A Guide To Government and Public Administration Jobs

Young woman public administration job with employees

Public administration jobs are the most important positions that no one has ever heard of.

You get up in the morning and jump in the shower. Do you have hot water? Do the lights work? Thank the officials of your local public utilities, who make sure the pipes are all intact and power transfer deals have been negotiated.

Do you drive to work? Take public transit? Either way, a public administrator manages the road crews that keep your streets paved and lanes painted, make sure the signs point the right direction, or manage the bus or train services that you use to get from point A to point B.

Those tireless, faceless bureaucrats don’t get a lot of glory, but with government employment at a near-record high as of 2020 according to the Brooking’s Institute, they are absolutely vital for managing the nearly 24 million full and part-time workers at the local, state, and federal levels.

In Certain Cases, Public Administration is Public-Facing

Anthony Fauci in lab coatMost public administrators work quietly behind the scenes, making sure critical government services keep ticking 24/7/365. You rarely hear about them, unless things go wrong, and often not even then.

COVID-19 turned some public administrators into celebrities, however. The calm, wry, earnest, and expert briefings delivered by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Anthony Fauci kept Americans informed and prepared during the pandemic.

Fauci served in various roles in the public health sector for more than fifty years and served as an advisor to every U.S. President, both Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan’s administration. For much of that time, he stayed firmly out of the limelight, although President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work combatting the AIDS epidemic.

Fauci was deeply criticized by his own bosses during the Trump administration during the opening stages of the pandemic, but he held his ground and was proven correct time after time in his areas of expertise as the tragedy unfolded. He’s emblematic of the creed of the dedicated public servant, pursuing the best interests of the country without consideration of politics or pressure.

Some public administrators work outside of direct government employment, working for non-profits or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) which have public responsibilities. These can include organization that have government charters for running or maintaining certain services or facilities, such as the Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) that runs the historic Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA at nightThe wide range of callings within public administration makes it a profession ideally suited for liberal arts graduates. At either the bachelor of liberal arts or master of liberal studies degree level, the classic arts and science education offers you the skills for public service with the flexibility to tailor your studies to the area of public administration that interests you the most.

What is the Difference Between Public Administration and Public Affairs Jobs?

You will often see public affairs and public administration mentioned in discussions of these kinds of government jobs. There are some important distinctions, though, that will determine exactly what position you want to pursue in the field.

Public affairs are the efforts that an organization makes to communicate with, monitor, and manage its relationship with the public. This isn’t limited to governmental organizations, but it’s a key part of how government functions in a democracy. Feedback and monitoring of public opinion and interests is key to a well-run government agency or department.

So public affairs specialization is a subset of public administration jobs. In terms of daily responsibilities, public affairs officials will spend more of their time dealing with the press and public inquiries and less handling internal operations of government agencies. And they will often work in the private sector, handling governmental relations and lobbying efforts.

Public Administration Job Descriptions Involve Taking on All The Challenges of Governance

Politicians are elected, making promises about policies they will pursue and taxes they will cut or raise. Citizens vote, they pay their taxes, and they expect results. But your local mayor, even in the smallest town, is not usually the one out there filling potholes, or even hiring the people who are filling the potholes, inspecting buildings, or budgeting for fire protection.

The most important jobs of executing public policies and services fall to dedicated public servants in public administration jobs at every level of government.

Public administrators are the people who stay behind their desks from administration to administration, developing expertise in the nuts and bolts of running public services. They shift their priorities according to the agenda of the politicians they report to, even when those priorities shift in sometimes nonsensical ways as the pendulum of politics swings back and forth.

Public administrators also offer input and reality checks to their elected bosses, using their deep knowledge and familiarity with their area of expertise to make forecasts, plans, and projections for different policy initiatives.

Public administration is unique because it lives at the crossroads of administrative and political sciences. Although public administrators are usually not elected officials, they report to such officials, and political considerations are a constant part of their decision-making and leadership.

That combination makes public administration jobs exceptionally challenging, but also incredibly satisfying. More than any politician, a public administrator can make real long-term improvements in the lives of thousands or even millions of citizens. Without the threat of election constantly hanging over them, they can devote their focus to accomplishing their tasks, and they can see long-term projects through over long careers in public service.

Public Administration Jobs Have Ancient Roots for Liberal Studies Graduates to Explore

Great Wall of Jinshan MountainsThe modern approach to civil service can be traced back to 2nd Century BC China. The massive territory and population of the Qin empire demanded expert administrators to oversee it at every level. The traditional and ancient traditions of nepotism and allocating power as spoil could offer no assurance that office-holders had any competency or even interest in their jobs.

The massive bureaucracy that unfolded as an answer to this problem standardized the concept of competitive civil service exams. It ensured that administrative offices went to educated individuals who had demonstrated merit through testing. Imperial civil service exams could last for 24 to 72 hours, with applicants writing essays on the Analects of Confucius and other scholarly philosophical works.

The tests happened at local, regional, and national levels, allowing even the lowest peasant a chance to test upwards into service directly to the emperor. The strict meritocracy prevented the spread of nepotism and ensured qualified officials to oversee matters of important public administration.

Liberal arts majors are strong candidates for publication administration degree jobs. All those ancient and honorable origins come with stories of efforts that were successful, mediocre, or downright disastrous. Although our modern world has changed a lot from ancient China, the human condition and the psychology of governance has remained pretty similar.

Liberal studies offer a window both into the inner lives and concerns of constituents as well as some of the modern perspectives on technology and sociology that they are faced with. And every liberal arts degree comes with an unparalleled course in critical thinking and problem-solving. Put it all together, and it’s the ideal preparation for a capable, effective public administrator.

What Are Public Administration Jobs?

Road construction in the early morning
Public administration jobs organize the unglamorous but necessary projects and maintenance work that keep modern civilization functioning and thriving.

There’s no concrete definition of what constitutes a public administration job and what is just a general management job in a government agency. As the term implies, though, administration is a significant part of the work. Communicating, coordinating, and directing are all a part of the business.

Public administration jobs are management or leadership positions in government that are not filled by elected officials.

Public administrators also work in special regional agencies that may be set up to handle public services across city, county, or even state boundaries. They run regional transit authorities, waste disposal and utility agencies, and educational programs. They spend their days putting public policy set by mayors, governors, and legislatures into action.

There’s not a hard and fast line between the roles of elected officials and public administrators, however. Different states and localities might structure their government operations in different ways—a mayor may effectively be the city manager in some systems, while a county executive position may be elected to office. And there are many people who enter public administration with aspirations to going into politics—actively working in government is an excellent way to prepare for the responsibilities of elected office.

These differences are often codified in state law, so it’s worth looking at the structure of the state where you plan to get a job to see what qualifications you will need.

Public administration job examples include:

City manager/County executive – The day-to-day operations of government that have the biggest impact on citizens are run by cities and counties. Everything from policing to garbage collection has to be organized by and budgeted for by an experienced administrator running local government.

Strategic planning director – A senior-level position in many branches of government, strategic planners are responsible for anticipating the needs of the community and coming up with effective, innovative plans to meet those needs in the future—whether it’s developing expansion plans for mass transit to repairing hundred year-old sewer systems, strategic plans determine what the future will look like.

Community engagement manager – American government needs to be responsive to its constituents. At the practical level, that often falls into the job description of community engagement managers. These public affairs professionals are responsible for developing marketing campaigns for government initiatives, responding to enquiries and complaints, and fielding surveys to get a sense of public opinion.

Labor relations specialist – Government represents one of the major employers in the United States, employing as many people as the agriculture or professional services sector according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Government also has one of the most highly unionized workforces of any industry—almost 35 percent of public-sector workers belonged to a union in 2020 according to BLS, five times the rate of the private sector. Those can include unions covered by special rules such as police and firefighters, adding to the complexity of labor relations. Keeping staff happy and motivated, while minding the expenditure of taxpayer money is the realm of labor relations specialists, who negotiate and handle complaints from labor unions.

Projects coordinator – From filling potholes to breaking ground on mega-projects like Boston’s Big Dig or the New York Water Tunnel Number 3, the meat and potatoes of government efforts often fall to a series of individual projects. These represent major management challenges in their own right, and project coordinators may work directly on any of them, or handle a portfolio for their agency, making sure the work gets done on-time and under-budget.

Operations director – On the other side of the project divide are the regular functions and duties of governance: the essential business of keeping lights on, making sure the sewer flows, and keeping up with the ongoing maintenance of park benches and playground equipment. Operations directors budget and manage all these essential, and sometimes thankless, tasks in their jurisdiction.

Worker and manager in control roomThere are also some broad areas of responsibility in public administration that each of those jobs might fall in. These represent areas of specialization that don’t always have a clear private sector counterpart. They include:

Public Health Administration Jobs Focus on Disease Prevention and Control

Public health is at the top of everyone’s mind with the COVID-19 pandemic still burning. Pandemics are only the latest in a long list of threats to the health and welfare of citizens, though. Public health jobs confront other healthcare-related issues including:

And a new wave of issues that haven’t even been imagined yet are likely coming with the steady onslaught of global climate change.

Successes and failures in protecting populations have told of administrators in this area of concern who have done well, and of others who need to be replaced. In either case, job prospects are strong in this field.

Protecting Citizens in Public Safety Administration Jobs

For reasons that still aren’t well understood, the pandemic also brought a rising trend in crime and violence across the United States. It also coincided with a fresh upwelling of concern at the injustice of racially-motivated policing, culminating in riots across the country following the murder of George Floyd.

Public safety administrators are the civilian leaders faced with solving these hot-button issues. They work closely with fire, police, and other emergency services departments to plan for safety threats, ensure equal access to services, and equal justice for all. They are also responsible for developing plans for both day-to-day operations and to handle big emergencies, such as flooding or tornadoes.

They may have direct supervisory responsibility for public safety agencies or act in an oversight or advisory capacity. The job involves reading reports, analyzing statistical data, and observing police and firefighters at work. Public safety administrators also face the heat from the public and are expected to keep close community ties to incorporate public feedback on emergency services.

Public Affairs Job Descriptions Include Respecting Public Opinion and Interests

Public affairs administrators are tasked with monitoring and maintaining connections between the public and their representative government.

Public affairs officers commission polling, analyze data from public interactions with government services, and craft and test messaging to the public regarding government initiatives. They spend a lot of time working with the press. They may write or proof speeches delivered by elected officials and handle follow-up questions. Most of the time when you read an article about government, those quotes you see from public officials all originated with a public affairs officer.

How to Become A Public Administrator

It’s easy to see how a liberal arts education can make a great path into public administration jobs. Public administration is a multi-disciplinary field, drawing on areas of expertise such as:

In many ways, public administration is a very particular type of business management. Although the usual touchstone of profit and loss are not involved, public administrators have strong accountability for their expenditures and results. They go about their business in the same way that other managers do, leading teams of staff, coordinating with other departments and stakeholders, and establishing processes and protocols.

Curriculum Choices For Government And Public Administration Jobs Are Right in Line With Liberal Arts Degrees

In the same way that a liberal arts degree can help prepare you for a business career, then, it can also work for a public administration job. You’ll need to study subjects such as:

Human resource management – All but the tiniest jurisdictions will have staff to supervise in the course of performing public works. Moreover, public employees are often unionized, which makes reckoning with collective bargaining agreements all but inevitable in many public administration jobs. A strong education in dealing with HR issues is a must for future public administrators.

Communication – Coordination is in many ways the name of the game in public administration. Whether it’s keeping the community up-to-date on the latest roadwork projects or putting together traffic control, permits, funding, and contracts for the same projects, your capabilities as a public administrator will revolve around clear and open communications. Learning the art of rhetoric and techniques of business and persuasive writing as liberal studies majors do will serve you well.

Budgeting/Financial management – A head for numbers is important in a world where budget allocations can determine both the scope and depth of what you will accomplish. Public administration budgeting is complex largely because of the human element—political considerations and public opinion can overrule any kind of rational argument. So having a keen understanding of not just accounting principles, but also human psychology and motivations is important.

Data analysis – Technology is changing public administration in big ways. Big data offers unprecedented information about the daily lives of the citizens you will be responsible for. Understanding how to gather and interpret that data is becoming a bigger part of the role of public administrators. As with their other training, understanding human nature is one of the keys to gaining real insights. And again, the analytical skills you find in a liberal studies degree is a big benefit in blending science and psychology in this field.

But even entry level public administration jobs differ from ordinary business in some important ways. Public administrators need additional training in areas like:

Law – Unlike most administrative jobs, public administration jobs are often defined by laws and regulations. Your role and authorities as a public servant are codified. Moreover, in today’s very litigious society, it’s almost a certainty that something you do as a public administrator will someday end up in court. So a strong knowledge of the law and legal processes is a must for public administrators.

Public policy – Public administrators may or may not help set public policy, but everything they do will be because of that policy. From deciding how police deal with routine traffic stops to determining zoning laws, public policy is what sets new government projects in motion. You’ll need an understanding of the policy process to help advise politicians and to understand their considerations when you get your marching orders.

The kind of broad, interdisciplinary knowledge required of public administrators is a good match for the traditional liberal arts style of education. A liberal arts background already includes many of the subjects listed above. And the flexibility that is the hallmark of liberal studies at every level allows you to customize your curriculum so you can beef up on legal analysis, the history of public policy development, or the rhetorical arts of public speechwriting.

Taking Your Public Administration Job to the Next Level: How to Become a State Representative

Many public administrators are perfectly happy working out of the limelight and reporting to elected officials who may change from election to election. But others have a different kind of leadership and service itch to scratch. You might decide you want to become one of those elected officials yourself.

There are many elected public officials but one of the paths to elected office that maximizes your level of engagement with public works but remains accessible without millions of dollars and enormous media exposure is that of the state representative.

State legislatures deal with every aspect of state law and policy. For many people, it’s the decisions made here that will have the biggest effects on their lives. From transportation funding to legalizing marijuana, administrative decisions made by the state legislature shapes opportunities and obligations enjoyed by Joe Sixpack.

Getting elected is a whole different process than getting hired into a public administration job opening, though. You have to develop skills in:

Unsurprisingly, those are all areas where a general background in arts and sciences is particularly helpful. Representatives don’t have the luxury of being specialists. They have to handle any issue that comes up in public service, at any time. So a well-rounded course of critical thinking and general knowledge, like you get with a liberal arts degree with a concentration in political science, is exactly the right education to have.

Applying For and Getting Hired Into Public Administration Jobs

One thing about government jobs is that you will never get away from is a wealth of paperwork associated with just about everything you do.

Estimates in 2017 by the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs found that every American spends an average of around 35 hours each year filling out government forms.

So don’t be surprised when this starts with the application process to become a public administrator.

Fortunately, for most agencies in this day and age, all of the form filing happens electronically. Every jurisdiction handles this process differently and often with a unique and incompatible online system. Federal jobs, fortunately, are funneled for the most part through the usajobs.gov website. Even that requires a ten-step process, each step of which may have additional sub-steps and extra requirements depending on the job and the agency.

  1. Create a separate account with a different government website entirely
  2. Come back to USAJOBS and create a profile there
  3. Search for jobs on the website based on keyword or location
  4. Review job announcements
  5. Prepare your application (itself a six-step process with five additional sub-steps, including filling out a resume, uploading supporting package, and filling out identifying personal information)
  6. Submit your application to one or more agencies with posted jobs
  7. Await agency review of your application
  8. Schedule an in-person, online, or panel interview depending on the agency interview process
  9. Be selected by the hiring agency
  10. Receive the tentative job offer

Not every public administration job will require all those hoops—some of them will take even more! But you can think of this detailed, interminable process as kind of a road test for exactly the sort of important, intricate work you will be expected to perform on the job.

Woman in office given lie detector testIn some cases, applications for public administration positions are even more complicated. That happens when some aspect of the position deals with sensitive of classified information. Earning a security clearance from the U.S. Government is no cakewalk. At a minimum, it will involve:

  • Filling out an SF-86 questionnaire with details including:
    • Everywhere you have every lived or gone to school
    • Your complete work history
    • Names and addresses of close associates
    • Information about your sexual preference, status, and alcohol and drug use
  • Submit your fingerprints for an FBI background check
  • Go through an interview process

For the most sensitive clearances, your interview will include going on a lie detector to verify your SF-86 answers. Federal agents will track down and interview friends and employers. Your family will have to answer questions. No stone will be left unturned in finding any foreign connections or potential areas for blackmail.

But if you pass, you will get into some of the most interesting and elite public administration jobs available.

Are Masters in Public Administration Jobs More Advanced?

Public administration jobs can be found at almost every level of responsibility in any size government agency. It makes all the sense in the world, then, that individuals who prepare themselves with a master’s degree will end up with more responsibilities, bigger salaries, and the most interesting jobs. That brings you to the Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) degree, unlocking the top jobs in federal, state, and local governance.

At the master’s degree level, studies in public administration go beyond the basics into more advanced matters of management and policy, supporting senior-grade governing decisions.

Most MPA programs go in-depth on the hardest problems public administrators face, including:

And you are also offered a range of policy area concentrations to specialize in, such as:

Ancient Greek statue of Pericles
A liberal arts background offers an in-depth perspective on how modern public administration emerged as an outgrowth of the obligations of democratic institutions to their citizens.

Like master of arts in liberal studies (MALS) degree programs, MPA degrees often offer a lot of flexibility in building your own curriculum. That also means that an MALS program can be structured to give you the same types of subjects as an MPA, but with more interdisciplinary connections and a broader historical emphasis. Studies in public ethics may stretch back into the origins of the field in ancient Greece, for example, and study connections between ancient forms of democracy, the evolution of modern forms of government, and the philosophy of public service.

For Public Administration Jobs, Salary Levels Are Strong

Many people assume that taking a government job is going to mean taking a haircut on salary and earnings potential. It’s true that corresponding private sector positions in some industries might come with a higher paycheck for a person with the right qualifications to nail public administration. But that’s not true at every level or for every position.

Emergency management directors average $76,250 per year in salary, but those working for the federal government blow the roof off at $162,930 per year.

Public administration jobs also come with all the extra benefits that government employees enjoy:

One of the biggest ways that salaries for public administration jobs are sorted is by the level of government where they are offered. State, federal, and local agencies have different budgets, different benefits and pension packages, and different levels of responsibility that can make for very different salary levels for the same job titles. As you will see below, however, it’s not as simple as ranking them by size of government. There are some roles, for example, that are just more important in localities than for states, or for states than the federal government. You’ll have to understand your own area of specialty to decide where the best prospects lie.

Public Administration Salaries By Job Title

There’s no specific job title for public administrator; instead, employees with government and public administration jobs work in all the various kinds of management specialties that you find in the private sector, and often with the same kind of Bureau of Labor Statistics job categorization. Looking at some common public administrator jobs and pulling out the median annual salary by industry offers some idea of what you can make in government and public administration jobs.

Administrative Services and Facilities Manager – Government facilities require maintenance, direction, and organization just as private buildings and installation, which is the role of these public administration managers.

Emergency Management Director – Public safety agencies and planning departments employ emergency managers to develop response plans and provide oversight and direction to police, fire, and other first-responders

Budget Analyst – Budget analysts exist in almost every kind of public services or government organization, responsible for analyzing tax revenues, services income, and fitting it to commitments and expenditures required by law.

Top Executives – Agency heads or managers of large public works or utility departments may fit this job classification.

Social and Community Services Managers – Handling community engagement, estimating needs, and overseeing public services is a common governmental role for public administrators.

Of course, master’s in public administration jobs will tend to deliver even higher salaries and more responsibility in all of these fields.

But compensation for public administration jobs can be measured in more than just financial terms. Public administration is also public service. Although you can expect a solid paycheck and great benefits in government jobs, you also get a kind of satisfaction that comes from supporting your fellow citizens. Public administration jobs are not always sexy, but they do need competent, dedicated people to fill them.

Knowing that you are one of those people, joining a long lineage of public servants stretching back to some of the Greek forefathers of the liberal arts and sciences themselves, is a sort of job satisfaction you just don’t get in the private sector. And with a liberal arts education, you have the kind of perspective and scope on history and public service to appreciate it all the more.

2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for Administrative Services and Facilities Managers, Emergency Management Directors, Budget Analysts, Top Executives, and Social and Community Service Managers reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2022.