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Public Servants—Thank You For Delivering Civilization

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

By Patrick S. Malone
December 7, 2019

As the director of an Executive MPA and a public service leadership development program, I am often blessed with the joy of interviewing public service professionals who want to continue to grow on their leadership journey. It’s the coolest job on the planet.

A few years ago, I met a young man from a small town in West Virginia. He was an assistant city manager at the time and interested in joining our program. We sat over breakfast at a local diner and one of the things he said to me has stuck with me for going on 5 years now. As we talked about our mutual love for public service and people who had mentored us over the years, he told me a story about a woman who worked for the state that once said to him that she had the best job anyone could have. When he asked her why, she replied, “Because, I get to deliver civilization every day.” Deliver civilization. Every day.

Scholar and author Robert Durant noted in his book Why Public Service Matters, that the core values that citizens expect from public servants—efficiency, effectiveness, representativeness, responsiveness, accountability, equity, constitutional rights and due process—have not changed over time. Indeed, the expectations are high. Yet the actual work that our public service does is so often unrecognized by the very citizens that it serves.

Research by Johns Hopkins University made note of the fact that very few citizens know much about what their state government actually does, despite the fact that we pay over a trillion dollars annually in state taxes. Just under half of the respondents were unaware of where their tax dollars go. Most could not identify critical state issues under debate, and one-third couldn’t even name their governor. However, citizens still want all levels of government there during emergencies (but lower taxes), shorter lines at the DMV (but lower taxes) and less taxes (did I mention lower taxes?).

One of my dearest relatives cannot distinguish the difference between his own City Parks and Recreation Department and the US Environmental Protection Agency. In a blissful yet entertaining soliloquy he once shared with me how angry he was that the, “Doggone EPA,” had made a decision regarding a boat ramp near a local lake. Uh, sorry man, that wouldn’t be the EPA. Oh well, as my grandmother used to say, “Bless his heart!”

Even the oft-repeated phrase, “Good enough for government work” is commonly misinterpreted. This reproachful expression insinuates that a government work ethic is minimal, and just enough to get by. However, the original meaning of this phrase from World War II revealed an assurance of the highest standards of services and products.

The individuals who make up our public service work in an environment that is often unappreciated and in the worst case disliked. The robotic Washington bureaucrat, the callous local caseworker and the rude park ranger are all easy targets for a frustrated and ignorant public. And this doesn’t get easier in election years, when politicians bash, “Bloated,” government with little appreciation of the fact that it is the very men and women of the public service who will be poised to deliver the newly elected official’s campaign promises after the voting is over.

Yet our public servants toil away.

The amazing people that do the work of democracy are not cogs in a bureaucratic machine. They are not faceless, heartless pieces of the administrative (or dark) state. They are our neighbors, our friends, our family. We see them at the grocery store, we celebrate with them, and sometimes we cry with them. They are the people maintaining our roads, protecting our food, commerce, environment and pharmaceuticals, and they keep us safe at night. They ensure the delivery of Social Security checks every month all year long and sustain a watchful eye on the implementation of domestic and foreign policies. They are committed to the delivery of civilization no matter what political wind happens to be blowing at the time. And they’re wicked smart.

Harvard teacher Dan Fenn once asked, “How did the American people ever get the idea that figuring out how many blue chips to put into laundry powder so it could be called, “NEW Swish,” and increasing point-of-sale purchases is more important than keeping the nation and our homes safe, and mapping the oceans, and managing the infrastructure of a free society, and providing food and housing and caring for the most vulnerable among us—all the tasks to which public servants devote their minds and hearts?”

So…..

Public servant, wherever you are, whatever you do, thank you. For civilization.


Author: 
Patrick S. Malone
Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs
American University
[email protected]u

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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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