Why You Should Care About the Grand Challenges in Public Administration

NAPA has identified Grand Challenges for public administration. The author explains their significance.

In November, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA, or the Academy) announced the Grand Challenges in Public Administration.

NAPA described the Grand Challenges as “An Agenda for the Future of Governance” and said:

“As the world moves quickly from the industrial age into the information age, new challenges have arisen and demands on government have increased. But the public sector has often been in a reactive mode — struggling to adapt to a rapidly evolving international, economic, social, technological, and cultural environment. Over the next decade, all sectors of society must work together to address the critical issues of protecting and advancing democracy, strengthening social and economic development, ensuring environmental sustainability, and managing technological changes. And governments at all levels must improve their operations so that they can tackle problems in new ways and earn the public’s trust.”

You might be asking what the Grand Challenges are, and may even be wondering why you should care what NAPA says, or about these issues NAPA has described in such a grand way.

About NAPA

NAPA is a congressionally-chartered not-for-profit organization that was established to evaluate the structure, administration, operation, and program performance of federal and other governments.

They were chartered to anticipate problems governments may face and recommend corrective actions. A key provision of the charter is “foreseeing and examining critical emerging issues in governance, formulating practical approaches to their resolution.” The Grand Challenges are thus squarely in the wheelhouse of NAPA, and are a crucial means of fulfilling the charter granted by Congress.

NAPA has more than 900 Fellows, each nominated by their peers and subject to a rigorous review prior to standing for election. The Academy is a nonpartisan organization, and does not engage in any partisan activities.

The great strength of NAPA is the extensive background of its Fellows. The Fellows come from state, local, federal and international government, academia, other not-for-profit organizations, and the private sector. What they have in common is experience in the operations of government, with a rich understanding of what does and does not work.

The Academy’s bylaws lay out in great detail the qualifications for election as a Fellow. In addition, the bylaws require Fellows to “adhere to the highest standards of personal integrity, honesty, and decent human behavior” and to “”Avoid any situations in which personal gain appears to be in conflict with official or professional duties.” The Academy has been recognized for more than 50 years as a source of unbiased, nonpartisan analysis.

About the Grand Challenges

The Academy identified the Grand Challenges following extensive public outreach, where they sought input from Fellows, people in government and industry, and the public.

A committee chartered by NAPA’s Board of Directors (of which I am serving as Chair) reviewed all of the input and arrived at the following list of Grand Challenges, which were approved by the Board of Directors and announced at NAPA’s annual meeting in November.

Grand Challenges in Public Administration

Protect and Advancing Democracy

  1. Ensure Electoral Integrity & Enhance Voter Participation
  2. Modernize & Reinvigorate the Public Service
  3. Develop New Approaches to Public Governance & Engagement
  4. Advance National Interests in a Changing Global Context

Strengthening Social & Economic Development

  1. Foster Social Equity
  2. Connect Individuals to Meaningful Work
  3. Build Resilient Communities
  4. Advance the Nation’s Long-Term Fiscal Health

Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

  1. Steward Natural Resources & Address Climate Change
  2. Create Modern Water Systems for Safe & Sustainable Use

Managing Technological Challenges

  1. Ensure Data Security & Individual Privacy
  2. Make Government AI Ready

Each of the Grand Challenges lives up to the name. NAPA sorted them into four groups, each covering a wide array of challenges.

Protecting and advocating for democracy has been core to the United States since our founding. Without free and fair elections, there is no democracy. The public service is vital to delivery of the countless services the American people rely upon. None of that happens at only the local level, or the national level, or within a single agency. As NAPA described it, “In the 21st Century, no significant public problem fits entirely within one government agency, or even one level of government, and our federal system presupposes that all levels of government have an important role to play in the democratic process. Effective problem solving usually requires federal, state, and local governments to work successfully together, and often with the private and nonprofit sectors. And yet, we have not prioritized the building of collaborative capabilities to develop and implement effective policies and programs across levels of government and sectors of society.”

Social and Economic Development are essential for all Americans to reap the benefits of this great country. Social equity, meaningful work for everyone, and resilient communities that can deal with challenges such as natural and man-made disasters are basic requirements for a strong society. Unpinning all of the Grand Challenges is the need for responsible fiscal policies that ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely.

Ensuring Environmental Sustainability is about the natural resources we need, the changing climate and its effects on the global economy, severe weather patterns, and habitability of many areas. Modern water systems may seem fairly basic, but water policy experts are clear that we will face increasing demands on the limited supply of fresh water available in our country. Fresh water is essential for economic and physical well-being.

Managing Technological Challenges is a growing issue that we are just begging to grapple with. As more and more personal information, including all of our financial and health records, are online, privacy and data security are issues that could affect everyone in the United States and around the world. Finally, the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will present issues such as the ethical use of AI, how AI will affect the public service, risks of AI, and how AI can be harnessed to provide vital government services.

None of the Grand Challenges have easy solutions. They will be issues that we have to deal with for many years to come, and they are likely to affect everyone in the United States. NAPA is not claiming to have the solutions, nor is the Academy planning to take on each of the challenges.

Some, like issues relating to public service and new approaches to public governance and engagement, are issues the Academy has worked on for years. Moving forward, we expect the Academy to take an active role in dealing with many of the Grand Challenges. We also need many more people to become engaged, express their views, and add their insights to those of the Academy and other organizations that are addressing these issues.

There is much more information on the Grand Challenges, including detailed descriptions of each, on the Academy’s Grand Challenges site.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.