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GovInsights: Challenges in Government – Reputation, Ethics, and Common-Sense Leadership

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

This time we talked with, Dr. Patrick Malone is an Executive-in-Residence Professor for the Department of and Policy at American University, in Washington, D.C. He teaches courses in public sector leadership, leadership ethics, organizational analysis, and public administration. Dr. Malone spent twenty-two years in the Department of Defense where he served in a number of leadership roles including on the faculty of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; as Academic Director, Masters Program in Healthcare Administration; and as Dean of Academics for Navy Medicine. (See more of his bio below)

Tarryn: What are the 3 biggest challenges in government right now and what are your proposed solutions to these challenges?

Dr. Malone:

Challenge 1

Like many of us in this field I have serious concerns about the reputation of the public workforce. I’m reminded of the writing of Dan Fenn, Jr of Harvard University who noted, “It is unfortunate that those
whom we serve, on whose trust we depend, not only fail to understand why we do what we do and how we do it, they do not think what we do is very important . I remember hearing of one woman, in a class of business and public executives, saying proudly that she had spent her life making
lemon-scented furniture polish. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that – but where did the American people ever get the idea that figuring out how many blue chips to put into laundry powder so it could be called ‘NEW Swish’ and increasing point-of-sale purchases is more important than keeping the nation and our homes safe and mapping the oceans and managing the infrastructure of a free society and providing food and housing and caring to the most vulnerable among us – all the tasks to which public servants devote their minds and hearts?” I’ve seen many quotes over the years and I don’t know that I’ve seen one I like more. I believe that the public sector leader is the true servant leader.

What to do? This is a challenge the public sector should not shy away from, but rather should be attacked with zeal. One of the very unique roles of the public administrator is that they are often placed at the intersection of values that divide our nation (i.e. national security versus personal privacy) – so it won’t be easy. But we have to speak the language of the American public in order to change mindsets. First, performance matters….. Our leaders must lead effective and productive
agencies. Second, I think we’re all responsible to educate and market to the American public on what public administrators do, their value, and specifically how they serve the citizen.

Challenge 2

The challenges posed to our government and its leaders seem to be increasing the number of ethical violations, not only with elected officials, but disturbingly, with those entrusted to do the work of the government. You don’t have to look far in this city, especially recently, to see the ethical quandaries faced by public leaders including charges of excessive expenditures and jobs supposedly promised and not delivered. This is what makes the front page of the Post.

What to do? Government leaders must take time to look at ethics not as a series of statements about what one can and cannot accept as part of their official duties. Rather, ethics must be viewed as the critical informant in all of our life decisions, from whether we should tell the Starbucks barista that he undercharged us to whether we should write a note excusing our kids from school when it’s truly not warranted. The standards by which public sector leaders are held are higher. It’s as
simple as that.

Challenge 3

Our nation and our government is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are simply running out of money. Our tax system is antiquated and in need of serious, meaningful reform. We’re seeing signs of this tension – the
protracted battle over the budget, and the likelihood of raising the debt ceiling.

What to do? The answers to these vexing problems aren’t found in cutting existing social services. That’s a short-term nickel and dime approach. Addressing these problems will require non-partisian common sense leadership at all levels of government. We didn’t get to this
point overnight and we won’t solve it with short-sighted cuts. It will require long-term, sensible policy changes that are fiscally sustainable.

Tarryn: What are your thoughts on the open government movement and how it will shape public service in the next 10 years?

Dr. Malone:

Open Government – What’s not to like? I think the ideas proposed through this initiative: transparency, participation, and collaboration are all tremendously beneficial and have the potential to go a long way in improving accountability, effectiveness, and the government’s reputation. I guess the cynic in me wonders how likely it is that there will be real and lasting change. Government reorganizations are nothing new and culture change is very, very difficult to achieve. Consider the sheer magnitude of the government, it’s various agencies, their size and scope, etc….. It’s a noble goal but a daunting task. And oh by the way, the Chief Executive in charge just announced his re-election bid. Think he’ll be busy in other arenas???


Dr. Malone teaches courses in public sector leadership, leadership ethics, organizational analysis, and public administration at American University in Washington, D.C. He also directs the Key/NMI MPA program. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership in multiple venues including the National Association of State Personnel Executives, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Yale University, and the International Healthcare Resource Management Program in Port Louis, Mauritius. His research interests include public service motivation, leadership ethics, and organizational dynamics. Professor Malone is an active member of the American Society of Public Administration and the Academy of Management.


Ph.D. American University M.S. Trinity University, San Antonio B.S. Southwest Texas State University


Previous GovInsights:

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

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

American University’s Dr. Sonja Walti: Challenges Government Faces Today are No Different Than The Past

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