided his observations from a lifetime in public service.
From observations about today’s political culture to reminiscing about his campaign for governor, Wilder's lecture largely emphasized to attendees the value of people.
"One thing I learned early on is to be careful about the conclusions you draw," Wilder noted. "Don't judge by appearances—people will surprise you."
Regaling attendees with tales from the campaign trail, Wilder reminded them about the public they serve. "We are a government of the people
, by the people
and for the people
. The people
are still so far ahead of the politicians and we are a nation still in search of itself."
Harder Than Rocket Science
Completing the plenary lecture slate were the Stone Lecture on Monday afternoon, given by Dr. Harvey White, and the closing plenary lecture, given on Tuesday morning by then-ASPA President-Elect Janice Lachance. Both speeches encouraged attendees to look to the future of both ASPA and the discipline.
"No discipline has had as much impact as public administration," White said. "We need to be able to better tell the story of what public administration is and does. We must define ourselves if we are to be happy with the definition."
White went on to highlight the extraordinary public administrators our discipline has brought forward and their many accomplishments, reminding attendees of our remarkable history and the tremendous skills all public administrators carry: "When you deal with human beings, as public administrators do, you have to be successful working in a variety of circumstances and environments. We've all heard the phrase, 'It's not rocket science.' No. It's harder!"
Lachance’s remarks on the final day of the conference also pointed toward a similarly challenging task: association governance. As President-Elect, her remarks outlined where she intended to focus her coming year as ASPA President, setting the stage for an ambitious agenda.
"I intend to focus on what I'm calling the Three Gs," Lachance stated. "Growth, genius and governance. We need to bring in new members, build upon the genius our members have within them and clear the governance runway so ASPA staff can advance our primary goals and mission.
"Next year cannot be a one-person mission," she said in closing. "Associations require a strong leadership, strong volunteers and excellent staff. Thank you in advance for what you'll bring to my year."
Learning to Live in a Longer Now.
Far more took place at the 2017 Annual Conference than can be encapsulated in this summary. Panels, networking receptions, special addresses, awards, happy hours and more all played key roles in creating each attendee’s experience in Atlanta.
More than 700 people served as panelists across the five-day event, presenting and critiquing research, providing on-the-ground perspectives and sharing their thoughts about best practices throughout the discipline.
More than 30 individuals and organizations took home ASPA awards, more than 50 individuals and organizations received the Chester Newland Presidential Citation of Merit and dozens more were honored with Section and Chapter awards.
More than 600 people spent time with friends and colleagues at the Welcome Reception at the Carter Presidential Center Library and Museum, on what was a beautiful spring night in Atlanta.
Most importantly, more than 1,300 public administration practitioners, researchers, scholars and students joined together to highlight best practices, salute the public service and contextualize our efforts—past, present and future—to serve society so we can continue improving our discipline. Hopefully, as a result, we've all begun to understand what it means to "live in a longer now."