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Values Observed in a Year of Public Service

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

By Thomas Barth
January 13, 2023

As a professor of public administration in phased retirement at my university, I had the good fortune to only work half-time for the past year. One of my goals was to use this new discretionary time to engage in public service through a variety of volunteer activities. This experience has reminded me of the importance of the volunteer sector and the lessons for those who study and practice public administration. Indeed, it has reinforced that the world built and supported by the public, private and nonprofit sectors cannot function nearly as well without volunteer public servants. But perhaps most importantly, this experience has allowed me to witness a number of public service values exhibited by public and nonprofit staff worth reflecting upon for the new year.

Commitment and passion: While volunteering as an assistant coach with a local public high school football team, I marveled at the tireless work of the coaches who typically are full-time teachers who take on the coaching for a very modest stipend. They don’t just coach; they drive the team buses, do the laundry, film the games and line the fields, all to provide a memorable opportunity for the young student-athletes to form as a team and learn invaluable life lessons about work ethic, striving together towards a goal, overcoming adversity and performing under pressure.

Perseverance and resilience: As a board member for a nonprofit with the mission of providing housing and fostering self-sufficiency for homeless families, many of whom are victims of domestic violence, the staff work with individuals who are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles around employment, finances, stability and lack of support systems many of us take for granted. Despite all the difficulties and setbacks that occur on the road to independence, the staff never waver and not only provide assistance, but counsel the families to build necessary life skills. They practice the philosophy of a hand up, not just a hand out.

Hope and courage: As a member of a lay advisory board for a catholic missionary order, it is truly inspiring to work with men and women who have dedicated their entire lives to helping poor people in places where no one else will go, such as Haiti where basic law and order and essential infrastructure for daily living is absent. They realize that without them, people will have no shelter from the storm. When our board questions the practicality of setting up missions in certain areas like Haiti, the response is that they are being called to serve where the need is greatest, period. This is their mission despite the cost and inherent danger which make others shy away. As one missionary states, “we are dealers in hope.”

Compassion and reliability: Delivering senior meals through the county senior center is a terrific example of the government and volunteers working together to provide sustenance to one of society’s most vulnerable populations. Orchestrating the delivery of meals five days a week across the entire county without fail enables the elderly—who mostly living alone with a variety of health and mobility challenges—to eat well and maintain their ability to live independently while being secure in knowing that someone out there cares.

Dedication and selflessness: Serving on the founding board of the Virtual Museum of Public Service under the leadership of Marc Holzer of Suffolk University shows the need to celebrate and stress the importance of public servants’ historical and current contributions—both the everyday accomplishments of public servants and the heroes who are exemplary role models. Examples are the “barefoot mailmen” in Florida in the latter half of the 19th century; Vivian Gordon Marsh, the nation’s first black librarian; Marina Silva, a pathbreaking environmental activist in Brazil; Jeannette Rankin, a social worker and activist who was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and the scores of public servants who are killed or injured in the line of duty every year. This museum is under construction and the goal is to foster support among the general citizenry and inspire our youth to consider promising and fulfilling careers in the government and nonprofit sectors.

Upon reflection, my experience over this past year has served two purposes: it is a reminder of the broad sphere of what Charles Goodsell calls “publicness” of which volunteers play a fundamental role, but also ennobles each volunteer who witnesses the values exhibited by the public servants in the government and nonprofit sectors they support.

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics. [email protected]

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