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Government by the Good

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

By Lisa Saye
April 19, 2019

 Mounted Police, Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Photo by Lisa Saye.

While in orbit, shuttle astronauts witness 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours. While this is indeed a profound statement, it is not the most profound one that I have heard lately. About a week ago, my mother remarked that she was surprised to have witnessed the world as it is today. She was not impressed. Rather, she was saddened. It is not important or necessary to dredge up every lament she shared. What is important and necessary to say is that most of her disappointment centered on what she called the accepted deficiencies in the human character.

I know what she means, as I am sure that anyone reading this article may also know what she means. We have phones that can start automobiles while simultaneously sending links for surveys, evaluations and chorus notes. We have smart homes, smart walls and even smarter refrigerators. Technology has made possible things we once only reserved for science fiction novels and movies. At the same time, technology has exposed the limitations of nearly every past possibility and shattered even more past truths. And yet, we are failing in our service to one another and this time technology cannot be blamed for our indifference.

At the time of this writing, Notre Dame is on fire. The world waits as Paris sifts through ash and history for word on the condition of one of society’s most famous churches. No one living today is as old as Notre Dame. There are buildings that are older, but no person can claim to have stood as long and as strong through time as she has. Sentiments and prayers are innumerable when one grieves for a symbol that has occupied a space in the imagination and in the reality of so many. Perhaps the same could be shared when we notice how often we fail to hold in awe the humanity of the people we serve.

I recall from one of my Public Administration courses a phrase that described the type of government in the United States at some particular time. One phrase that stood out was Government by the Good. Beginning with the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the United States Merit System, Government by the Good enjoyed a virtual existence of twenty-three years and ended in 1906.  Of course, government has been shaped, expanded, tested and revised by good men and women since 1906. The years 1883 to 1906 serve as a benchmark highlighting the founding legislation of public service and were never meant to imply an end of goodness.

If we do not have legislation, history or course content directing us to stop caring for one another, why then can examples of indifference be conjured up at will? Reverence is free and so are we. We are not bound by the blindness of the past. We are not held to the same intolerable standards of ignorance and neglect that kept us from embracing, rather than destroying, other cultures. If our indifference rips apart our structures of government, who will mourn for us when government is gone?

Still Good

People look for fulfillment in the oddest of places. Some sky-dive in groups. Others free-climb mountain peaks and others teach. Fulfilment is often personal, private, motivating and measureable. Public service offers individuals the opportunity to find fulfilment in a career of serving others.

Each era of government highlights the sacrifices and rewards that come with serving the public. I think that we are still good at what we do and I would like to abandon the usual list of theorists and scientists and instead mention a few people and instances that have inspired me. One such is a young man who works two jobs as a janitor for the City of Chicago and who staggers his work schedule in order to lay out the medicine for his ailing father who is too weak to open the medicine bottle. This young man does not miss a day of work. This young man is good. Another such person is a young mother who lights up when she talks about her future as a social worker. She goes to school, supports her friends and family and graciously provides meaningful experiences of growth and development for her young son. This young lady is good.

I can produce dozens of equally exceptional examples—all showing the humanity of the people who live out their lives in the service of others. Good did not end in 1906 and it will not end anytime soon. As public servants, we are still good at what we do, and because of that, indifference cannot and should not reside anywhere near us. We get better at meeting life’s challenges when we get better at helping others. And being better is always the goal when one is good.

The Images were taken by Lisa Saye in Chicago, Illinois.

Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Statistics for Public Service and Research Methods for The School of Public Service at DePaul University. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected].

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