Rediscovering the Heart of Public Administration: The Normative Theory of In His Steps

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Virginia Tech

Public administration literature lacks richness and context regarding the moral history of the founding of the field in the early 1900s. As a result, current calls for "recapturing the soul" of public administration have failed to stimulate a theory-or even a working understanding-of how to "rehydrate" the observed desiccation of public life and revivify the concept of the public interest. In correcting the historical record, this dissertation shows that the "soul" of public administration stemmed from the field's deep roots in the social gospel movement of the early 20th century. For that short period, the nascent field was not viewed as a bastardization of constitutional order, but as a noble endeavor in which beloved sons and daughters participated in their nation's governance. As a representative character of that era, Charles M. Sheldon serves as an exemplar of a citizen administrator whose sojourn into the public square was characterized by deep faith, empathy for the common person and commitment to action-regardless of the personal cost. His optimism, innovation and creativity stand in sharp relief to today's dispirited and over-regulated public work force. Sheldon's best-selling book, In His Steps (1896), stands as a pre-modern parable for moral decision-making in a dynamic and uncertain postmodern environment. In allowing for uncertainty, discourse and experimentation, the book's operative question, "What would Jesus do?" enriches our understanding of normative theory as process. It also offers back the field's lost "soul" in the way of submission, empathy, covenant, grace and hope.

Tangier Island, Charles M. Sheldon, social gospel