Public Sector Leadership for the 21st Century
Posted on March 1st, 2018

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera visiting Professor at Northern Kentucky University for Geopolitics ,Global Leadership and the Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka(INSSSL) was invited to speak at the prestigious American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) ,Greater Cincinnati Chapter and to the Northern Kentucky University Master of Public Administration Students on 20th February 2018.

Drawing his 13 years of experience in the Government Prof.Abeyagoonasekera spoke on the topic of Public Sector Leadership for the 21st Century”. Following is an abstract of his speech.

Let me begin with the great musician Leonard Bernstein who spoke few days after President Kennedy’s brutal assassination , where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred—the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive”[1].

JFK was to say in his last speech America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.” I think the world in which we live have put their leaders on a pedestal, removing them from the next layer of experts in public service. This is unfortunately evident in most societies. As a global community we have failed miserably to save innocent lives from conflicts around the world.

To build any successful nation you need intelligent leadership with technical knowledge on how to solve problems. Political leadership cannot be limited to rhetoric alone. Political rhetoric vs practice is a subject discussed widely these days.  In my recent article Sri Lanka: The New Regime and the Revolution, I wrote, what you see today is leadership with a bipolarity syndrome. Bipolarity in politics has never been so rife in modern history. The politics of bipolarity spans across oceans from leaders around the world who are loud but inconsistent. Sufficiently exposed to bipolar political promises, public absorption of rhetoric has reached the point of exhaustion.

Due to this you will witness inconsistent policy from the policy makers which public administration will have a challenging task to execute and deliver with efficiency.

The exact origins of the field of Public Administration are disputed, but one could look at the Woodrow Wilson’s seminal essay The Study of Administration,” published in 1887, as a pivotal moment and one possible origin.            According to Wilson there should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less business like, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness. This is one reason why there is such a science.”

Woodrow Wilson, considered public administration a sub discipline within political science. In the 21st century there are numerous areas a public administrator should be proficient in. The discipline has grown far beyond its initial boundaries of political science to embrace theories, concepts, and tools from all the social sciences according to Cropf and Wagner[2]. Today you will have Anthropology, Economics the Managerial Approach including Budgeting, Finance,cost effectiveness, Sociology, Jurisprudence and I include a very important area Geopolitics”.

According to the 1929 newspaper in Ohio and The Washington Post” both printed a one-liner quip on this topic that specifically referred to Americans Wars do some good, but they are a rather expensive way to teach Americans geography.” If I ask this audience how many of you learned about Helmand province because of the war in Afghanistan I am certain you will agree with me that wars have taught you geography. It was not the case in the past unfortunately. Geopolitics is an essential subject in this century, especially with the complex issues we are facing in the 4th industrial revolution environment. I draw your attention to one such complex variable urbanization. According to United Nations, In 2010 for the first time in history, the urban population surpassed the rural population, and by 2050, it is estimated that at least two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 54 per cent of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. We need to teach geopolitics to our policy makers and administrators since they might make decisions without understanding this complexity. Political science and jurisprudence have been considered the sole prerequisite of statecraft but in the 21st century  with all other sub-discipline knowledge, sound knowledge of geography and geopolitical analysis is important. You cannot make analysis in foreign policy without understanding the terrain of your nation and the outside world.

Public Administration is a profession achieving its status by refining its content with the academia (Universities, training centers and professional associations). Training from Academia and raw experience are at crux. There should be an atmosphere conducive to systemic training and expansion of knowledge in Public Administration. It should be borne in mind that, without an efficient public administration no nation could move forward. Unfortunately there is a missing layer of technocrats in the Democratic process today at all levels in public service, which starta from the top layer of policy making. Populism gets us not the best leaders and this is proven in many nations. The academic inputs to public policy formation and experts with know how to execute policy is pivotal. If you take the advisory positions to President of US most of the Presidential advisors back in the 60s and 70s had a convincing thesis a book in hand. The important question is whether there is a convincing thesis in the present day advisors?

  1. A. Muttalib examines the relationship between Democracy, Bureaucracy and Technocracy, (Refer to diagram); where Democracy, Bureaucracy, Technocracy contradict each other but Public Administration is the bridge among them. Democracy is the base – Bureaucracy is the structure – Technocracy the ‘know how’ to solve the problems.

Plato’s Republic clearly highlighted the importance of Meritocracy” for successful political system were an educated and engaged citizenry and a wise ruling class is necessary. If western democracy will keep failing to give us the right solutions, Liberal democracy will be seen by Asians as a model that does not deliver efficient results.

Asia could drift towards a technocracy a model operated by technical experts and expert government servants which deliver quick results. China has proven clearly more than the 100 liberal democracies around the world that 625m people were taken out of poverty from this model. Singapore has proven as an East Asian miracle performing through a meritocracy at its highest value delivering results to the public. The Public health, water safety, education, infrastructure and all economic indicators are at the highest level.

According to former Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, Prof. M. O. A. de Zoysa, Ninety four MPs have not passed their GEC (O/L) examination while there are only 25 graduates among the 225 legislators in the present Sri Lankan Parliament.

Hence, it is questionable whether the 21st century complexity can be managed with the existing system. According to Parag Khanna America has more than enough democracy. What it needs is more technocracy—a lot more.” I recommend you his book Technocracy in America. A very long time ago Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America”, identified the limitations of democracy. Accordingly, Democracy is not an end in itself. The greater goal is effective governance and improved national well-being.

Now let me end with a list of challenges for the public sector leadership in the 21st century.  Understanding the complex environment we live today with non linear problems immersing from the 4th industrial revolutio

[1]Leonard Bernstein ,25 November 1963
n is essential. Efficiency of delivery of solutions with the growing demands in this complex environment has to be understood. Weak political systems will create inconsistant polices which will be a difficult task for the public administrators to implement such policies. State building can happen only if the Government is effective and efficient. Independence of public administration is another challenge as Woodrow Wilson also identify in the early days. He says fortunately insisted upon by our civil- service reformers; namely, that administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.” Transparency and fighting corruption should be an essential component. However, most importantly, Technocracy should also be introduced to the system, as an essential component for the Government sector.

[2]Cropf, Robert A.; Wagner, John L. (2017-09-01). American Public Administration: Public Service for the Twenty-First Century (Kindle Locations 649-650). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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