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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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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.

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

  1. Rukaya Mohammed Reply

    June 22, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Dr. Saye, very interesting article. I like the creativity in linking “Stand By Me” to the entire public service work. i was hooked from the beginning to the end.

    Keep up the good work!
    Rukaya

  2. Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

    June 19, 2018 at 11:49 am

    Thanks, Dr. Robinson and thanks for your public service to those in need.

  3. Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

    June 19, 2018 at 11:48 am

    Thanks, Mike. Your comments inspire everyone who reads them.

  4. Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

    June 19, 2018 at 11:47 am

    Thanks, Dyanne. You have strength beyond anything you can imagine. Your words prove it.

  5. Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

    June 19, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Thanks, Kelvin. Always inspirational to read your comments. Notable also is the work you do!

  6. Kelvin George Reply

    June 16, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Dr. Saye,
    As Dyanne stated, the article is inspirational. It is a motivational master piece. It should be incorporated within every public service department and undergirded in their operation policies. On another note, the public needs to be educated on the importance of the public service, and their unwavering commitment. They do make our lives different and assist us continuously even if we do not notice their efforts. Maybe the world must make bold efforts to recognize public servants excellence. Dr. Saye, Thank you. Kelvin

  7. Kelvin George Reply

    June 16, 2018 at 8:03 am

    Dr. Saye,
    As the Dyanne stated, the article is inspirational. It is a motivational master piece. It should be incorporated within every public service department and undergirded in their operation all policies. On another note, the public needs to be educated on the importance of the public service, and their unwavering commitment. They do make our lives different and assist us continuously even if we do not notice their efforts. Maybe the world must make bold efforts to recognize public servants excellence. Dr. Saye, Thank you. Kelvin

  8. Dyanne Mitchell-Williams Reply

    June 12, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    Dr. Saye,

    Your article inspires us to be motivated and visibly active public servants. Whether we have others to stand by us, or we move alone when serving the public with our better nature (as you so eloquently quoted) it has to be heart-felt. You have inspired me to go forth to work and make the changes that need to be made for the equality of all citizens. This I pray is the strength within me. Thank you for your writing – greatness!

  9. Mike Nwosu Reply

    June 12, 2018 at 7:02 am

    Hi Prof

    The piece is simple,suave and spectacular.
    It is exciting, intellectual, and authentic.
    It came with the usual Dr Lisa’s imprimatur:
    simplicity, and on point.

    Congratulations my mentor

    Mike Nwosu.

  10. Marquice Robinson Reply

    June 11, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    Dr. Saye you did it again with another interesting, informative, intelligent, and motivating article. I consider myself a public servant so I completely understand your message. Great job!

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