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Blog The COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education: Student Perspectives on Public Service Values and Public Service Motivation

COVID & Public Impressions

photo of person wearing protective wear while holding globe
by Lauren Cooper:

Long before COVID-19 gripped Florida as its global epicenter, I was an aide to Florida House Representative Anna V. Eskamani. Our team was doing our best to fight in progressive arenas to expand Medicaid, to amplify worker’s rights, and to amend our state’s regressive tax structure that relies on sales tax to survive. For years, resistance was an intimate and constant presence in the workplace. However, it was a resistance of love in an effort to shake up the status quo and inject energy into a tired policy process that left many disconnected and disenfranchised. 

This pandemic has highlighted the disparities in our state, notably in our unemployment benefits system, which has been systematically neglected for many decades. However, it has also underlined the service gaps in our bureaucracies and reinforced frustrations that already existed among the general population. When furloughs took place in waves and the Florida Department of Opportunity was gridlocked with broken benefits portals, outsourced call centers, and recurring excuses, people turned to representatives in the Legislative Branch to be a lifeline, or at least a life vest, while the waters kept rising.

Our team of three has been navigating over 30,000 inquiries since March from struggling families, desperate parents, and suicidal Floridians from the Panhandle to The Keys at the end of their rope — and that intensity came without warning or resources on where to turn or how to find answers. Many I spoke with mentioned their respective lawmakers did not return their calls or respond to their messages, requesting help in the darkest season of their lives. They wrote letters, sent direct messages, made videos on social media, rallied at protests, and captured attention of the media across the nation, but still were gaslighted by those in power. Some told me it was their first time contacting a lawmaker at all.

In the eye of the COVID hurricane, it remains impossible to completely unpack the flaws in our system and would be premature to point fingers, but there remains a critical lesson before us — if people cannot rely on state agencies and officials in moments of trauma, then how will they respond with trust on the other side of this moment? It’s just not fair to expect them to give us the benefit of the doubt, when the majority of doors they approached were closed under lock and key. 

Public Service Motivation is a fascinating topic, but alone it’s not enough to produce the change we need. We have to also be critical and educate ourselves on operations, finances, governance, and big, clunky ideas that do not inspire us if we want to propel the causes that do. I have already begun to draw connections from my MPA coursework directly back to my career, including the notion of punctuated equilibrium theory before us now maybe the urgency of this moment will create a better, brighter future through a surge of education, advocacy, and legislative reform but we cannot lose momentum.Moving forward, we have to not only elect transparent and effective lawmakers across our agencies, but we need to set the bar higher from within to undo damage and repair relationships. Maybe we cannot be perfect, but we can always strive to improve and to rebuild with intention. Together, we have to demonstrate that our bureaucracies are reliable, nonpartisan, and committed to service, even reimagining it for ourselves, if that’s what it takes.

Right now, the road towards recovery remains uncertain, but I do know the public deserves better than lip service between campaign calls. After all, we public servants work for the people.

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About the author:

Lauren Cooper is a Master of Public Administration and Masters of Nonprofit Management student at University of Central Florida. She currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives as an aide to state lawmaker Representative Anna V. Eskamani, pushing to make the legislature more accessible, transparent, and effective through intersectional policy and grassroots advocacy. She attended Rollins College for her undergraduate degree in Communications with a Minor in Sustainable Development. Her emergence as a public servant has driven her to pursue a secondary degree to be able to take lessons from the classroom and apply them within her workplace and across the State of Florida. As a first-generation Seychellois American, she is committed to seeing communities big and small being incorporated into the greater political dialogue to mobilize change.

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Blog The COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education: Student Perspectives on Public Service Values and Public Service Motivation

An Introduction on The COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education Blog Series

woman in black blazer using a laptop
by Dr. Shilpa Viswanath:

Beginning in  March 2020, during the weeks preceding spring break for many students at institutions of higher education (IHEs), thousands of colleges and universities across the country abruptly cancelled in-person teaching, campus events, and campus travel in response to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. While teaching and advising moved online, students were suddenly and completely cut off from accessing campus resources including campus housing, libraries, campus-based technology, sports facilities, health facilities, counseling facilities, dining facilities and more. Six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve rapidly into a worsening public health crisis with the United States witnessing 5.75 million coronavirus cases (CDC COVID Data Tracker).

While IHEs such as Notre Dame, UNC-Chapel Hill and University of Alabama have reopened or attempted to unsuccessfully reopen college campuses in Fall 2020 amidst government issued public health regulations; recent discussions in the context of higher education have mostly focused on administrative consequences of the pandemic including strained university budgets, shrinking enrollments, hiring freezes, declining faculty productivity, efficient course delivery mechanisms, and student accountability and assessment. This blog series aims to incorporate graduate student perspectives on public administration training and its relevance to understanding the role of the public sector and the differential impacts of public policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The question becomes, how can current and future public administrators contribute to some of our “big questions” surrounding the administration and public policy outcomes emerging as a result of COVID-19. 

The Masters in Public Administration (MPA) degree is targeted at developing skills and techniques used by (future) public managers to implement public policies and public programs. According to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) there are currently 308 member institutions, which offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in public affairs and administration. This blog series invites personal narratives of current and future MPA students in public and nonprofit organizations. Guest bloggers explore issues surrounding public administration learning outcomes while experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic as students or street-level bureaucrats. This blog series is particularly interested in understanding how MPA education informs understanding of the pandemic and provides students with the skills to work on the frontlines of the pandemic. Our student contributors write about the public service values they learnt from their MPA programs which helped them better understand and better serve in administrative roles on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

These insightful contributions from  MPA students across the United States discuss public service values, public service motivation, ethical considerations, and leadership skills of local, state and federal bureaucrats during the rapidly evolving and complex circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. This collection of MPA perspectives also sheds light on the relevance of public administration classroom teaching and the connections graduate students make between their course work and real world applications of public administration theory and research. To begin this series, MPA student Lauren Cooper from University of Central Florida highlights the fragility of the administrative state during the COVID-19 pandemic and shares personal experiences from the frontlines in her role as a legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives. In her blog post, she explores the importance of citizen-government interaction and administrative accountability during an emergency situation. This is intended to be an ongoing and productive dialogue, we welcome further contributions and diverse public administrative perspectives from current and former MPA students. To contribute to this symposium, kindly send your thoughts to wps@jjay.cuny.edu. If you have any questions, please contact the blog series editor: Shilpa Viswanath, sviswanath@jjay.cuny.edu.

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About the author:

Dr. Shilpa Viswanath is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Viswanath studies public sector human resource management with a special focus on gender. Her work also spans the study of bureaucracy in India. She has published in Administrative Theory & Praxis and Journal of Public Administration Education. Dr. Viswanath is currently serving as Chair of Section for Women in Public Administration (SWPA) at American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and is a board member of Academic Women in Public Administration (AWPA). Before coming to John Jay in the fall of 2020, she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin.