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Stand By Me: Commitment, Duty and the Work of Public Servants

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

By Lisa Saye
June 11, 2018

The Heart of the Matter

Part of the Prince Harry/Meghan Markle wedding song playlist included the 1961 Ben E. King classic, Stand By Me. Interesting choice by the now Duchess of Sussex. Not only is the song a generational anthem of loyalty, it also happens to be the simplest request a friend or loved-one can make of another friend or loved one. While that particular song may spell out an exact request, what regularly goes unnoticed or unaware are the differently-worded and silent requests for support people so often make of others. As it happens, public servants are fluent in translating the nods, the shrugs, the sighs, the eye-rolls and the silence that often stands in for the words, stand by me. But, no matter how sincere or how committed, we don’t always get everything right nor do we do everything effectively. We’re sometimes scolded for our wastefulness when we’re not budget-minded and sometimes we fail.

I think the word, bystander, could use a reinterpretation and a hyphen. Public servants are indeed by-standers in the sense that they stand by as well as stand with the people they serve. Don’t believe me? Say aloud the words “public service” and I will bet you conjure up an image of a citizen and of a public servant standing to his or her right or left. You may even recognize yourself in one or in the other role. But, there is more in that image then a public servant and a citizen. There is a backstory that is unique to each image and each circumstance. In 1776, Adam Smith, in his book, The Wealth of Nations, remarked that the circumstances which place one man above another man stem from either birth or fortune. Public servants know this and they make a daily trek across the threshold of office and keyboard in an effort to make more equal those circumstances. Public servants are advocates, representatives and pillars of strength and clarity for those in need.

Of course, there are countless examples of notable individuals who also happen to be public servants and public administrators whose service and whose words highlight the heart of the matter. On January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama presented Vice-President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vice-President Biden, citing a Talmudic saying as part of his remarks, stated that what comes from the heart has to first enter the heart. That phrase is appropriately profound as it relates to government work because public servants are the heart of government. They are the by-standers who get things done in a way that they stay done. They bring their hearts to the kind of selfless service that insists its legions are opened for change and desperate to leave a meaningful legacy. Legacies are not accidental and neither are they coincidental. Legacies represent the enduring product of a particular era.

Index Legislation: A Generational Activity

In the U.S., public administration’s go-to index legislation is the 1883 Pendleton Act that created the Merit System. The Act codified duty and operational processes at a time when the nation needed both. While the U.S. Constitution describes the parameters of the co-equal branches of government, the Pendleton Act and subsequent legislation outlines staff roles and responsibilities in the public sector.

Whether by accident or design, public administration legislation has fared better when implemented by what Abraham Lincoln called in his first Inaugural address, the better angels of our nature. The same sincere heart we bring to the arena of public service is the same one that we must allow our better natures to direct. By accomplishing this, it is ok and even quite proper that designing new and improved index legislation be an activity for public servants in every generation.

While it is understandable that at times we will fail, there is never a time when we should disappoint. Our citizens should know we care and they should be able to see the depth of our commitment to improving their lives. Our legislation is key to demonstrating our resolve, not to mention how it also serves as the visible evidence of our dedication to the public. But, even more important are our actions. We don’t have time to sleepwalk through the most important parts of our vocation. We don’t have time to avoid communication and interaction with the public while hoping that they and their problems will go away. And, we don’t have time to pick and choose what we will care about or what we will help to change. Our time is better spent with our citizens at street-level, eye-to-eye and shoulder to shoulder doing what we have been called to do.

Group photo shown is the property of Lisa Saye taken at the Ministry of Civil Service, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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 University and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached at [email protected]

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