How-To: Make a Contribution and Gain Influence in Public Administration

Hi. Now that I have your attention, there are many ways to do this but I’m only going to talk about one. I think of it as, “Doing the Work.”

Making a Contribution

There are many ways to add value in public administration, whether you work in government or academe, a nonprofit or a corporation. You do not have to hold an advanced degree or be a supervisor, manager, or executive to make an original contribution; you can bootstrap your way forward by making a thoughtful, sustained effort. It doesn’t matter how old you are; it only matters that you can keep learning. Since no one knows everything, and there are always problems to solve, opportunities to contribute are endless. This blog post answers the question, how can you start? Here is a basic guide to one possible approach:

• Pay attention to what aspect of government or governance interests you most. What do you care about, and what gets your creative juices flowing?

• Become knowledgeable about the current thinking in that area. Read, watch videos, listen to podcasts, browse journals in bookstores, talk to people – find out what’s going on. Who’s been working on it? Which points of view do you admire, and why? What are other points of view? What isn’t being said? Is there an unaddressed problem, or can you see one coming down the road? How does what has been said relate to your experience? What questions haven’t been answered?

• That last question brings up another point: pay attention to thoughts that block your creativity. Your experience is valid – that’s why marketing firms run customer focus groups and why government agencies consult stakeholders. It’s also why academics need “practitioners,” or people who work for government agencies. Stick to what you know and build on that, starting with the questions above.

• Now you have to start participating in the larger discussion with other people. Here are a few possible ways:

Concise, well-reasoned comments on someone else’s blog post

Your own original blog post, on GovLoop or elsewhere

An article in a trade publication
(see the publication’s editorial calendar and article submission guidelines)

Participation in a conference session
1-add yourself to the conference web site’s mailing list so you get the request for proposals
2-find a second person
3-plan and submit an interesting proposal for a full session or an exhibit hall mini-session
4-if the proposal wasn’t accepted, try to find out what would have made it more attractive

Participation as a session discussant at an ASPA conference
1-join the American Society for Public Administration
2-look for opportunities in the e-mail updates and PA Times
3-volunteer to participate
4-read the presenters’ papers and decide how you will kick off the discussion
5-talk with session participants before and afterward, and determine to stay in touch with the
ones who interest you, which means
6-take business cards and give them to those people, so they can find you again

Gaining Influence

If you make a thoughtful, sustained effort in an area, and your contribution helps other people by giving them another way to look at problems they’re thinking about – or, if your contribution revolves around providing others a respectful sounding board – you will gradually develop a reputation and a certain amount of influence that is independent of your job. I have seen this happen, and it has happened to me. Over time, this can lead to greater feelings of self-efficacy and invitations, relationships, jobs, academic endeavors, and new opportunities to make a difference. Now, what do you think about that?

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Brenda Cockrell

Kitty, I really enjoyed reading this article. As usual, your everflowing encouragement and fruitful thought inspire me. While I’m not ready to take on all these ideas, I will join the ASPA. I sincerely believe that each of us can make a difference. I can’t help but wonder if everyone who reads this will feel the same as I do – that you’re talking to me. How remarkable it is you have the ability to communicate in a public forum with such a personal demeanor.

K. Scott Derrick

Kitty – Nice thoughts on making a contribution and gaining influence. I really like your references to the benefits, and I’m glad to see that you included self-efficacy. How true!


I somehow missed this post earlier but I love it. Would be interesting as well about gaining influence within one’s agency and outside. I noticed that they are different. Some people have both, some have one or the other…different challenges and strategies..

I request more “How-Tos” 🙂

Kitty Wooley

Good point; I think they’re different too. Just got home from discussing this very thing with a colleague. It’s late, so tell me if this doesn’t make sense.

In some ways, inside seems harder than outside to me. I think that’s because we tend to put people we’re around a lot into boxes as a shorthand way of dealing with information overload. Over time, “hardening of the categories” occurs and we may only be able to see each other through what has turned into habitual lens – which means we can miss new capabilities that a person may have developed, as well as opportunities for mutual benefit. Inside the organization, maybe understanding the work and the culture are less of an issue and being seen (for who we really are and what we really bring to the party – right now) is more of an issue. It’s a tough challenge to break through outworn perceptions that can border on willful blindness. Doing great work, in itself, may not be enough. That’s a lose/lose disaster, recognizable by the stream of talented people – in whom the organization has invested a lot – exiting for other opportunities. I am just beginning to grasp potential solutions and am convinced that this is a key issue in many workplaces.