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This is an abridged and edited version of ASPA President Erik Bergrud’s remarks at the May 25, 2011 Greater Kansas City Chapter’s annual awards banquet.
I attended my niece’s high school graduation earlier this month, and I heard yet another speaker explain the meaning of the word “commencement,” noting that, instead of representing an end, graduation celebrates a beginning, a beginning of a new phase of life. In the spirit of the commencement season, I selected “Take the Next Step” as the title of my address.
Although it is oh-so tempting, I will not offer you a refrain of President Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you” quote this evening. Instead, I want to focus on Greater Kansas City and our collective responsibility for its future success. Whether you are receiving an award tonight or a previous award recipient or simply here to recognize some outstanding public servants, each of you has an opportunity to take a significant next step–to make a meaningful difference in your community.
Many of us were acclimated into public administration by thinking about our roles and responsibilities being summarized neatly via Luther Gulick’s famous POSDCORB acronym. We plan, organize, staff, direct, coordinate, report and budget. Some of us, at least those of us who were wide-eyed students in Park University’s introductory MPA course, were even instructed “to think, not feel.”
And yet, how can we not feel for 54,000 area school children living in poverty? How can we not feel for the unemployed and underemployed, who comprise a significant share of the 23% of Kansas City area adults who started college but never finished?
We don’t typically associate public administration with love and compassion. You’ve probably heard of “faceless bureaucrats,” administrators who personify a POSDCORB mind-set. Have you ever heard the terms “loving bureaucrat” or “compassionate bureaucrat?”
All of us present this evening love Kansas City. So how are we prepared to translate that love into action and action into results? Perhaps we can all benefit by personifying a principle which appears on the ASPA website:
“We believe that by embracing new ideas–addressing key public service issues–and promoting change at both the local and international levels, we can enhance the quality of lives worldwide.”
No matter whether we are professionals, elected officials, scholars, researchers or students, we are all public servants at heart. As servant-leaders, we retain an implicit responsibility to ensure that our communities remain healthy and vibrant.
I’d like to close with a story which began the last time I spoke to this chapter. On January 23, 2008, the chapter hosted one of its monthly luncheons at Kansas City’s venerable Hereford House restaurant, and I was asked to speak about mentoring and its impact on my career. Without giving him any hints, I offered to give my mentor a ride to the luncheon, during which I was able to tell attendees and him how much he meant to me and my professional development. Six days later, Dr. Jerzy Hauptmann, the beloved founder of our chapter, passed away.
Those of you who were fortunate to know Jerzy might recall that he was meticulously organized. He even left strict instructions as to how his funeral service should be conducted. I was honored to be asked by Jerzy’s daughter to serve as a pallbearer at the funeral. She didn’t have much choice in the matter–my name appeared on her long “to do” list.
If you’ve ever served as a pallbearer, you understand how sobering an experience it can be. On the drive back to the Park University campus after the service, I began to ask myself “What’s next?” Jerzy taught my classmates and me that there is more to life than simply serving ourselves. He believed in the notion of service to humanity as a calling and encouraged each of his students to accept a moral obligation to make a difference in their neighborhood, in their city or in a larger context.??Later that month, I knew that I had to take my next step, to dare to accomplish something that both honored Jerzy’s legacy and reflected our shared belief in the value and nobility of public service. I declared my candidacy for ASPA vice president and here I am, three years later, standing in front of you as president of the 8,500 member American Society for Public Administration.
Just over two months ago, I accepted the oath of office at the conclusion of the 2011 ASPA Annual Conference in Baltimore. As I am occasionally prone to do, I offered only brief remarks, relying instead on some carefully selected PowerPoint slides to reinforce my message.
The final slide featured a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and ten simple words – “The time is always right to do what is right.”
What is your next step? How will you exceed the expectations you have set for yourself or that others have set for you? What can you do this week, this month or this year to be, in Gandhi’s words, the change you want to see in the world? How will you be the change that Kansas City needs?
I congratulate each of tonight’s honorees for their past accomplishments and challenge them not to rest on their laurels. If each of us present tonight were to wake up tomorrow with a firm commitment to take the next step, imagine what we could accomplish in our neighborhoods, in our city and beyond.
ASPA member Erik Bergrud is the Society’s president. Email: [email protected]