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GovInsights with Professor Beryl Radin: What Are the 4 Biggest Challenges in Government Right Now?

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 Beryl Radin- Scholar in Residence for the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Tarryn: What are the four biggest challenges in government right now? What are your proposed solutions?

Dr. Radin:

1. We are in an era in which the US population seems to have lost a commitment to the value of the public sector. From the Tea Party advocates to the suburban family, Americans are pessimistic about the value of government and skeptical about the ability of governments at all levels to deliver on their promises. The dismal economic conditions create an environment in which the skeptics thrive. Elected officials are terrified of the results of coming elections and career public servants find it increasingly difficult to convince the citizenry that they are able to provide important and useful services.

What to do? It seems to me that there are at least two responses to this challenge. First, both political and career officials must acknowledge that the funds that are being spent on public programs are not always effective and be willing to find ways to improve their performance. That does not always require narrow definitions of outcomes based on private sector models but rather performance measures that make sense for public sector activity. Second, instead of burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, we must find ways to respond to real needs within the population, particularly for those who have been devastated by economic conditions. The recent outcry in Wisconsin indicates that citizens can understand how cuts in public services (like education) directly effect their families.

2. The partisan political battles in Washington that are a part of the contemporary scene indicate that the society is unwilling to think about the reality of the American political structure. Our system establishes concurrent powers between the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) but we have not learned how to devise relationships that reflect that interdependence. Instead, we are in the midst of an era in which each branch thrives on name-calling of the other two. To further complicate our system, we continue to have difficulty determining the appropriate roles for the national government and that of states and localities.

What to do? We need to go back to the Constitution and figure out a way to manage the natural conflict that emerges from our complex system of shared powers. We have a desperate need for leaders who are willing to move beyond partisan battles and find ways to manage the conflict that is built into our system.

3. H. L. Mencken commented that “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” We seem to have a desire to find solutions that are one size fits all. We don’t want to acknowledge that there are differences between different policy issues, agencies, population groups, and other dimensions of the diverse US population. And we are always attracted to solutions that are drawn from private sector experience, ignoring some basic differences between the two sectors.

What to do? We must stop ourselves from thinking that all policies, all states, all citizens are the same. We can look to the experienced staff in agencies and in the Congress who can help us think about those differences. Its difficult and challenging to craft solutions that fit the dimensions of the policy and program. But change will not occur unless that is done.

4. Over the past decade or so many policy issues and problems have been impacted by global dimensions. In the past, it was easier to differentiate between domestic and policy debates and to deal with them separately. As the environmental policy area indicates, globalization is clearly with us today and those differentiations are more difficult to make. This occurs both in the economic, social and political spheres. Yet we continue to use some of the old paradigms and frameworks from the past.

What to do? Our educational systems haven’t really confronted the emergent global dimensions. We need to think about new ways of teaching those who will staff the public sector and who will operate in a multinational environment. It’s not clear whether this challenge can be assumed in a system in which contracting to the private sector prevails and where profit motive is what drives much of the operation.


Professor Radin’s specializations include public management, intergovernmental relations/federalism, administrative reform and public policy. Her government service included an assignment as a Special Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget of the US Department of HHS. Professor Radin has written a number of books and articles on public policy and public management issues. She was the President of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, the public administration section of the American Political Science Association and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. She received the 2009 F. George Frederickson career award from the Public Management Research Association and was the recipient of the 2002 Donald Stone Award given by the American Society for Public Administration’s section on intergovernmental management. She was the editor of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory from 2000 to 2005 and is currently the editor of a book series entitled Public Management and Change, published by Georgetown University Press.


Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley


Previous GovInsights Blogs:

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

GovInsights: Crack Down on the Wealthy and Powerful; Empower Citizens Instead

GovInsights: Bitter Partisanship and Better Health Care (Duke’s Peter Ubel)

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Great interview – I particularly like this quote – ”
And we are always attracted to solutions that are drawn from private sector experience, ignoring some basic differences between the two sectors.”

One key difference is the number of players and those conflicting interest – congress, presidential appointees, career staff, etc. Programs are not just structured based on if effective – lots of other political factors tie in