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The Reward is Worth the Challenge; Public Service is Valuable for the Provider as Well as the Public

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

By James Bourey
April 29, 2021

There a lot of tough jobs that people in this world do every day. Some are very physically demanding. During summers in high school and early college, I did a lot of construction labor jobs that were a great incentive to stay in school! Spend ten hours in the hot sun with a 90 pound jack hammer or in a ditch shoveling dirt and a classroom looks quite nice. I have run a 3:15 marathon (when I was much younger) and to think that a professional runner has broken two hours for 26.2 miles is unimaginable. Some jobs are emotionally draining and can leave one spent at the end of the day. I can imagine my daughter must have experienced this as a mental health counselor working for the Veterans Administration early in her career. And some jobs can present amazing demands on one’s intelligence. I deviled into higher levels of mathematics enough to understand the great complexities it presents.

As demanding as jobs can be physically, emotionally and mentally, the work of a public administration practitioner can be as challenging as most any work. Fortunately, it can be even more rewarding than it is challenging. The reward comes from making a difference in the community that you serve and seeing those that you guide be successful in the work they do that helps make that difference. The lives of people in a community are better for the work city and county managers do. With May including Public Service Week, this column is focused on not only the value of public service to the community but also the value to those providing the service, particularly public administrators.

Challenges of public administration

Local government management generally does not entail physical work, although some of the 16 hour days I worked in emergency management situations were pretty grueling. However, being a manager is mentally quite demanding and requires a high level of emotional intelligence. A manager must effectively provide leadership for the department directors and staff, make quality recommendations to the council and translate their policy decisions into the delivery of services, as well as be in tune with the communities’ residents and responsive to their needs.

In leading the city or county work force, the manager has the challenging task of getting work done through others. This requires the manager to clearly articulate an action agenda to implement council policies. Effectively hiring, guiding, evaluating and giving feedback to department directors will, in large part, determine the success of the manager. However, the manager also needs to relate to all employees and be tuned in to their needs.

At the same time as devoting time and energy into working with the staff, the manager must work directly with council members as individuals and as a group. While the group makes the decisions and no one council member has any authority as an individual, each individual is critical to the manager’s continued employment. Listening carefully and responding to the desires of individual council members at the same time as taking the directions from the full council is a delicate balancing act for the manager.

While the manager is not selected by the citizens of the community, they are the ultimate clients and all the local government’s actions are done on their behalf. This too requires a balancing act as there are so many different community perspectives and a diverse set of needs. Additionally, while many citizens will express their views, the manager must take into consideration all residents, not just the vocal ones. The manager will most always have access to more information to make decisions than the community’s residents.

Rewards

The ultimate reward for managers is seeing the work of their team improve the quality of life for its residents. This ranges from the essential infrastructure of water, wastewater, storm drainage and transportation to public safety, social services, health and education. Each of these are so vital to a community’s wellbeing. However, there is also a great personal satisfaction and reward of seeing the success of those that they guide. As a manager, it is hard to gauge community appreciation for what you do. However, I can attest that many folks pay a lot closer attention than you realize. After leaving the Greenville, South Carolina City Manager position, I took a private sector job in the city. I was astounded that virtually every day for the first six months after I left the city, someone told me they appreciated what I had done as the city manager. Strangers would stop me on the street to say thanks.  

The motivations can vary for public servants but virtually everyone serves to make a difference and they want to make their city, county, state or country a better place. The lives of people in a community are better for the work city and county managers do. While the work of a manager is certainly challenging, the rewards certainly outweigh those challenges.


Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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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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