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Purpose and Direction

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
May 27, 2021

The 2020 Public Service Week was a grim time. The country was shut down during a pandemic that our political leadership was denying and not managing. Two weeks later George Floyd was murdered, and months of civil unrest followed. The country was conducting a presidential election with campaigns that highlighted the starkly different perspectives of the two major political parties. Citizens eventually voted in massive numbers, often standing in long lines in the middle of the pandemic. Many other voters mailed in their ballots because of the pandemic and wondered if the ballots would be delivered in time because the postmaster general had reduced overtime and removed sorting equipment, causing delayed mail. Both the increased vote and the heavy mail-in vote resulted in a delay in the announcement of the winner of the election. The outgoing president refused to accept his loss and filed over 60 lawsuits while encouraging his supporters to overturn the results of the election through various means. Supporters of the losing candidate stormed the United States Capitol to derail the verification of the electoral college vote, resulting in loss of life and damage to the Capitol building. In this bleak context, it is important to recognize some of the public servants who provided remarkable service to the country during a very turbulent time. Below are just a few of those stories.

The first group of public servants who have had a challenging year are public health staff. Public health officials have worked hard in the last year to use the best scientific data to keep citizens safe from the COVID-19 virus. At the same time, these workers have suffered all sorts of abuse (e.g., protests at their homes, vandalism and death threats against them and their families) merely for performing their duties. Lawsuits against public health orders have abounded. Elected judges and state legislatures have overturned state public health restrictions. Governors have overridden local public health orders. Unprecedented numbers of public health officials have been fired or have resigned. In this environment, public health staff have worked tirelessly this past year to help us maintain our health and they deserve recognition.

The second group of public servants that had a challenging year were census workers. Census taking can be challenging in good times. Normal problems include privacy concerns, complex living arrangements such as children of separated parents, homelessness, hard-to-reach populations and difficulties related to the specific area such as gated communities and unsafe zones. However, in the year of the pandemic the problems multiplied. Census takers faced unprecedented obstacles such as fear of talking to strangers, distrust of government, a shortened schedule, administrative complications and concerns about the quality of their protective equipment. Masks made it more difficult for census takers to connect with suspicious citizens. Plans were frequently changed because of the pandemic, such as administrative initiatives and court decisions. Finally, the Census Bureau had to deliver the decennial data during a turbulent transfer of power. Despite the challenges, both personal and organizational, the census workers delivered a timely and successful census. This effort warrants commending the census takers for their extraordinary service.

The third and fourth groups that had an unexpected challenge this year were the Capitol Police and the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. These brave law enforcement officers defended the Capitol and those in it from attack by Americans who brought various weapons (e.g., pepper spray, pyrotechnic devices, smoke bombs, knives, firearms, metal pipes, baseball bats) to their effort. During the attack, more than 140 law enforcement officers were injured and five people died. There were many police public servants who were heroes that day. The most visible was Eugene Goodman, who taunted the mob and led it away from the Senate chambers. However, all of those who defended the Capitol on January 6, 2021 deserve recognition.

The last public service group that should be recognized this year is the George Floyd jury. While jury members are not typically thought of as public servants, jury participants perform an important public service and this jury panel faced significant obstacles. For example, their jury service began with completion of a 16-page questionnaire. Both the judge and the attorneys probed them, looking for evidence of bias. The jurors had to sift through three weeks of complicated and conflicting testimony. The most serious concern about this jury was their physical safety. As a result, the judge withheld the names of the jurors, indicating that he would release their names only when he thought the jurors would be safe. These temporary public servants merit recognition for service in a very challenging situation.

John F. Kennedy said,“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” The purpose and direction of the above individuals was to provide quality public service no matter what the challenge. The above public servants did that with courage. The 2021 observance of Public Service Week should celebrate them along with the many other courageous public servants who provided service during this pandemic year.


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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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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