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Changing the Conversation About Public Service: Ask Me Why I Care

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Mary Hamilton

Are you as tired as I am of the government bashing that has become the norm in ‘polite’ circles in the United States over the past several decades? Are you sick of hearing people in public service denigrated and treated as leeches on society? Do you long for a time when citizens smile and thank the Department of Motor Vehicle employee who just handed them their new driver’s license? When you see someone approach a person in military uniform and thank them for their service, do you wish that would happen to everyone in public service?

You’ve probably guessed that my answer to all of those questions is YES!!  So here’s what two colleagues and I are doing to try to change the national knee-jerk negative reactions to government and public service. We want to enlist your help in this crusade.

The Public Service Stories Project aka Ask Me Why I Care

whyicareWith the support of the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Public Affairs and Community Service (thank you, Dean John Bartle!), my two colleagues–Rita Paskowitz, professional storyteller and Valerie Lefler, MPA and technology whiz–and I are collecting video public service stories. Now if StoryCorps immediately comes to mind, we are honored. They do a wonderful job and we talked to them about collaboration, but they collect only audio stories and we decided video was a better medium for our purposes.

In addition to collecting stories, Rita and I are doing public service stories workshops at conferences, meetings and wherever we are invited. We did one at the ASPA annual conference last year and this year. We’re doing another at the Midwest Public Affairs Conference the end of March. In these workshops, we do our best to make the case that people in public service have a responsibility to tell their stories at every opportunity. How else will citizens learn about what we do? Who else is going to tell them? We teach you HOW to tell your story and/or how to help your students tell their stories. We want people in public service to be ready to answer that age-old question “What do you do?” with a story about how you make a positive difference and why you CARE about making that difference!

Why are we combatting government bashing by enlisting stories? Because we believe that sharing the stories of committed, invisible people in public service is a compelling way to get the attention of citizens and nudge them to rethink their negative reactions to government. It’s even possible that one or more of these stories could make a citizen change her/his mind about the quality and value of public service work. Through such stories, citizens may have to come to terms with the fact that people in public service chose their careers because they care. They may begin to understand that most people in public service see their mission as “helping one another make the passage from birth to death and making it as rich and as meaningful as it can be” (from an interview with Mary Ellen Guy, past president of ASPA)!




How are we collecting these stories?

  • Onsite videos: Valerie collected 16 video stories at the ASPA annual conference in mid-March.
  • Via Skype.
  • ASPA Chapters: Thanks to Paul Danczyk and Richard Winter of the Sacramento Chapter for collecting the video stories of the Chapter’s seven 2013 awardees. We’d love to have similar videos from many other chapters!
  • Students in MPA programs: Thanks to Rex Facer, and his MPA students at Brigham Young University, for two videos of wonderful public servants. Think about assigning a video interview to your PA students!
  • Other public administration organizations: Many thanks to the National Academy of Public Administration and the Texas City Management Association for providing us with video stories they collected.

Because we need good audio and video quality to catch the attention of people who would otherwise ignore anything related to government, we greatly prefer stories that are captured in person or via Skype (if the interviewee has a cable connection to the Internet).

Whose stories do we want?  We are interested in the invisible people in public service. The ones, in the abstract, who are the butts of the bad jokes about government incompetence, neglect, etc. We want to honor them by asking them to tell their stories and we want to involve them in changing the conversation by telling their stories at every opportunity. We prefer their stories to those of the military, police and fire because the latter tend to be much more visible and less likely to be denigrated.

What will we do with the stories we collect? We plan to make them available to public administration programs and faculty for use in their classrooms. We will post them on YouTube with lures to people looking for career opportunities. We will also make them available to the media, e.g., we have a human-interest reporter from the Omaha World-Herald who is interested in doing an article on the project when we are ready.

What can I do to help?

  • If you are or were a practitioner, make yourself available to tell your story via Skype or in person at a future PA conference. Watch our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Ask.Me.Why.I.Care​ for announcements about when we will be at a conference near you!
  • Recommend someone whose story is compelling.
  • Attend one of our public service stories workshops and learn how to tell your own story and/or how to help your students tell theirs.
  • Tell everyone you know about this project!
  • Give us leads to media outlets.
  • Tell your story at every opportunity—to the person sitting next to you on the plane, at a cocktail party, while killing time waiting for your bus/train.
  • Anything else you can think of to get the message and stories out!!

I love this quote from John Kirlin:

Public Service is

“A central part of the grandest of human endeavors,  

shaping a better future for ourselves and those yet unborn”

If we believe this is our mission, we need to be telling people! Join us and together we can change the national dialogue in the United States to one of admiration and respect for public service and one that sees public service once again as a noble profession.


Author: Mary R. Hamilton, senior executive in residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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