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GovInsights: Challenges Government Faces Today are No Different Than The Past

This interview is part of a series on GovLoop called “GovInsights” where we are interviewing and highlighting the thoughts and perspectives of professors at colleges and universities who are researching and writing about government issues.

This time we talked with, Professor Sonja Walti- Assistant Professor for the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Tarryn: What are the 3 biggest challenges in government right now?

Dr. Walti:

Although particularly acute given dwindling resources, increasing needs, and compromised public trust, the biggest challenges in government today are really no different from the challenges governments have always faced, in the United States and elsewhere:

How does government become and remain efficient? Administration after administration is looking at the timeless question, shared with the private sector, of how to do more with less. Several decades of performance management, managing by objectives, reinventing government, and aggressive outsourcing of tasks to the private sector have made government more efficient, more agile, smaller in some ways and cheaper in others. But there is an inevitable limit to productivity gains due to diminishing returns of reform efforts and the fact that many government services are and will remain labor intensive.

How can government seek and retain the best? Government pay tends to be more stable than private sector pay with better hiring results during economic downturns and worse ones during upswings. Job security and benefits are touted to offset shortfalls in pay and lifetime earnings and the prospect of a job that involves dealing with bureaucratic hurdles and ever intensifying reporting requirements on a daily basis. However, with job security diminishing and benefits under tremendous pressure in many sectors, government may have a significantly harder time competing with the private sector over the most productive workforce.

How can government foster the trust of those it serves? The notorious gap between people’s willingness to reduce government spending and their unwillingness to eliminate particular programs regularly demonstrates how little the public knows what government does and how little trust there is in government. While limited trust in government has stemmed government expansion as compared to other industrialized countries that enjoy greater public backing it has also crippled the ability to address many problems in an effective manner and make programs altogether more efficient (e.g. healthcare). The continuing devolvement of government functions and the blurring of boundaries between public and private functions may compromise trust in government further.

Tarryn: What are your proposed solutions to those challenges?

Dr. Walti:

The three main problems outlined call for solutions in managing governments at many different levels. They can be subsumed in three broad principles that, in my opinion, should underpin desirable reform trends:

  • While continuing attention to administrative and managerial improvements is crucial, many answers to making government more efficient and more productive lie in policy changes aimed at targeting resources where they yield results. To accomplish this, care must be applied in defining results in a meaningful and publicly acceptable manner. Evidence-based policy-making will in some instances yield to more optimal outcomes by downsizing the government’s reach but in other instances we may well be better off with increased government intervention. While politically attractive in times of budgetary restraint, insufficiently funding the management of programs that can yield better outcomes compromises social welfare in multiple ways.
  • With little margin left to make government jobs attractive for the best and most dynamic mangers, attention must be paid to make the workplace an intellectually challenging place, where meaningful contributions to the provision of excellent services as well as the continuing analysis of those services can be made, and where opportunities for professional growth and advancement exist. Leaving a “hollow” government to manage (and hopefully oversee) a plethora of private partners does not always serve these purposes.
  • Trust in government requires not only the delivery of excellent and timely services and policies but also improved transparency about the resulting outputs and outcomes. “Open government” can complement the efforts of improving (top-down) accountability by fostering bottom-up (point-of-contact) accountability, which hinges on the improved responsiveness of government services to public and even participatory input. These advances will be easier to accomplish in areas the public cares about dearly such as education, where great strides have been made to directly involve parents and the community. Complex, technical, and remote areas of government require more imagination and a proactive dialogue to improve trust in this way, especially in areas that are managed by a notoriously more removed federal government.


Dr. Walti is an international scholar in public policy. Her fields of specialization include comparative public policy and public administration, policy analysis, comparative federalism, and environmental policy. She has conducted research related to land use planning, environmental policy, energy policy, nuclear waste management, fiscal policy, and urban drug policy from both a domestic and comparative perspective. She currently serves as the Program Chair of the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee RC28-Comparative Federalism and Federation, and has contributed to a number of mandates for several international government organizations. Dr. Walti has continuing affiliations as a guest professor with the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, where she served as a Professor of Public Policy and Administration before joining AU’s Department of Public Administration and Policy.


Previous GovInsights:

Harvard’s Dr. Ganz: GovInsights: We Need a Major Social Movement

George Washington’s Dr. Langenbacher: GovInsights: What We Need Right Now — Spending Cuts, Higher Taxes …

National Defense’s Dr. James Kaegle: GovInsights: Do You Have a “Duty to Die”?

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I like this ”
attention must be paid to make the workplace an intellectually challenging place, where meaningful contributions to the provision of excellent services as well as the continuing analysis of those services can be made, and where opportunities for professional growth and advancement exist.”

To me, this is what Teach for America did. Without high pay, they did a great job “selling” teaching as a great way to learn a lot and make a difference. Gov’t should do the same.