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Preparing for the Next Round of Unexpected Disruption


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carrol G. Robinson, Michael O. Adams and Lily Wells
September 12, 2021

Ever since the pandemic started, people have been clamoring to get “back” to normal-the perceived pre-existing status quo. The reality is that there has never been a static status quo. Our culture, technology and economy have always been evolving and in transformation driven by innovation and unanticipated disruption such as COVID-19 itself.

Instead of focusing on getting back to the past, public administration educators, students and professionals need to be focused on managing and shaping the forces of change that have been exposed by the pandemic along with fixing the deficiencies in our governmental, healthcare and educational systems. Our focus should be rebuilding forward.

Too much of the conversation underway, in government and education, right now, is about moving back to the pre-pandemic “normal” without any real consideration of the fact that this is likely not the last pandemic. It’s as if we did not learn anything from the reality that there is no such thing as the end of history or that virus attacks have, in recent decades, grown more frequent, more powerful and more deadly.

America and our entire education system will be making a historic mistake if in the haste to reopen our public school systems and to get students back on college campuses we abandon the digital education infrastructure that we have built and/or enhanced in 2020. We need to preserve and utilize that infrastructure to expand access to education for more Americans and to make lifelong learning a true reality, for all Americans, that goes beyond Google and YouTube and what we currently consider online education. We now know that we must end the digital divide all across America, in both rural and urban communities.

In light of the 2008 Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, schools of public administration and public affairs need to modernize our public administration education system to educate and prepare public administrators to better anticipate, respond to and recover from unexpected disruptions. We also need to offer leadership on preserving, enhancing and better utilizing the digital education, communication and economic infrastructures that have been built since 2020 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public administrators must pay greater attention to and more deeply engage in the private sector deliberations underway about how the pandemic, A.I. and automation are changing both the nature of work and impacting government revenue streams.

Public administrators also no longer have the luxury of being passive and reactionary actors in response to the innovative transformation now driving economic change. We must all learn from what Uber, Lyft, cell phones, online shopping, electric vehicles and Airbnb should have taught us about the impact of private sector innovation and technological transformation on government revenue streams.

Public administration educators, students and professional can no longer live in and think solely about the structure and operation of the public sector. Our current educational system was built for the farm to factory transpiration. We now need to modernize the American education system to fully deal with the new world of health, environmental, technological and economic challenges facing public administrators in America (and around the world) in our ever growing global, digitized and dispersed economy.

Public administrators are strategic planners and what we must do now is offer our local communities, the nation and our industry-education a strategic plan designed and built for improving the present and handling the future.

Finally, we would like to recommend that schools of public administration and public affairs create new classes, or modify existing courses, to focus on:

Disruption Preparedness, Response & Recovery: Preparing and Governing for the Unexpected

Privacy, Digital Rights & Cybersecurity: Government, Governance and Regulation in the The Age of Acceleration (See generally, Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late.)

Innovation, Technology & Governance.

Authors: Robinson and Adams are members of the faculty at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) where they teach public administration and political science. Wells is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts at TSU where she teaches geography. This article is based on a presentation made by the co-authors as a part of a joint panel with the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs at the 2021 NASPAA Annual Conference.