Revitalize the Public Service, Revitalize the Middle Class

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/puar.13084
Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
772 Public Administration Review Septe mber | Oct ober 2 019
Abstract: The reinventing government movement of the 1990s reshaped the public sector in significant ways. Creating
a government that worked better and cost less was accomplished through streamlined federal middle management
ranks and privatized service delivery, which contributed to the emergence of a “hollow state.” Workforce reductions
that addressed short-term economic realities effectively threatened the long-term sustainability of governmental
organizations and the communities they serve. A variety of forces are now ushering in a new era of hollow government,
including a changing context for public work, shifting bureaucratic expectations, and reduced capacity for workforce
management. The public sector and its employees represent an important contributor to the vitality of our economy
and communities. Revitalizing the public sector workforce is critical for revitalizing the middle class, and both
represent urgent policy priorities.
Revitalize the Public Service, Revitalize the Middle Class
Heather Getha-Taylor
University of Kansas
The reinventing government movement of
the 1990s reshaped the public sector in
significant ways. Creating a government that
worked better and cost less was accomplished through
streamlined federal middle management ranks and
privatized service delivery, which contributed to the
emergence of a “hollow state” (Milward and Provan
2000). While this reform effort promised efficiencies,
it also introduced considerable challenges, including
public workforce management difficulties. State and
local governments faced a similar situation in the wake
of the Great Recession. Against a backdrop of harsh
financial realities, governments cut their workforces in
unprecedented ways that had lasting effects. Many are
still struggling to recover.
These trends matter today because public
employment has been described as a pathway to the
middle class, and the contraction of the public service
is connected to the shrinking middle class. Public
workers (including federal, state, and local) make up
approximately 16 percent of the country’s workforce.
Postrecession cuts have had lasting impacts on many
essential government services, including corrections,
fire, police, health, and education (Maciag 2017).
Workforce reductions to address short-term economic
realities have effectively threatened the long-term
viability of these services and the communities
they serve. Now, a variety of societal, sectoral,
organizational, and programmatic forces are ushering
in a new era of hollow government. Together, these
forces have the potential to impact the public service
and the middle class in additional, significant ways.
First, the context for public employment reflects an
entrenched and expanding antigovernment sentiment
that ignores the many valuable contributions that
public employees make to society and the middle class.
At the same time, the contract or “shadow” workforce
continues to grow, and there is evidence that this
growth displaces members of the middle class. Second,
the expectations for public work are eroding. While
government employees may have traditionally accepted
lower wages in exchange for relative job security
and potentially more generous benefits, this existing
bureaucratic compact is being hollowed out by the
expansion of at-will employment reforms, compensation
stagnation, and narrowed bargaining rights.
Third, the capacity for managing the public workforce
is under threat. As governments continue to adapt to
expected changes in the future, including the arrival of
new generations in the workplace and the widespread
application of technology to government work, a variety
of workforce management themes will remain relevant,
including effectively resolving conflict, ensuring
equity and inclusiveness, and engaging employees.
Some changes to this landscape stand to shift burdens
from employer to employee, which especially impact
vulnerable workers in precarious times. Additionally,
there are concerns that public human resource
specialists do not have the tools or resources to
effectively contribute to addressing issues strategically or
participating fully as leaders in their organizations.
Together, these trends raise concerns, but they also
highlight an opportunity to anticipate and respond
Viewpoint
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 5, pp. 772–776. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13084.
Heather Getha-Taylor is associate
professor in the School of Public Affairs and
Administration at the University of Kansas.
E-mail: hgtaylor@ku.edu
Stephen E. Condrey
and Tonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

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