Passion May Fuel a Protest, But Passion Alone Can’t Bring about Change

October 10, 2016

It is only fitting that we are launching Re:CAP in the midst of a presidential election. Presidential campaigns often throw deep societal fault lines and political challenges into sharp relief, and the current campign cycle is no exception.

The rise of Donald Trump and popularity of Bernie Sanders make clear the discontent of Americans who are still reeling from the negative impact of the Great Recession and globalized economy, while the volatile relationship between African American communities and police across the country reminds us of the continued significance of race in American lives. The country’s dispossessed clearly want change.

But it is not only the dispossesed who are discontented. Opinion polls show that seven out of ten Americans think that the country is going down the wrong track.

While passion fueled by discontent may energize a protest, passion alone cannot bring about change. At an increasingly volatile moment in our country’s collective psyche, we need competent public leaders who can effectively and successfully transform campaign promises into policies and practices. Only then will needed change occur. The stakes of this challenge are very high: failure to bring about change doesn’t just mean electoral defeat. It will further damage citizens’ already-shaken belief in the ability of public institutions to address problems, and ultimately their trust in our system of government.

In our country’s history, we have been in similar predicament before. In 1937 Samuel Fels, founder of the Fels Institute of Government, sought to “improve the quality of government by developing and disseminating promising practices in public management, and by training professional managers in those practices.” He did so because the country was in crisis, and he believed that competent public leadership was essential for solving that crisis.

The Great Depression shook all aspects of American life. In 1930s, Americans reacted to the Great Depression by demanding more from public organizations to not only overcome the economic crisis but also improve other facets of society.

Mr. Fels and his contemporaries responded to the Great Depression with optimism and action. They concentrated on improving the professionalism of public administrators in the hopes of filling government with competent, effective people.

In so doing, they ushered in what historians refer to as the “Golden-Era of public administration”, which began in 1930 and ended in the early 1960s. Their accomplishments were reflected in demonstrable public trust that peaked in 1964, when 77% of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right.

To be sure, the reformers didn’t single handedly raise the trust of Americans in their government. There were many factors that came together for Americans to believe the government would do the right thing. This generation of Americans witnessed a great expansion of the social safety net through the New Deal, came together to defeat totalitarian governments in the World War II, and built a post-war economy that produced unprecedented level of wage equality. It is not surprising that they had more trust in the government.

That said, there is no denying that the reformers of that era were a special group who made a distinctive contribution to the nation. Chester A. Newland describes that the reformers were distrustful of “bigness, whether in private business or government,” inspired by civic engagement concerns, and “troubled by market failures and disregard for human values, along with appreciation for a constitutional democracy, they sought facilitative governance to help clean up business and government corruption”.

Mr. Fels founded the Institute based on these values. I am convinced that the original mission of Fels remains relevant today and should continue to shape our goals and actions. By developing and disseminating promising practices in public leadership through Re:CAP, we plan to improve the quality of value-driven social entreprises launched by public as well as private organizations that are dedicated to solving civic issues.

As reformers combatting the Great Depression met the challenges of their time with optimism and action, we must answer the call to overcome the challenges of ours, and to play a role in bringing about needed change and restore trust in our system of government. I am hopeful that a new generation of social entreprenurs leading value-driven entreprises will usher in an era of reform that will rival the accomplishments of Mr. Fels and his generation. This is the core mission of Fels and Re:CAP.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu