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Eyes of the World

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
March 2, 2018

Speaking about public service, British author Iain Pears wrote, “Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless.” Potential always exists to cause harm, to make good, or to do nothing. This manifests in many arenas.

An inherent assumption comes that public sector work is public service.  Such roles include being a Veterans Affairs physician, high school teacher, park ranger, urban planner, sanitation worker, firefighter, legislative assistant, subway conductor, policy analyst, police officer and military enlistee, to recite a few.

Photo credit: Firefighters Helping Firefighters

Public service can happen in the private sector, too. Just the other day, I met a contractor working in Connecticut to build a solar power farm.

Introducing himself to my group by buying us all a round of drinks as a gesture of “southern hospitality,” he seemed to believe firmly in the big picture impact of his work. He was looking down the road.

Although North Carolina is the place called home, he spends most of his traveling around from the project to project, for weeks or even months at a time.

Comparing this ever-shifting flux to the lifestyle of those on military deployments, he recalled working in every state at some point or another. Something struck me.

He saw this work as a public service, giving back to the world by offering an eye for the future. He saw renewable energy as a more sustainable answer to future utility needs, urging that today’s generations must fix an eye upon tomorrow.

By helping to construct the engine for that, he saw this as giving back. How fascinating to hear this private company employee, speaking about public service! More important than having a job is what you do with it.

Public service is more than being a public sector worker. Public service is a state of mind, a belief in something greater. Not every public sector worker has that vision, and that man beautifully framed how some private sector employees do.

Former congressman Dan Glickman recently lamented, “Some young Americans are turning away from service out of a belief that government work doesn’t always make a difference in people’s lives.  They are wrong about that…”

Certainly, there are other ways to have an impact. You can volunteer in a food pantry or participate in a Big Brother Big Sisters of America program. You may donate clothes to the Salvation Army or give blood to the American Red Cross.

Photo Credit: Touchstone Climbing, Inc.

You could even participate in the local Parent-Teacher Association, helping to raise money so that those kids in the music department can get to New York City.

These deeds are all forms of public service. Imagine what it’s like where you’ll do that every day. Some squander it, blind to the potency of their role. In the public sector, you’re government’s ambassador, that human face which the public sees.

That’s why, if something goes wrong, you’re sued in your “official capacity.”  It’s the government – not you – which is on the hook for paying any damages awarded after a finding of legal responsibility.  That’s what happens when things go wrong.

Choosing to do nothing often equates to doing wrong in the moral sense even if not in the legal one. There are always questions about one’s duty and whether that duty was breached, or if inaction falls below the standard of care. If someone is drowning in the sea and a lifeguard stands on the shore, who bears the blame?

It works the same way when things go right. Your actions reflect on the whole department, agency and government system. If someone encounters an overly aggressive police officer, they may subsequently view all police as a threat.

A teacher gives too much homework which is too hard and doesn’t reply to emails. Some parents conclude our education system is broken and teachers just don’t care.

A legislature doesn’t pass the new budget before a fiscal year ends, so some may conclude that politicians are corrupt and inept. This pattern goes on and on.

American General Dwight Eisenhower reminded troops before Normandy’s D-Day campaign, “The eyes of the world are upon you.” With the advent and invasion of social media into our own lives, those eyes are wider than ever before. As Agatha Christie observed, “It takes so little to undermine public confidence in a man.”

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

To embody that public service spirit, people must possess integrity. Merriam-Webster defines “integrity” as “the quality or state of being undivided; complete.”  Another version requires “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.”  That means “not being subject to decay or dissolution.

Being corrupt is to “rot, spoil,” as with fruit far past its prime or long forgotten lunchmeat in the back of a refrigerator. It’s also “to degrade with unsound principles or moral values.”Associated words include disintegration, ruin and tainted.  Integrity means to be together, and corruption is coming apart.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A little integrity is better than any career.”


Author: Reared in rural Connecticut, Jason Bowns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, majoring in Classical Civilization and Hellenic Studies while minoring in Politics and Social Studies Education. He earned his Master of Public Administration degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, honing essential skills to detect organizational fraud, waste, and abuse. He’s reachable 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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