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Public Service: The Watermark of Democracy

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

By Lisa Saye
August 15, 2022

@Coming Winter, Coming Spring. Photo and Title by Lisa Saye.

Democracy is a book you cannot burn. It is a unique identifier with observable consequences. Its chapters are always in revision, but its core characteristics are always the same. If democracy is freedom and equal representation from door to door then public service is its watermark. In everyday reality, democracy has always seemed farther than we think and closer than we remember.

In a July 29, 2021 article entitled “The Blossoms of Democracy: Educating and Transforming Public Service” I noted how a vase of flowers resembles a specific interpretation of beauty. When we are captured within thoughts of cynicism and hopelessness, the beauty of public service seems elusive and ridiculous and interpretations of that beauty are lost. It is during these times that our citizens remind us that damaged vases can still be useful. And when we recognize this, we more easily find the problems that need to be solved.

Public Service is not asset management. Public Service is the tallest tree in the forest. It is not a bargain, but rather it is a duty arising from a grounded moral center. Like democracy, public service has survived the various bubbles, crises and other disasters over centuries of its use. In fact, rapid and effective public service is what the citizenry expects when any of these events occur. This, system-of-care, includes service delivery in the form of program implementation and program evaluation with compassion as the through line.

When publishing her 12 Principles of Management in 1955, Catheryn Seckler Hudson rejected viewing the principles as law and instead insisted they be seen as working hypotheses. In this light, it is extremely necessary that public administrators operate devoid of ulterior motives. Personal directives turn compassion into chaos and when chaos is the order of the day, the scenery never changes. Now is not the time for mass panic where push factors wedge a divide between what’s wrong and what we need to do to address and resolve it. Now is the time for context.

In real democracies, increase is shared. For the individual, those increases may include an increase in education, an increase in access or an increase in the pursuit of happiness. Without a regular administration of justice from stable and well-meaning governments, citizen pursuits will not increase and deficiencies will grow between freedom and accountability. 

Alas, we have emerged (rather roughly) from more than two years of social distancing, isolation and pandemic. A truly weak democracy would have folded over and been erased within weeks of a national shutdown, not to mention how quickly it would have become a memory during a global stoppage. Yet we are here today debating the higher costs of gas, food, housing and energy. Public Service cannot reverse the current ails of society, but through appropriate policies and programs, we should be able to improve the dissemination of public goods and help restore some appreciable level of normalcy.

Historically, public service has become the arrow in the history of the human institution. Through it, democracies have been able to design sophisticated systems of planning, budgeting, program implementation and program and policy regulation. If democracy is no longer the structure of governance then the public’s work becomes difficult or it does not get done at all. Public Service exists as a continuous reform proposal from the perspective of the value content inherent in the notion of equal representation.

Democracy remains society’s fiercest witness of stable governance regardless of how much it is battered or ignored. Democracy has never been a major feature in a halcyon era of make-believe. Rather, it is a critical faculty of administration and expectation with broad vertical integration. One cannot understand democracy without understanding public service. Public service has many authors.

As Fall approaches, we brace ourselves for the coming winter to follow. The seasons are still somewhat predictable, but their characteristics have become progressively less so. How democracy will look after November is up to us. Our paths, mine and yours, are locked in the direction of history where social, economic and political progress is still possible. To be certain, we will face another winter, then another and then another, but we will be ok. And in our triumphant Spring, we will find that trust and freedom are still the most important elements of our inevitable destiny.

The copyrighted ‘@Coming Winter, Coming Spring’ image was taken by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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