In 2010 more than 22 million Americans worked in the public service sector—roughly 17 percent of the nation’s workforce. Some of their roles are well known: teachers, police officers, and public health nurses. But these public service ranks also include case workers, finance specialists, and managers for both government entities and mission-driven non-profit organizations.
Various opinion surveys in recent years reveal sharp drops in public trust in this sector– especially with respect to the federal and state governments (local governments and non-profits are still held by most citizens in relatively high regard). Many reasons are cited for this decline: government waste, poor management and a lack of transparency among those most frequently listed. What has not declined, however, is the need for the important services the public service sector provides.
How then to satisfy the needs and expectations citizens have of the public service sector, while at the same time rebuilding public trust? There is no single (or even simple) answer, but there are those working to help public service entities innovate and improve from the inside out.
The mission of the Center for Public Service (CPS) in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University is to offer and develop programs that build on the expertise and knowledge of faculty and students, married to the real world needs of practitioners in the public service world. This “pracademic” orientation has a wide reach, as the Center offers leadership development, program analysis, planning and other innovation-related services to public service organizations here and abroad. The Center’s motto is a Latin epitaph bestowed upon Roman citizens to honor a life of service: In servitute rei publicae vitam dedicavit (‘A life dedicated to public service,’) which appears in both English and Latin on the Center’s homepage (www.pdx.edu/cps), reflecting the high esteem in which societies at times have held public servants and the important services they provide.
To promote strong leadership and innovation in the public service sector, CPS offers a wide range of programs. The Executive Master of Public Administration Program is a 24-month program for experienced public service professionals seeking to advance into leadership positions. Through its Hatfield Resident Fellows and Oregon Fellows programs, graduate students gain real-world experience in disciplines ranging from sustainability and natural resources management to strategic planning and organizational development. For years CPS has delivered a co-produced, leadership development program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, aiding helping the Corps prepare its next generation of leaders. Other programs focus on leadership development in the “smart grid” energy sector, and in the non-profit sector. And this fall, CPS added to its roster an Emergency Management and Homeland Security Leadership Program, targeted at working professionals in this important arena.
In addition to over a dozen programs for students and practitioners of public service here in Oregon, the Center also has delivered leadership training with partners in Japan, China, South Korea and Vietnam. Working with the Tokyo Foundation, CPS has a long-standing program that focuses on training and leadership development around civic engagement for Japanese government managers. With a large grant awarded to the Center by the Ford Foundation, CPS has been working with the Ho Chi Minh Academy of Politics and Public Administration in Vietnam to develop a modern curriculum for public managers in that country.
While CPS’s reach extends across the sea, the Center also has completed a number of specialized research and consulting projects here in its own back yard.
“We did a project evaluating the four day work week in Clackamas County during their pilot year,” Dr. Masami Nishihiba, Associate Director of CPS, said. “We analyzed what worked in the program, what people thought of it, and what kind of savings it resulted in.” Based on the study results, the county decided to implement the four-day work week on a regular basis.
“Two years later,” Dr. Nishihiba went on, “because of the connections we had developed with the County, they asked us to conduct their organizational diversity assessment, which also helped the county adopt their diversity and inclusion resolution.”
“By definition and design, we’re an outward facing center,” said Phil Keisling, Director of CPS and former Oregon Secretary of State. “It’s our mission to connect the resources, assets and expertise of the University --its faculty, students and programs --with real-world challenges in the public service sector.”
One real-world challenges CPS is meeting is sustainability in municipal operations. CPS has partnered with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliances (NEAA) to conduct a study of three jurisdictions in Oregon to identify the operational changes they and many similar municipalities could make to yield budget savings and environmental benefits. CPS also recently produced an extensive “Total Employer Cost of Compensation” report, drawing on data from 22 local and state jurisdictions in Oregon to help public sector agencies better understand the full budgetary and operational impacts of the costs of compensating their personnel.
In another project, CPS is working with Oregon Correction Enterprises (OCE), an entity which focuses on training and employing inmates to work while in under the custody of the Oregon Department of Corrections. CPS’s charge is to help OCE develop a strategic plan that will allow it to pursue new opportunities and expand its reach, especially in ways that can better protect public safety and reduce recidivism and correction costs.
For a full list of the projects CPS is currently engaged in, and to view reports the Center has produced on past projects, visit the Center’s website, www.pdx.edu/cps.
“The common themes that run through all these programs center on public service innovation and performance management and leadership as core, necessary components to restoring trust in the public service sector,” Director Keisling said.
As he and his colleagues look to the Center’s future, Keisling adds, “We’re increasingly thinking of the Center as a “laboratory,” -- or as an incubator and catalyst -- for public service agencies and professionals who are interested in innovation and the improvement of public services. We’d like to help them identify and design those innovative ideas; help them understand their potential, and how to measure performance and outcomes; and then help them create the conditions to successfully apply those innovations in the real world.”