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Meaning First: Government Service at a Crossroads

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

By Alex Pattakos
November 5, 2018

I have long argued that there is a “crisis of meaning” in government, one that poses significant implications for engagement and resilience, well-being and health, and performance and innovation. As background, I have had many opportunities to address this meaning crisis over the years: as chair of an ASPA action team to promote the concept of public service in the face of declining membership in the association; as one of the initial faculty evaluators participating in what was originally called the “Innovations in State and Local Government Awards” program (now the Innovations in American Government Awards program) at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where I recall many times being in the position of having to defend the program’s integrity and objectives against the demeaning argument that “innovation in government is an oxymoron;” and as director of a graduate program in public administration where I faced the formidable challenge of not only recruiting the best and brightest students, but also convincing graduates to enter and/or remain in government service in the face of overwhelming private sector competition for talent.

To be sure, it is not easy being a public servant, including a public administrator, in the postmodern era, a time when the meaning of public service, especially in America, is grounded in the idea of the free market. The attractiveness of seeking a job in the public sector—let alone a career path—waxes and wanes. While the situation today may not be entirely new compared to previous periods in history, its implications, especially in terms of what it portends for the future, are far-reaching and profound. Indeed, the capacity of any society to guard the public’s interest and manage the public’s business stands at risk if it doesn’t do an effective job of addressing the issues confronting government service at all levels and in all categories of employment — elected, appointed and civil service.

Against this backdrop, great leaders understand the human side of work and, importantly, why meaning must be the foundation for the enterprise. As Donald Berwick, M.D., a health care improvement expert and former administrator in charge of the Medicare and Medicaid programs in the USA so wisely observed, “The leader who thinks that it is enough to create report cards and contingent rewards misses the biggest and hardest opportunity of leadership itself—to help people discover and celebrate the meaning in their work… We know that the magic is in the meaning.” Employees, in other words, need leaders who lead with and to meaning, especially through stressful periods of change and turmoil.

In his book, The Pursuit of Significance, former ASPA national president Robert Denhardt suggested that questions dealing with the human quest for meaning, “must necessarily receive their first expression in public organizations.” It was this kind of questions and my own personal search for meaning that led me to explore the depths of existential philosophy and psychology, as well as focus on the intrinsic motivations of human beings in everyday life and work. And it was this quest that brought me together with the world-renowned psychiatrist, philosopher and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, who personally urged me to write my international bestselling book on the search for meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.

I first introduced the work of Dr. Frankl as it applies to government in a 2004 article, “The Search for Meaning in Government Service,” published in the Public Administration Review (Volume 64, Number 1, January/February). Besides underscoring the need to recognize that working in government is a noble calling, the article explored the various sources of meaning espoused by Frankl and illustrated with my personal interviews how employees at all levels of government were able to find meaning in their work even under the most trying and challenging circumstances.

Reflecting upon both the perceptions of and demands upon government service today, I believe that most readers would agree that such trying and challenging circumstances still exist even though my PAR article was published some fifteen years ago. If anything, these circumstances have been exacerbated by what appears to be a blurring of the politics-administration dichotomy, unconvincing proposals for civil service reform, confusing and conflicting public policies, and a lack of trust and confidence in political leadership, among other pressing concerns. If there ever was a time to make sense and find meaning in government at all levels and across all functions, this is it!

Hence, it is now time to rediscover the soul of government by focusing upon the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings — the search for meaning. By putting meaning first, government service will be able to regain its proper standing as a noble calling regardless of job description. It will be able to recruit, retain and retire individuals with an authentic public service ethic who can, as ambassadors of public integrity, help counter the “it’s close enough for government work” mentality. Notably, it will be able to increase the citizenry’s trust and confidence in public institutions. By putting meaning first, the role of public administration as an art, science and craft of transformational leadership will be enhanced along the lines espoused so eloquently by Dr. Berwick. And, importantly, the return on investment from this paradigm shift will include higher levels of employee/citizen engagement, healthier government workplaces, increases in individual and organizational performance, advances in public sector innovation, and most of all, ease the crisis of meaning.


Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of a think tank, the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. His passions include advancing meaning in government service and the “human side of innovation.” Most recently, he was awarded the title of Honorary Professor by the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis in Moscow, Russia, for his work advancing Viktor Frankl’s wisdom as it applies to work, the workplace, and organizations in business and government. He may be contacted 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.

One Response to Meaning First: Government Service at a Crossroads

  1. Darrell Moore Reply

    November 6, 2018 at 8:55 am

    This article rings oh so true, particularly when it comes to law enforcement and first responders(fire protection, emergency services). I don’t think it would bode well with the public if these services were entirely privatized. To me, there would be a paradigm shift in the way these entities would function, particularly if they’re not under the operating guide of “protect and serve”. Some things should just remain a public service and therefore, excellence in public service should always be the goal.

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