Picking Up the Pieces: Pandemics, Protests and the Future of Public Service

It’s time to restore the integrity of our republic and institutions abroad. Recent months have provided the public sector around the world with serious crises to solve and tested our abilities to do so: COVID-19, protests against social injustices and economic decline have all become top priorities. Meanwhile, long-standing challenges like climate change, transportation, infrastructure, water quality and global unrest have continued to simmer, requiring attention with much more limited resources. What does our future look like and how do we begin to recover and work toward a post-COVID-19 world? ASPA’s 2021 Annual Conference will delve into the most pressing topics affecting our profession and provide space for new solutions.

Simmering under COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the myriad administrative burdens both have uncovered is a recognition of the fact that the systems that undergird our nation—health care, transit and transportation, budgeting and finance, the social safety net, environmental protections, education and more—are in serious disrepair, no longer working for all members of our society. There are serious administrative limitations and burdens placed on the most vulnerable in our society, constraining them from reaching their fullest potential, and limiting our country’s potential as a result. Recovering from a year of pandemics and protests means evaluating these underlying systems and, instead of finding band-aids, envisioning new ways to support our society. Examining strategies international communities and regions have effectively employed can inform the American experience and offer new approaches to ensure success.

The 2021 Annual Conference will convene scholars, practitioners and students from around the world to look at the big problems we’re all facing and the systems in which they operate, while working toward a future that is more equitable for all. Detailed track descriptions are as follows.

Track One: Social Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: More Than a Seat at the Table

While 2020 has been thoroughly disheartening, it also has breathed new life into the fight for social equity in ways no one could have anticipated. Now that the fire is rekindled, how do we shape it to create new systems and open the doors for true equality? What will that look like and how do we get there? Let’s do more than imagine possibilities; let’s make them realities. Focus areas include:

  • Structural, systemic and institutional racism and injustice
  • Law enforcement leadership and reform
  • Health care inequities and their impact on the broader community
  • Educational inequities (particularly due to COVID-19), the digital divide and their impact on future economic growth
  • Housing and land use inequities and their impact on quality of life
  • Social inequalities across society, perhaps amplified by COVID-19
  • Ongoing LGBTQIA challenges
  • Gender issues in the workplace and in society, perhaps amplified by COVID-19
  • Challenges related to Native Americans and indigenous peoples
  • Diversity in government workplaces
  • Immigration and border issues
  • Inequities in the justice system

Track Two: Money Talks: The Use and Management of Public Funds to Meet Today’s Challenges

At the end of every move toward progress you’ll find a critical limitation: economic resources. All levels of government struggle to fund steps forward, or even adjust current financial systems to accommodate innovation. COVID-19, social justice reforms, the eroding of the social safety net and other present-day concerns have brought this into the spotlight, even as state and local coffers are empty, tax options are limited, rainy day funds evaporate and the workforce shrinks to accommodate break-even budgeting. We need fresh ideas that are working, new models that can be extrapolated for broader use and innovative thinking that can transform our “square” challenge into a “hexagon” response. Focus areas include:

  • Effective use of rainy day funds during a recession
  • State and local budget deficits and recession planning
  • The impact of the Paycheck Protection Program
  • Performance-informed budgeting and reporting
  • Efficient acquisition, contracts, procurement and grants
  • Public debt and financial transparency
  • Pension and retirement systems
  • Equity, ethics and accountability in public finance and procurement
  • Fiscal stress and resource deficiencies
  • Financing and sustaining economic development
  • Public performance standards and benchmarking
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Financing better infrastructure

Track Three:  Good Governance and Meaningful Public Service

The U.S. public sector workforce is bedeviled with challenges: an aging workforce retiring rapidly, deficient skill sets and HR practices, an unattractive compensation system, a failing pipeline, an overly prolonged hiring process, ethical “gray areas” being redrawn. The list goes on. While efforts are underway to bring this facet of public administration fresh life, it isn’t happening fast enough and COVID-19 has meant a shrinking workforce and low morale at exactly the time when we need to be all things to all people. Can we use present-day challenges to create something new and bold that matches today’s needs? How are regions around the world solving this problem and what lessons can we learn from their efforts? Focus areas include:

  • Effective use of boards of directors and executive management teams
  • Hiring and retaining the workforce in modern times
  • Strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion
  • Human resources management policy shifts due to COVID-19
  • Teleworking, caregiving and other workforce challenges affecting organizations
  • The disparate impact of the pandemic on women and people of color in the workplace
  • Leading and managing responses to pandemics
  • Recognizing employees as stakeholders
  • Performance measurement systems and initiatives for government and residents
  • Intergovernmental dynamics
  • Trust, corruption and leadership across government, at all levels
  • Collaboration among nonprofit/NGO professional organizations and associations
  • Volunteerism and civic engagement
  • Theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of government capacity, quality and broader governance outcomes

Track Four: “Fixing” Our Government: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again

Things break or fall apart or fail to work properly. It’s a fact of life. When things break, you can glue the pieces back together, you can find the broken pieces and fix them or you can replace it entirely with a newer, better model that fits your current needs. The U.S. government apparatus—the agencies that run it, the administrative bodies that put policies to work—is failing, resulting in inequities across society as some groups of people are better served than others. What is the best solution: glue, fixing pieces or replacing them with new components to better serve our times? It depends on the system. but something must be done. It’s time for the federal government to take control, set policy and provide our country with an equitable apparatus that works for everyone, focused on the most important challenges of our time, instead of piecemeal approaches that only partially work, focusing on challenges from decades ago. We’re looking for innovation, new approaches and cutting-edge models of the “things” that will put our government back together again. Focus areas include:

  • Options for reorganizing the federal government system for current priorities
  • Lessons learned from COVID-19
  • Agency capacity across federal administration
  • Federalism in the 21st century
  • Civil service reform
  • Strengthening ethics laws and combating corruption
  • Nationwide cross-departmental coordination and communication
  • Strengthening inspectors’ general role across federal agencies
  • Structural injustices
  • Encouraging flexibility across agencies and departments
  • Equitable service delivery across government

Track Five: Beyond Borders: Joining Forces for Shared Learning and Action

Public administrators have been comparing systems between countries and regions for decades, always with the premise that while our systems are different, they also are very similar. The COVID-19 pandemic has put those disparities into sharp relief, proving that in some places, the differences are dramatic. From health care to public welfare, from equity to unemployment, from freedom of speech to freedom of privacy to freedom of movement—our differences are on display, and we need to learn from them. We’ll look forward to robust dialogues within this track to find success stories and translate them across borders. Focus areas include:

  • Policy responses and approaches to COVID-19 around the world
  • Trends and developments in Asia-Pacific public administration in response to COVID-19
  • Sustainable governance in developing nations
  • Emerging models of collaborative governance
  • Democracy and social justice across boundaries
  • Collaboration across professional organizations
  • Sharing best practices and innovations
  • Ethics and corruption across governments
  • The use of force in response to public protests

Track Six:  Modern Infrastructure for a 21st Century Society

American society is supported by an ancient infrastructure across all systems: elections, health care, transportation, energy, waterways, roads, bridges and more. COVID-19 has proven it is past time for us to move into a new age. We need innovation and a creative approach to problem-solving now, making the most of the opportunities available to rethink old systems and transform them into new approaches as we recover from COVID-19. How do we get there? This track is most intensely linked to the rest, relying on equity, public financing, a skilled workforce, global connections and the administrative state to ensure new systems are effective. Bring your ideas and start drafting a modern infrastructure to support all of our needs! Focus areas include:

  • Practical steps and leading practices in creating public-private partnerships
  • Contracting for complex products and equity in procurement
  • Public transportation in a pandemic world
  • Infrastructure investment and capital planning
  • Strategic procurement in improving agency effectiveness
  • Accommodating the strain burdening public programs
  • Creating synergies between economic development and sustainability
  • Incorporating equity into sustainable community development
  • Best uses for artificial intelligence
  • Trends and new requirements for election security
  • Cybersecurity and public use of technology
  • Public health requirements to fight COVID-19 and future pandemics