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Public Service – Music To Our Ears

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

By Lisa Saye
February 12, 2018


A United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Meeting, New York, NY, Photo by Lisa Saye


Do You Hear What I Hear?

Public Administration is the music of government. It is bureaucracy’s harmony and its regulations are its lyrical promises. Our formal meetings are stage rehearsals for our performances that must hit all the right notes with the public and touch the souls of all we serve. Just as any good orchestra is seasoned with instruments, the halls of government should be filled with public servants who strive for greatness in their chosen capacities.

I once wrote that public service is a vocation. I still believe it is, but I’d like to add a little more to that statement. Public service is the ultimate mandate built on a contract of trust and goodwill. We cannot come to public service with the attitude that we are only responsible for churning out our little slice of geography. For one thing, public administration is not a factory. It is a canvas, a pathway, a collaboration — a garden of talent, implementation and service. Therefore, public servants should constantly embrace the loftiness of these notions and work toward making them a reality.

For decades, scholars calling our attention to the needed fixes in government have become a regular part of the conversation about efficiency. Robert K. Merton, in his 1957 book, Social Theory and Social Structure, wrote that for government to be successful, it must “attain a high degree of reliability.” That degree of reliability is not elusive, but it does become harder and more difficult to deliver as interactions with citizens become more infrequent.

No song, no tune and no instrument becomes a masterpiece without a distinct interpretation that moves the listener. Philosopher David Hume challenged readers of his 1748 book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, to discover defects in the common philosophy of the times and work to correct them. As public administrators, we find those defects by listening to both the words and the music guiding today’s orchestra of public service and by providing a reinterpretation that gives greater meaning to every segment of the population.

Thomas S. Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, stated “earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and their own cannons of solution.” There are still examples of this practice going on today. A few years ago, I had the pleasure to observe an ongoing discussion in a park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Books, articles and snippets of statistics and pie charts were produced as evidence to support specific positions. At times the discussion was political, other times it was social and a few times it was emotional. But, overall it was organic, factual and awe-inspiring.

Public Administration is a discipline founded on interpreting laws. Every public servant is an instrument that produces a particular rendition of government. What makes the public servant a unique instrument of bureaucracy is the degree to which they correctly interpret the needs of the public. While education is an essential instrument used by public servants, it must be both academic and practical.

Occupy Atlanta, Park Encampment On a Rainy Saturday, Photo by Lisa Saye


Every Segment

….dare to make a contribution that is meaningful to every segment…

                                                -Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, 1972 Presidential Campaign Speech

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American Congresswoman in the U.S. In 1972, she became the first major party African American candidate to run for the presidency. Congresswoman Chisholm’s words are beautiful reminders that as public servants our work must be meaningful to every segment. We know what she means by meaningful. We know what she means by every segment. We’ve been governing for centuries and in some places, even longer, so we know what doesn’t work. We have to be courageous. We have to be daring in our journey to provide a deserving public the best public service that we have within us to deliver. And deliver, we must.

As we continue to strive toward accomplishing the notions of an ideal bureaucracy that Weber left for us to ponder, we should work hard to leave no segment underserved and no area of our population should feel ignored or let down. Movements that call on governments to govern better, to listen to its citizens and to meet basic needs should not be increasing as they are currently. Our programs, our planning and even our staffing must inspire our citizenry to help us as we help them.

I know we can make a lasting contribution, that counts and do so where it counts. The public relies on us and we rely on ourselves to make a spiritual difference in the lives of the people we help to change each day. When we reach out to every citizen, in every segment, on our quest to serve every need, public service becomes stirring, subtle and elegant… like Jon Batiste on piano.

Images: All images were taken by Lisa Saye at the UN in New York, NY and in Atlanta, Georgia.

Author: Lisa Saye 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 from Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached 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.

20 Responses to Public Service – Music To Our Ears

  1. Rukaya Mohammed Reply

    March 1, 2018 at 6:09 am

    Great job Dr. Saye! The article is more informative and has given me deeper insight into public service.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      March 3, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      Thanks again, Rukaya!

  2. Patience Ani Reply

    February 25, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    Dr.Saye, I enjoyed reading your article. It gave me insight on public service.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 27, 2018 at 7:07 pm

      Thanks so much, Patience. Public service is something we are always learning how to do better.

  3. Jennifer Ani Reply

    February 25, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    This article helped me understand more about what Public Service is and some of the history behind Public Service.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 27, 2018 at 7:08 pm

      Jennifer, your perspective and sentiments are always welcomed.

  4. Dyanne Mitchell-Williams Reply

    February 18, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Dr. Saye,

    This article is a production and distribution of public service and its bureaucracy. Revealing the vocation of trust and goodwill is exactly why I have worked in state and federal government. Reading your article is very educational, moving and inspiring. I believe this article will impact society and move us to a better government, hearing exactly what you hear. Richly and eloquently submitted.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 18, 2018 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks, Dyanne. Your comments are equal to the harmony with which we find in our work as public servants.

  5. Oluwatoyin Akinkuotu Reply

    February 15, 2018 at 7:54 am

    This masterpiece has clearly established the nexus between Public Administration as a Vocation and the Social Contract Theory propounded by Philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The basis of governance and the Public Service is the welfare of the people. The needs of the citizens who are major parties to the contract, must be the focus of Public Service, at all times. This makes the rhythm of the good music to go on. Bravo, Prof.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 18, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Oluwatoyin. Thanks also for reminding us of the delicate and essential balance between vocation and social contract parameters that we as public administrators work within.

  6. Mike Nwosu Reply

    February 14, 2018 at 11:58 am

    My Prof. You are always on point. The narrative is uncommon. Public service is indeed service to humanity.In Nigeria we describe public service as the examination of the intended and the unintended.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 18, 2018 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks again for your comments, Mike. I really enjoyed the visualization of intended and unintended service.

  7. Kelvin George Reply

    February 13, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Dr. Saye,
    Once again I love this piece. Your artistic description of the public service must be adopted by administrators around the world. It should encourage them to execute their fiduciary responsibility with class and style as an symphony orchestra with everyone contributing a note to make beautiful music. This is truly a motivational illustration.


    Kelvin George

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 13, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks so much, Kelvin. Your comment has prominent aspects of music and demonstrates the melody we (public administrators) make when we work in harmony with the public.

  8. Hassan Elkatawneh Reply

    February 13, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Well done, music is a language of communication, when the performance is beautiful we all enjoy and feel happy, same thing the public service when the performance is as it should or as we like, then they bring happiness to us. Unfortunately, this concept is not adopted by many who are on position of public service, who misuse their authority. They consider that the public service is a source of authority, and sometimes they misuse this power, as we see sometimes the police brutality in dealing with the public. I believe that police in America in particular, is a source of threat and not a source of safety, if they do not kill you, they are most likely to kill your feelings by dealing inferiority with the public, by using offensive words and a hostile voice tone.
    Dr. Saye I believe that the police education centers, all over the state must study your article, which it may make a difference in their performance.
    Thanks for the great article

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 13, 2018 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks, Hassan. Your comment really highlights one of the most essential aspect of public service and that is public service as an aspect of communication. Communication as a dialogue toward understanding and clarity are vital to providing excellent public service.

  9. Marquice Robinson Reply

    February 12, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Dr. Saye, your contributions to the field of Public Administration and Public Policy are very expressive. Your insights and writings paint a picture of encouragement for all to be inspired. Great job once again!

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 13, 2018 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks, Dr. Robinson. Your comments and support are always welcomed!

  10. Linda Kiltz Reply

    February 12, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    Excellent article that is a wonderful reminder of the importance of having a public service ethos.

    • Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

      February 13, 2018 at 9:31 pm

      Thanks, Dr. Kiltz. I could not agree more!

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