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Putting the “Service” Back into Public Service

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

By Dannie Kyle
December 23, 2022

It’s widely accepted that public administrators answer to the citizenry that we serve. From state or local officials to federal politicians, and within nonprofit organizations, themes of accountability and transparency tend to repeat themselves. This is especially the case in times of crisis, like a looming recession, war times or health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dee Dee Raap at the Central Service—National Service Training Conference, an event designed to train leaders who are part of America’s Service Commissions. Raap’s session was a presentation of the ideas of her book, “Leading to Inspire Great Service.”

Why talk about service with public administrators? I think that Raap put it best in her introduction, “Service at this level is your employee engagement tool, your most affordable marketing strategy and your best medicine for sleeping well at night.”

For administrators, providing great service must go beyond showing up to work every day; they must remember the impact their work has on the people that they serve. A June 2022 Pew Research Center feature, “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022,” found that trust remains low—only 22 percent of Americans believe the federal government will make the right decision “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Raap’s work recognizes the limitation of resources leaders have; in terms of time, money and people power, but emphasizes that inspiring people and remaining authentic goes a long way in creating great customer experiences. How can we apply these ideas in public administration?

As Raap says, “Want greener grass? Water it!”

In an era of low governmental trust, improved customer service—which extends past user-friendly websites, forms and offices and into positive interpersonal interactions—is the “water” our parched public so badly needs.

This sentiment is echoed by Sha Hwang and Annelies Goger in a January 12, 2022 Brookings article aptly titled “Want to restore trust in government? Start with customer experience.” Hwang and Goger explain that Americans experience frustration in basic governmental interactions, like filing their taxes or renewing a driver’s license. This compiles into additional stressors that impact “a small-town mayor managing COVID-19 relief funds to a small business owner confused by a government loan application,” and reiterates the dreaded bureaucracy that our citizens hate so much.

Raap’s “Leading to Inspire Great Service” captures ideas of service that can be applied to those who work with America’s Service Commissions, or to other areas of the public sector. The idea that leaders have to model great customer service through professionalism (which is redefined based on individual environments), finding passion, purpose and building perspective can make it so public servants are indeed serving those that they work with.

The next time you have a great experience as a customer, think about what you may be able to learn about how you treat those you interact with as an administrator. How can you better communicate policies and procedures, make a form more accessible or otherwise build trust with the public that you serve?

The more we “water” the public trust, the more we can learn to improve for a healthier, greener bureaucracy.

Learn more about Dee Dee Raap and her work on her website.

Author: Dannie Kyle is a recent MPA graduate of the University of Illinois at Springfield. She currently works as a Development Manager at Chicago House, a nonprofit which provides services to those impacted by HIV. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, singing, and caring for her two pigeons.

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