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Assistant Teaching Professor Lois Warner Shows the Artistic Side of Public Administration

Assistant Teaching Professor Lois Warner

As a PhD student at the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), Dr. Lois Warner (Assistant Teaching Professor at SPAA) took a course titled “Arts & Culture of Public Service” with Dean Emeritus Marc Holzer, which emphasized the use of art to depict various aspects of public administration. Thirteen years later, she now teaches a version of the course to undergraduate students, introducing future generations of public administrators to artistic representations of the field and interpretations of its culture. Drawing upon her experiences and skills as a watercolorist, textile designer, and curator, Warner imbues her personal passion and commitment into the field. We sat down with Warner to discuss her efforts to demonstrate to a broad audience of public administration scholars, the power of the visual, literary and performing arts.

What does the “Arts & Culture of Public Service” course entail and how does it contribute to a degree in public administration? 

“Arts & Culture of Public Service” is a required course in the BA program and my view is that communicating information through the humanities provides a good introduction into public service. I use a lot of audio and visual information, such as videos, photographs, pen and ink illustrations, cartoons, paintings, etc., and we also look at drama, including Shakespeare, poetry, and the literary arts in general. There’s a short story called “The Leap” from The Greatest Firefighter Stories Never Told that I usually read on the first day of the class because it really drives home what we mean when we say we celebrate public servants and “the call” to public service. When I finish reading it, the students are spellbound, and that is an example of what I do to get them to understand the importance of public service – we do important work in this field. Political leaders promulgate public policies, but we’re the ones who implement those policies, often against the odds and with budgetary constraints that restrict access to necessary resources, and I think we need to appreciate that more.

When the course started under Dr. (Marc) Holzer, the aim was to promote a more positive image of public service because a lot was being done to project a negative image of the sector, through “bureaucrat bashing,” for example, and we had to work toward counterbalancing that.

The course reflects the goals of the Section on Historical, Artistic, and Reflective Expression (SHARE) of the  American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), whose purpose is to “assist with the advancement and professional development of public administration through the use of humanistic, artistic, and reflective techniques and practices.” So students get the introduction to public service as well as the opportunity to use different techniques and practices and that’s why I have them do things such as prepare inspirational speeches and write poetry related to public service  – one student actually put all of the poems together in a booklet titled “Generation Public Service.” Ultimately, I want to write an analysis of the poetry, but I have to wait until after several sections when I’ll have a few hundred poems. I must document these so that we can eventually analyze them as the millennial perspective on public service.

Beyond your course, what is the relationship between art and public administration and what role do the arts play in the field?

There is a long and active history of artists celebrating public heroes and critiquing public leaders and public servants through the arts, such as through songs and theater. The relationship is potentially complementary because the arts are demonstrative, they attract public attention and even have the power to sway and influence public opinion. Many who work in public administration and public service do so through commitment to working toward the public interest and achieving the common good, improving the quality of life for people, and supporting the development and implementation of public policy.

As I previously indicated, we need to pay attention to the negative portrayal of our field and work toward achieving a better balance through our teaching, research, and publishing. The arts provide a way to deliver positive representation of the field as a source of inspiration and guidance to our members. Some important examples of this include the formation of SHARE, and Public Voices as the public sector journal of the humanistic, artistic, and reflective expression.

You recently became the chair-elect of ASPA’s Section on Historical, Artistic, and Reflective Expression (SHARE) and will become the chair in 2019. What are the primary activities of SHARE and what do you hope to achieve?

We’re in the very early stages, but what we need to do more than anything else is to promote membership to the section. I believe that we can attract members who are working in the humanities and who work in government organizations that are linked to the humanities as well as nonprofit organizations like the Smithsonian, as well as other educators who are using the humanities to teach public administration.

We’d also like to start having panels at conferences such as the annual ASPA conference where academics and practitioners can share best practices for incorporating arts and the humanities in the classroom and in public organizations. I will be giving as much support as I can to the current chair.

I’d also like to help with a newsletter that will promote achievements of members and show how members are contributing to achieving SHARE’s purpose.

What do you say to those in public administration who hesitate to express themselves artistically because they don’t think that they’re creative?

I think public administrators are naturally creative because we’re always working against challenges and we have to frequently initiate new ways of doing things, because it’s a changing environment and all things don’t continue to work with the same effect.