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Public Service – Vocation, Not Vacation

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

By Lisa Saye
August 25, 2017


Public Administration has long wrestled with prevailing images of its public servants as lazy, uncaring, disinterested or corrupt. Articles, books, case studies, blogs, tweets and cave carvings all tell the story of the public servant who seems disconnected from the public he or she serves. Fair or not, public servants have collectively shouldered the blame for long lines at tax revenue offices, sticky seats at the DMV and fresh potholes on Main Street. It is little wonder they seem a little distant, cautiously hesitant, when they approach the public. I think that it’s when they’re cautiously hesitant that they’re often misunderstood. We mistake a lack of energy, slow effort and a sluggishness we can’t identify as negligence. Over the years, we’ve come to refer to this behavior as being on vacation. I don’t know why we call it that. It really doesn’t make sense. The characteristics we give to the vacationing public servant do not call to mind what one does on vacation. Vacations are usually enjoyable and one can argue the public servants they’ve witnessed in the halls of government do not appear to be enjoying themselves.

I, for one, am tired of the comical descriptions the public conjures up of the public employee. We’re not locked into the negative imaging we’ve been assigned. We can do something about it. Now, I know what you’re saying. We have tried to do something about it. Like a pot of stew, we’ve stirred in passion for the job, motivation exercises, job redesign, telecommuting, jean days and Windbreaker Wednesdays—all in an attempt to remove the lines of sour discomfort from the faces of public employees. Other strategies, like the performance service motivation measure, or PSM, have been implemented in numerous countries and within numerous cultures as a means of connecting the public servant to his or her public. When PSM has been combined with other incentives, researchers have recorded notable successes in countries including Spain, Italy, the U.S., Germany and Japan. Well, I’m happy to hear that. However, I still notice that the clerk at my local public utility office barely turns her head to look at me when I swipe my debit card. But, I don’t blame her. I’m a dinosaur. Who still goes inside the building to make a payment when e-services have become the norm?

We Need A Hero


Admit it. You knew this section was going to be included.

Ever notice how when a job has been ascribed some level of heroism the image of the people doing it improves? Me, too. Public administration is not beyond borrowing from other disciplines or from other people to get to their own heroic conclusions. Dorman B. Eaton borrowed from the remnants of the British Civil Service reform system when he penned the Pendleton Act in 1883, creating the U.S. Merit System. And world governments appropriated characteristics of Max Weber’s ideal bureaucracy when designing their governance infrastructures. Public Administration can design its own hero and we won’t have to look too far to do it.

Weber gives us the model of our hero in his lecture “Politics as a Vocation.” In it, he explicitly says that the ideal bureaucracy needs a “hero with passion and a sense of proportion.” Weber’s not alone in this regard. Albert Bandura believed that if we began with service-oriented leaders then service-oriented subordinates would follow and said so in his 1986 book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. A year earlier, in Public Administration Review, George Frederickson and David Hart urged public servants to “genuinely care for their fellow citizens” so much so that the public would know that “they are loved.”

There are many times public employees display heroism — often with no camera phone around to record them. Like the time a Public Manager was told to cut 35 percent of his personnel, but telecommuted four positions instead. Or the time a Sanitation Driver collected meat and fresh vegetables for a person on his route that had fallen ill. This is proof public servants are not on vacation and further proof that many already possess the emotional and spiritual capacity it takes to work with the public. They are complex people, as most of us are, but often they’re just tired. They know that their job is a vocation while fully understanding that they are part of an unspoken mission of service.

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber encouraged public servants to “cultivate brotherliness between one human being and another.” He designed the characteristics of the ideal bureaucracy to help the public employee meet the challenges he was certain they would encounter. In a less than perfect world, Weber suggested a more than perfect response that public servants should embody when they meet the public. The person, he insists, who’s met with difficult tasks, must be able to say nevertheless and still perform his or her duties. I’ve met public servants who do that each and every day. So have you. And those kinds of people are always heroes.

Author: Lisa Saye is Executive Director of The Policy Analysis Institute. She 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 State and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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