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Whither the Heart and Soul of Public Service?

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

By Mary Hamilton

hamilton juneA new book by Richard Box, Public Service Values, reminds us that the founders of our nation and later the founders of our discipline placed strong emphasis on ‘regime values.’ For them, these values were the heart and soul of the discipline and professions we now call public affairs. They almost certainly would be disappointed to learn that these ‘regime values’ are frequently conspicuous by their absence in public affairs courses and scholarship. (Full disclosure, I wrote the Foreword for the book.)

What are Public Service Values?

Box’s book, due out in October, meticulously describes what we mean by public service values and shows their usefulness for the daily work of public professionals. He posits five primary concepts or themes to organize his description, and develops each theme by showing how they include many associated values.

The themes are neutrality, efficiency, accountability, public service and public interest. As a public professional, I found these five themes to be quite relevant to my experience and the parsing of each to be edifying and thought provoking. I wish I’d had this book in my library when I was working in government.

What do public service values mean for practice?

A major strength of this book is its relentless focus on the individual public professional-on how s/he can use values as effective tools in their daily work. The author reinforces this focus throughout the book–most notably at the end of his five theme chapters—with case examples and a final section on applying the value theme to professional life. The case examples stimulate reflection about what values are in play and challenge public professionals to be very deliberate when deciding what trade-offs to make. The sections on applying values to professional life summarize the chapter’s message about what each specific value cluster means for the public professional—how it fits in the current context, what values conflict and what values might take precedence.

Another major contribution of this book is the last chapter. In that chapter, the author provides an approach to holding ourselves accountable as public service professionals. He poses seven questions about public service values that, if used routinely, would contribute to “a more conscious and reflective public practice” and enrich the professional lives of public professionals. The questions are:

  1. Whom do I serve and for what purposes?
  2. What is my personal relation to what I know?
  3. What public service values are emphasized in the particular decision, event, policy or practice that I am thinking about today?
  4. What values are slighted or minimized in a particular situation that might be important to the people involved, to outcomes and to future conditions?
  5. Can I improve on my understanding of the circumstances surrounding a particular situation by using imagination and empathy?
  6. Given what I know about public service values, are there policies, practices, or programs that might be changed in ways that better serve the values I think are important?
  7. Am I acting in ways that will serve the public interest in the long term, for example improving quality of life, social equity, and the condition of the natural environment?

These are questions every aspiring public service professional should be taught to use and current public service professionals should be strongly encouraged to make a habit of employing routinely.

How can this book help us in our classes?

The author says the book is designed “as a supplemental text for undergraduate or graduate courses in public affairs.” I agree but think it has the potential to be useful well beyond such a modest use.

Public Service Values challenges us to include explicitly public service values in our public affairs curricula, especially at the graduate level. We give lip service to these values as we guide students through their programs, but we do little to help them understand what those values are. We also do little to help students determine for themselves which of the values they personally find most compelling, and how to apply public service values in professional settings.

Why should we care about invoking public service values in our classes?

This neglect of explicit use of public service values across our curricula has significant costs. We may lose students who come to us passionate about public service or we may quash the passion they bring to the program. We also miss the opportunity to prepare students much more completely for professional public service roles. If we don’t stress public service values in their formal education, how will they know to invoke them in their professional roles?

Two stories support the above contentions: Years ago I met a newly minted MPA and asked him about his experience in the program he’d just completed. His response, “I enrolled because I had a passion for public service and couldn’t wait to get the skills and get out there and make a difference. I got no reinforcement of my passion during my program. In fact, I heard a lot of government bashing, even from some of my professors. It was more than disappointing.”

More recently, I had a dual degree student (social work/MPA) in my intro class tell me public administration “has no soul.” He was quite angry at the time and said he was going to drop the MPA part of his degree and pursue only the social work masters, because he felt there was a lot of ‘soul’ in social work.

These stories stayed with me because I felt we in public affairs education failed these students and probably many others who didn’t speak up. Moreover, they stayed with me because I believe there is plenty of ‘soul’ in public service, but we’ve hidden it in a desperate attempt to be accepted in an instrumental world.

Are we out of balance in our public affairs curricula?

I think we need a balance in our curricula. Of course, we need to make sure our students acquire the skills they need to deal with the details of public organizations. But we need to ensure they understand and have struggled with the ‘soul’ of public affairs and public service. The latter is much more difficult than the former. We aren’t doing our jobs as educators if we aren’t preparing them for the messy, conflict-full environments they will work in. We also aren’t doing our jobs if we don’t reinforce and/or stimulate their passion for public service.

Public Service Values gives us an opportunity to meet these needs by returning to our roots. If we are serious about weaving public service values through our entire curriculum and making them once again the heart and soul of public affairs, this book can help us do that.

Let’s use this book to explicitly discuss public service values in all core MPA courses and thereby give voice to the soul of our profession and discipline. By so doing we can revive our own passion for public service and reinforce the passion many of our students bring to their studies. Then we can reinforce John Kirlin’s view of public service as “. . . a central part of the grandest of human endeavors–shaping a better future for ourselves and those yet unborn.”


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


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