By Barry D. Friedman, Ph.D.
North Georgia College & State University
Copyright 2009 by North Georgia College & State University
A. Philosophy of Responsiveness
A prominent theme in the literature of public administration is responsiveness: the effort that is made by a government agency to provide helpful, expeditious service to the public.
Scholars who discuss responsiveness find the rationale for it in literature of political philosophy and ethics that identifies republican government as an instrument that exists only because the people want it to exist, and that, without “the consent of the governed,” would have no purpose and, therefore, should not exist. Therefore, government’s existence comes about only in accordance with a “social contract,” as Jean‑Jacques Rousseau explained. Generally, the word “contract” refers to an agreement between two parties that causes each of them to give up some of the rights that he would ordinarily have in exchange for something that he values more. For example, when I sign my employment contract next month, I will be giving up some of the rights that I would ordinarily have‑‑such as the right to work elsewhere or to lie on the beach all day‑‑because I value my pay check and other benefits of working here even more. So Rousseau explains that, when people establish a republican government, they are giving up some of the rights and freedoms that they would otherwise have‑‑for example, the right to drive in the left lane if they feel like it‑‑in exchange for benefits that they value more, such as the protection of their own safety and property and the expectation of greater prosperity.
This becomes the philosophical and ethical basis of responsiveness by government agencies because it identifies government as an instrument to serve the people who established government for their benefit. When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “We find these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he was disputing the traditional philosophical reasoning that the ruler had a divine right to govern because the Creator had singled him out as superior to everyone else. When American government officials (“bureaucrats”) rationalize that they are the “chosen” who deserve to wield power because they know what is good for the public better than the public does, they indicate that they are unaware of two principles:
► The founding of the American system of government is based on the idea of limited government: that government should allow people as much liberty as is possible because nobody knows what will make a person happy more than the person herself.
► Where government does have power, the purpose of that grant of power is to make the person even happier than she would be on her own, not to impose rules on her that displace her privilege to manage her own life and certainly not to make the government officials happy at the expense or disregard of the public’s welfare. (The tendency of agencies and employees to do what they do for their own benefit rather than for the mission, which in government’s case is to make people better off, is a pathology known as “goal displacement.”)
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore reaffirmed this responsiveness obligation when the president appointed the vice president to head the National Performance Review, also known as the “reinventing government” effort. This initiative was strongly influenced by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s book, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (New York: Basic Books, 1992). In 1995, Vice President Gore issued a report entitled Common Sense Government Works Better and Costs Less (New York: Random House). In the foreword, President Clinton wrote, “Our country needs a government that is smaller and more responsive. . . .” In claiming that the first steps of reform were taking hold, the report stated, “For years, Americans had been complaining [that] their government was in their face, not on their side. That was then. This is now: throughout government front-line workers are asking their customers what they need, instead of telling them” (emphasis added).
B. The Practice of Responsiveness
The term “responsiveness” refers to the practice of ensuring that clients are served helpfully and responsibly by government agencies and officials. The first step in acting according to responsiveness is to commit to interact cooperatively and respectfully with clients. When a client enters a government facility and asks for help, the front-line service provider must listen to him and come to understand what need the client is expressing. Then, the service provider should make an effort to connect the client with the service or assistance to which he is entitled.
It is possible and desirable for the agency to strive for even higher levels of responsiveness. Here are some of the things that an agency can do to be even more responsive to clients:
► The agency can ensure that its services are accessible to clients. For example, it can establish branch offices in places that are conveniently located for public access (e.g., near a subway station or bus stop, having sufficient free parking, and having ramps and other accommodations for people who are disabled). Today, an agency can also make its services accessible by operating a Web site so that people can obtain what they need while using a computer at home or at a nearby public library. Other possibilities are to transport clients from their homes to the government facility or to operate a mobile branch office (such as the once-common bookmobile).
► The agency can ensure that its communications are comprehensible. This may mean that forms and statements of rules are written simply enough so that people who have a very basic reading ability can read, understand, and comply with them. It may also mean providing translations of forms and documents for people who speak languages other than English, or large-print versions for people with impaired vision.
► The agency can empower its employees to resolve problems on the spot, rather than bouncing the client from one office to another to another, and then encourage its employees to use that authority instead of the “Hold on, I’ll transfer you,” pass-the-buck maneuver for which the bureaucracy is infamous. Steven Cohen aptly stated, “Successful public organizations must have a can-do attitude.” It is helpful when as many employees as possible display a share of that can-do attitude. I remember an NGCSU faculty meeting years ago when our then-vice president for business and finance, Bill Gerspacher, told us that his office has a “can-do” approach to challenges. This is another hallmark of responsiveness.
Another aspect of responsiveness involves an effort that ensures that every citizen has access to government services that she wants and to which she is entitled. That means that government managers and employees must be dedicated to the principle of nondiscrimination and the related policies of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. No government employee is entitled to arbitrarily deny equitable service to women, black people, Latinos, Muslims, gays, or anyone else. An essential instrument in ensuring that people like these will be taken seriously by government agencies is EEO and affirmative action, so that the government’s workforce will include members of these groups and reasonably reflect the demographic composition of American society. The code of ethics of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) obligates every public administrator to “oppose all forms of discrimination and harassment, and promote affirmative action” and to “assist citizens in their dealings with government.” Every American citizen is entitled to access to government services. A government agency must be responsive to all, not just to groups that it favors or that it calculates can provide benefits back to the agency in return for service.
C. Higher Levels of Responsiveness
Now and then, agencies utilize an approach called “citizen participation” to ensure that they will not lose sight of their clients’ needs. The most prominent and effective form of citizen participation involves bringing clients into the agency as decision-makers, such as when a citizen advisory board is appointed to offer advice to the agency’s managers. During President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society days, legislation establishing social programs often prescribed “maximum feasible participation” as a way to ensure that the programs would not drift into goal displacement instead of maintaining their focus on serving the people who needed to be served.
This approach to responsiveness is strongly connected to the purpose of the managerial function of marketing. Marketing is the process by which an organization studies the marketplace, society, and other elements of the organization’s environment and then orients itself toward offering goods or services for which there is genuinely a need or demand (rather than offering goods or services that the organization thinks ought to be offered because it supposedly knows what people need or knows what people want).
The aforementioned ASPA code of ethics obligates public administrators to “involve citizens in policy decision-making.” A casually responsive agency might obtain some insight about what clients really want by conducting surveys or asking clients to fill out customer-response cards. A somewhat more responsive agency could hold “town meetings” or hearings or could interview focus groups. And, says Grover Starling, “The fully responsive organization overcomes the ‘us and them’ attitude of most organizations by accepting its public as voting members.”
I am an advocate of providing sound, considerate service to the public. That means that we adopt mission statements that are based on the principle that government is obligated to serve the public, and then that we provide to members of the public the benefits to which they are entitled under regulations based on those mission statements and/or that they have earned based on such regulations. I am not an advocate of giving away benefits that are not entitlements or that are not earned. For example, I do not believe that, upon her admission to study at NGCSU, a student is entitled to course credit and, eventually, a diploma if she does not exert the honest effort necessary to earn such awards. But I believe that an employee, student, or other individual ought to receive services that he is supposed to receive without having to struggle to get them, and that even a person who is legitimately being denied something that he wants ought to be able to find that out and the reason for the decision without a protracted process that will leave him exhausted and embittered. Personally, I am committed to the principle of responsiveness. I believe that this principle would be useful to any effort on this campus to improve the service that we give to students‑‑and to each other.
May 20, 2009
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Last updated on May 20, 2009, by Barry D. Friedman.
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