12 Contemporary Issues in Public Administration

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A student wearing a headscarf and holding a bullhorn is leading a protest. The first two decades of the 21st century have been challenging for leaders, particularly those in the public sector. U.S. government agencies and personnel at all levels have found themselves operating in an environment of near-constant change and increasing demands. The result, according to the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), is that “the public sector has often been in a reactive mode — struggling to adapt to a rapidly evolving international, economic, social, technological, and cultural environment.”

To effectively operate and move forward, governments must shift from being reactionary to being action-oriented, allowing them to tackle new problems and earn the public’s trust. As a guide toward achieving these goals, NAPA in 2018 launched an ambitious campaign to identify the biggest challenges for governments in the 2020s and beyond. The result of this campaign is the Grand Challenges in Public Administration, a list of the 12 most pressing issues in public administration today; identifying major sticking points that government officials at all levels can work together to improve.

By pursuing an advanced education and acquiring a thorough understanding of the challenges facing public administrators, graduates with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree are prepared to work on solutions and create positive momentum in government.

Current Public Administration Issues

As professionals tasked with implementing government policy, public administrators can be found overseeing the creation and delivery of programs in a multitude of industries, organizations, and sectors, influencing both government agencies and nonprofit organizations. With such a broad scope of practice, administrators have both the opportunity to specialize in a variety of fields, making a significant impact on their communities, and to address myriad different challenges.

With agencies ranging from public services and community outreach, to environment and natural resources, along with innovations in governance, health, and technology, issues in public administration can vary widely from one sector to the next, as well as have a large and lasting impact within our communities.

Many of the current public administration issues stem from the need for government to evolve and innovate. These “Grand Challenges” span many areas. They include finding ways to keep up with new technology, dealing with the increasing demand on government resources, improving the ways in which agencies and programs are delivered to the public, and improving methods of communication and the effects they have on the greater population.

Through higher education and specialization, public administrators are able to focus on integrating the needs of their community into the decisions they make, while working toward outcomes that positively affect as many people as possible.

Protecting and Advancing Democracy

The first four Grand Challenges fall within the focus area of protecting and advancing democracy. The challenges are:

1. Ensure Electoral Integrity and Enhance Voter Participation

Voting at the local, state, and federal levels is the bedrock of American democracy. Citizens must feel confident in the systems, processes, and results of the electoral process to trust the government. Currently, lack of standardization across the country and other issues in the implementation of public administration, such as equipment failure and glitches, have created a number of voting challenges and a lack of faith that must be addressed and rectified going forward.

2. Modernize and Reinvigorate the Public Service

Governments are increasingly tasked with solving complex and cross-agency problems. Many issues — including a retirement-age workforce, lack of salary flexibility, a cumbersome hiring process, and promotion guidelines that prioritize tenure over talent — have left some public organizations without an adequate workforce.
For graduates seeking a challenge, taking on issues in public administration can include helping government agencies evolve to meet new goals, allowing the next generation to influence the workplace standards of practice in the public sector.

3. Develop New Approaches to Public Governance and Engagement

In current times, no significant problem falls within the scope of a single government agency. Solving issues in public administration usually requires all levels of government — federal, state, and local — to work successfully together. Additionally, the government must often work with the private and nonprofit sectors. The ability to collaborate with all of these entities must be nurtured and developed to improve government effectiveness.

4. Advance National Interests in a Changing Global Context

In an increasingly globalized world, the U.S. government at all levels may discover that local actions have international consequences. Public servants must find a way to be global citizens while simultaneously supporting America’s national and worldwide interests.

Strengthening Social and Economic Development

Grand Challenges five through eight fall within the focus area of strengthening social and economic development. The challenges are:

5. Foster Social Equity

Although the United States has made progress in making opportunities available to all citizens, much work remains to be done. Significant disparities still exist on issues of race, gender, economic circumstances, and geography, among others. Government has an important role to play both in creating new policies and enforcing existing ones to promote social equity, providing citizens with resources and opportunities to succeed regardless of their background or circumstances.

6. Connecting Individuals to Meaningful Work

Meaningful work is personally fulfilling — but more than that, an engaged workforce is a critical aspect of a healthy, functioning nation. Public agencies play a huge role in nurturing the employment area through community colleges and programs, state licensing boards, and the smooth interaction of multiple employers.
By investing in programs that assist people in finding meaningful jobs, and improving the public safety net for workers in transition, graduates are able to address multiple issues in public administration, including overall job satisfaction and employee retention.

7. Build Resilient Communities

America’s communities must be able to respond to, and recover from, challenges such as natural disasters, economic troubles, health epidemics, and housing shortages. The government can and should play a key role in preparing for these types of emergencies and mitigating them when they occur. Issues in public administration arise when there are insufficient resources for a community or a breakdown in the delivery of much-needed resources. Through the improvement of technology and chain of command, public administrators can help government programs better serve their communities.

8. Advance the Nation’s Long-term Fiscal Health

The United States has both current and long-term fiscal issues at every level of government. Elected officials must begin tackling these problems to support the ongoing health of the nation.

Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

Grand Challenges nine and 10 fall within the focus area of ensuring environmental sustainability. The challenges are:

9. Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change

All sectors of the economy, from the government to the private sector, share responsibility for stewardship of our natural resources. The government should be involved in all issues in public administration that deals with improving our natural resource management, pollution control, and clean energy development and usage. With a proactive approach to natural resources and climate change programs, public administrators can make a shift toward more sustainable programs and technology.

10. Create Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use

America’s water delivery systems and infrastructure are aging badly, and management guidelines are not always clear, leading to periodic problems and shortages. Key challenges in the future of public administration include addressing both the infrastructure and policies involved in providing basic and essential resources to the public; cutting down the barriers to resources that are essential to the health and wellness of a community.

Managing Technological Changes

The last two Grand Challenges, 11 and 12, fall within the focus area of managing technological changes. The challenges are:

11. Ensure Data Security and Privacy Rights of Individuals

As technology continues to evolve, ensuring data security and privacy will become increasingly difficult and important. Government must keep its eye on this situation and do its part to keep constituents’ data safe.

12. Make Government AI Ready

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to automate tasks that humans currently perform. Government must harness the promise of AI and machine learning to increase efficiency and effectiveness, allowing public administrators to meet budgets, achieve long-term goals, and develop transformative solutions for the public good.

The Future of Public Administration

The Grand Challenges are far too complex to be solved by any one person or agency. They will require collaborative awareness and effort. Individual public administrators can help, however, by keeping the Challenges firmly in mind. These guidelines provide a “road map” that informs today’s decisions while laying out a path to the future.

Influence Positive Change in Your Community

Current issues in public administration, and the ways in which they are solved, can have a great and long-lasting impact on our communities as well as on the future of government programs and resources. By addressing these issues and putting the needs of the greater public first, administrators are able to innovate and work toward positive outcomes for the future. With a clear focus on the challenges that need to be overcome, government programs can be made better, keeping up with the times and benefiting the people.

Ohio University’s online Master of Public Administration program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public service. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration work while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management, and communications.
The MPA from Ohio University is designed to prepare you for the future. It offers the flexibility and convenience of a 100% online curriculum, highly experienced faculty, as well as four concentrations to choose from — Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, State and Local Government Management, and Crisis and Emergency Management.

Discover the positive change you can make with a degree in public administration.

Recommended Readings

What Can You Do With an MPA?

What Does a Public Administrator Do?

Why Get an MPA?


Britannica, Public Administration

Handbook of Research Methods in Public Administration, Management and Policy, “Chapter 3: Mixed Methods in Public Administration: Advantages and Challenges”

Journal of Public Affairs Education, “The Invisible Challenges: Gender Differences Among Public Administration Faculty”

Indeed, Guide to Public Administration Jobs: Finding Your Role

National Academy of Public Administration, Grand Challenges in Public Administration