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How to survive public service.

Ashworth, K. (2001). Caught between the dog and the fireplug, or How to survive public service. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN: 0-87840-847-9


The idea of putting together a series of short essays about my personal experience in government came out of my teaching in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and at Texas A&M University in the George Bush School of Government and Public Service and in the College of Education. In returning to teaching after a lifelong public service career, ending with twenty-one years as the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, my initial approach was to avoid telling “war stories” to my students or dwelling on my work experience. I suppose I was trying to deny my arrival at the age of anecdotage, as Louis Brownlow has called it. But all too frequently some concept or theory or “construct” we were discussing in class could be elucidated and enlivened by an example of an actual experience or event, usually from my own past. My students quickly began to tell me that it was especially useful to them for me to draw on practical experiences from my government career to illustrate the academic theories or models about policy making that we were studying in the course.


The format of using “letters” to a young bureaucrat for this book provided me several advantages. Each letter could serve as a brief essay on a subject that is important for public servants to examine. Second, my writing could be very informal and more easily accessible to younger readers than a textbook or a memoir. And, third, through the use of actual experiences and side comments I could try to pique readers’ continuing interest as well as to enlighten them. And finally, in addressing my letters to “Kim,” I make clear that my advice is as much addressed to young women as to young men (not as Lent Upson began his “letters” on public administration, a book of fifty years ago: “To my attentive young Gentlemen”).

Students told me repeatedly that they want to know what it is really like “in the trenches.” They want to know what kind of situations they are probably going to encounter, how nasty can it really get? Is this a place of fulfillment? How do real people respond to the kinds of things that most beginning employees never expect to encounter in a government career? Students are sometimes a little perplexed by the theories or models they encounter in their classes because they have not yet had extensive work experience and are not familiar with how they will apply these general frameworks on the job. In these “letters” I have tried to address both of these student needs. I have drawn on specific events in order to generalize from them about the kinds of things that actually happen in living out a long public service career. At other times I have gone in the other direction; I start with a general idea and move to the specific with an on-the-job illustration.



I know from my own career experience and from my mentoring of rising public servants that no young man or woman is going to shape public policy and improve government services to the people by studying only theories and models and conceptual frameworks described by scholars and researchers of public affairs. And this is true irrespective of how insightful and accurate those academic analyses may be. Young people will have to be in the thick of things, learn how to write a good briefing memo, know how to “play the game,” be willing to take risks and know the consequences when they do, experience the exhilaration as well as the possible penalties of having the courage to be venturesome. And we can’t just provide them with impressive entry-level credentials and turn them loose to go out and learn these things on the job. And certainly no good school of public affairs or public administration is doing only that.

Nonetheless, from what my students have been saying to me I thought I might expand on the practical end of their training through these “letters.” First, I could impress upon them how important are the general models and theories they are studying, for in the beginning these will provide practically the only refuge for perspective and understanding amidst seeming chaos, uncertainty, and confusion. Second, I could provide some additional mortar that might fill the niches between the academic subjects and the courses in skill training they are studying.

These “letters” can probably be of greatest use in courses in public administration and public affairs and policymaking as a supplement to other readings. Because most of my years were spent in higher education administration, the letters will also be useful in preparing educational administrators. And the book should be of more than passing interest to practitioners in government and higher education.

Because the book is unique to the literature of public administration, I have been told that I may need to explain how it can be used in teaching. However, I will not presume to do that. If its use is not evident to faculty members, then no possible explanation from me, with far less teaching experience, will serve much purpose.

Another suggestion was that I need to “name names” and spell out who each of the protagonists is in the vignettes and anecdotes I provide. I simply must disagree. My intent is to reach the students and readers as directly as I can. I am not writing a history of my career or a memoir. I suspect most readers of these letters could care less about who these old geezers are, many of whom are dead and most of whom are retired. In my view, if I have been successful, all of us in these letters are stage props to create the drama of real life in the public service for the delectation of aspiring bureaucrats.

Others have suggested that it would be useful to the reader to know what positions I held as I experienced and learned from the events I describe in these letters. Let me say first why I did not elaborate on this in the context of the letters themselves. I wanted to give my letters written to a niece or nephew as much verisimilitude as possible. As an uncle I would not repeatedly introduce myself and explain my career to my own relative. Moreover, I could not do so without destroying the setting and context of my letters and without stalling their flow and informality, and my occasional free association. I did not want students immersed in a program of studying for the public service to turn to this book each week during a course as one more dreadful “reading assignment.” I wanted them to pick it up with interest and maybe even enthusiasm and say, “I wonder what this old codger has to say that might help me in my job when I graduate next year.” For this reason there are also no footnotes, only a few notes at the end for the curious about references and quotations.

In addition, for purposes of benefiting from the book, I’m not sure readers really need to know exactly what positions I held. If they find this book of interest it should be because they get a realistic feel for what public service jobs are like, what dilemmas and choices they will face, and what a difference they can make as individuals. To them it should not matter what position I held or whether some event I describe took place in California or Texas, Washington or Austin, on a university campus or in a federal agency. My wish would be that each student reader would think of me as a garrulous and relatively obscure uncle, working somewhere in government and near the end of his career, who has taken enough interest in his niece or nephew to put down some gratuitous advice and counsel, and one who is immensely proud of his young relative’s decision to enter the public service.

But for those whose curiosity has sustained them to the end of this preface and have further interest about my career there follows a brief description of the positions I have held in the public service.

• Management Analyst, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C., 1959–60 (after receiving a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University, 1959, and a B.A. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, 1958)

• Project Analyst, Urban Renewal Administration, Washington, D.C., 1960–61 • Assistant Director for Redevelopment, National Association of Housing and

Redevelopment Officials, Washington, D.C., 1961–63 • Assistant Director, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, San Francisco,

California, 1963–65 • Director, Division of Facilities Grants, Office of Education, Department of

Health, Education, and Welfare, Washington, D.C., 1965–66 • Director of Federal Programs, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board,

Austin, Texas, 1966–69 • Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Texas

System Administration, Austin, Texas, 1969–70 (after receiving a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of education from the University of Texas at Austin, 1969)



• Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Texas System Administration, Austin, Texas, 1970–73

• Executive Vice President, University of Texas at San Antonio, 1973–76 • Commissioner of Higher Education, Texas Higher Education Coordinating

Board, Austin, Texas, 1976–97 • Visiting Professor, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at

Austin since 1997 Kenneth H. Ashworth



  • Preface

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