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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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