Dwight Ink on Grand Challenges in Public Administration

Dwight Ink has been a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration since 1969 and in 2011 was named by Government Executive as one of the “20 of the All-Time Greatest Feds.”   The former President of the Institute of Public Administration, he held numerous federal executive branch posts under seven presidents—including Director of the U.S. Community Services Administration, head of the Civil Service Reform project under President Carter, and Administrator of the General Services Administration.  He also held important roles at the Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


What do you think of the Academy’s Grand Challenges agenda?

The Grand Challenges program provides the necessary framework for an impressive recovery from many of our existing governmental problems, and the birth of new strategies for the evolving needs of the ever-changing society within which we work. This is an exciting new program of four focus areas with twelve critical Challenges.  It sets a magnificent new agenda that will contribute to the lives of our citizens in ways not seen in many decades.  I expect it will help usher in a new generation of interagency, intergovernmental management that has come to dominate so much of our work. 


What advice do you have for the Academy as we seek to address these challenges in 2020 and beyond?

The Grand Challenges booklet demonstrates strategic vision and remarkable courage in outlining a series of bold Challenges that can be used to bring a number of organizations to a higher level of performance than ever before.  As with all plans, the value of this one will depend on how well these are translated into action. Because of the unusually large potential breadth and depth of this program, some type of informal coordinating interagency and intergovernmental arrangements may be useful. While we collaborate, however, we will have to work diligently to ensure that the results are not an unwieldy mushy mess with internal contradictions and confusing rhetoric.  The Academy is used to working with Panels of Fellows to develop concrete, action-oriented recommendations that improve public governance and management, so I know we are up to the task.  


How can the Grand Challenges agenda help shape near-term policies and programs?

2020 is a presidential election year.  We need to develop linkages with the leading presidential candidates to help them understand these challenges and to identify potential solutions.  I am excited that the Academy has established teams of Fellows who are working on plans to be released in May 2020 with advice on actions that should be taken in 2021 to address each Challenge. 

The Academy has the opportunity through its Fellows and staff to work to bring stakeholders together to mobilize action, enhance our understanding of the issues, identify effective practices, and track progress.  I will be honored to work with others in the Academy on these activities.


We live in divisive and polarized times.  What impact do you think this will have on the Grand Challenges agenda?

Today, many people do not see Washington, DC, as a very constructive place from which to plan new initiatives or begin to restore public confidence in our government.  And, certainly, I have witnessed the capitol degenerate over the course of my professional life into a place of vitriolic attacks and polarized discourse. Too much of the capitol’s energy for too many years has been wasted on destructive personal attacks. 

That said, I do disagree with those who say that the current Washington environment is too chaotic to take bold steps of federal government reform. In rejecting this pessimistic view, I and other Fellows like Charles Bingman have long argued that times of crises generate public receptivity to significant reforms. I also believe the critical nature of the Grand Challenges will drive public and private interest and resources toward addressing them.


The Academy identified a number of cross-cutting management issues, including increasing government’s overall agility and responsiveness, as necessary to making progress on the individual Grand Challenges.  What should the federal government do to improve its management?

An especially critical component of this should be the revitalization of the management arm of OMB, with visible presidential support.  I suggest this office needs the stature to provide a role of leadership, using its control role sparingly when necessary.


Any final thoughts?

Developed by a group of outstanding leaders, the ambitious Grand Challenges program is a landmark in the Academy’s history.  Because of the importance of these challenges and the large number of men and women that the Academy plans to engage, the program should provide a great opportunity to shift the current Washington preoccupation with partisan acrimony and destructive debates to a more positive focus in implementing the challenges and improve the life of our citizens. The Academy and its partners should be congratulated on providing leadership for this bold initiative.  I look forward to participating in this critical national effort.   

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