The Grand Challenges in Public Administration

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Peaceful protest in downtown Kansas CityThe 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.”

Governments must shift from reaction to action to move forward, tackle new problems, and earn the public’s trust. To provide guidance toward 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 facing public entities today. In compiling the list, NAPA did not seek to provide solutions. Rather, its goal was to ask the question “What are Grand Challenges?” and clearly identify major sticking points so that government officials at all levels can work together toward improvement.

Anyone hoping to enter public service in any capacity must understand the Grand Challenges and how they fit into the scope of public administration. Academic education through programs such as Ohio University’s online Master’s in Public Administration can be very helpful not only in explaining the Grand Challenges but also in equipping graduates for their role in solving these high-level problems.

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 this process in order to trust government. Currently, lack of standardization and other issues, such as equipment failure and glitches, have created a number of challenges and a lack of faith that must be 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 to do their jobs well.

3. Develop New Approaches to Public Governance and Engagement

In current times, no significant problem falls within the scope of a single government agency. Problem-solving usually requires all levels of governments to work successfully together—federal, state and local. 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, 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 5 through 8 falls 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.

6. Connecting Individuals to Meaningful Work

Meaningful work is personally fulfilling to people—but more than that, an engaged workforce is a critical aspect of a healthy, functioning nation. Public agencies play a huge role in the employment area through community colleges and programs, state licensing boards, and the smooth interaction of multiple employers. The public safety net for workers in transition between jobs should also be strengthened.

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.

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

The United States has 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 9 and 10 falls 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 government to the private sector, share responsibility for stewardship of our natural resources. The government should be involved in improving our natural resource management, pollution control, and clean energy development and usage.

10. Create Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use

America’s water delivery systems are aging badly, and management guidelines are not always clear, leading to periodic problems and shortages. Significant improvement is needed in both infrastructure and policies.

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 ball and do its part to keep constituents’’ data safe.

12. Make Government AI Ready

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to automate tasks that hu8man beings currently perform. Government must harness these tools to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

How to Help

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.

About Ohio University’s Online Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. 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 school occupies the No. 12 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2019 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100 percent online, offers four concentrations: Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, State and Local Government Management, and Crisis and Emergency Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years.

Recommended Reading:

Using Innovative Practices for Change in Local Government
Working in Public Administration
Ethical Responsibilities as a Public Leader


National Academy of Public Administration, The Grand Challenges