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Why I Do What I Do – And Will Keep Doing It as Long as I Can

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

By Bob Lavgina
November 13, 2023

At an event where I recently spoke, an attendee asked me why I do what I do. The question wasn’t just about my job as Senior Fellow—Public Sector for UKG, where I promote public service, public servants and effective HR practices. The questioner was really asking why I have spent 50 years working in and with government (mostly in).

The short answer is that I believe in government, and the ability—the power—of the public sector to help the people government serves live meaningful lives.

At the broadest level, government positively affects almost every aspect of our lives. Twenty million public servants work hard every day to protect our nation and our communities; provide emergency and disaster relief; ensure that where we live and what we eat and drink are safe; fight poverty and homelessness; maintain our parks and recreation facilities; protect us as consumers; safeguard the environment; educate our children; and play a leadership role in creating an equitable, inclusive and diverse society.

And much more. Government is often called on to do the toughest jobs that no other sector can do.

This commitment stands in stark contrast to the often heated budget battles and rhetoric about the size, function, scope and effectiveness of government. Too often, this generates harsh and unjustified criticism of public servants, whose contributions are taken for granted and even denigrated. 

But if you’re reading this, you probably already appreciate the contributions of government—and especially the contributions of the dedicated people who deliver government services.

But for me, the impact of government is personal and goes beyond these contributions. Government has helped me become the person I am, and enabled me to achieve wha I have managed to accomplish.

How so?

I reflect all the way back to when I was 12 years old, and our family moved into public housing. Not only was our new apartment safe and affordable, but it also gave me the opportunity to meet and engage with people from different backgrounds whom I otherwise would never have met. This life-changing experience taught me an important lesson—what matters is not how people look; it’s how they act.

Also, while I was in school, our hometown of Yonkers, New York hired my mother into a civil service job. There weren’t too many opportunities in the 1960s for a 40-something woman who had never worked outside our home and hadn’t graduated from high school—she had dropped out to help support her family during the Great Depression. Our city took a chance on my mother, ignoring her nonexistent paper qualifications and instead recognizing her potential. And my mother, who was a true force of nature, excelled as a proud civil servant.

For me, my first real job was as a clerk in the U.S. Postal Service. When I was a senior in high school, I worked five evenings each week from 6-10 PM. While not a great schedule for a high school senior, I saved enough money to help me pay for college, which our family couldn’t afford otherwise.

I then received a federal loan to supplement my college scholarship. As a result, I am the first person in our family to graduate from college.

After college, my first job was with the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), where I served for 17 years. GAO also enabled me to obtain my master’s degree in human resources. Whatever I have been able to accomplish in my government career l trace directly back to my GAO experience and training.

And it’s not just me and my mother who worked in government—I am proud to say I’m from a family of public servants. My brother was a police officer. My wife, also the first person in her family to graduate from college, worked for more than 30 years in community hospitals as a respiratory therapist. As I have often told her, she probably did more to help people in a day than I did in a year.

Both of our daughters graduated from public universities. Our eldest daughter is a special education teacher in a public elementary school and our youngest daughter taught in a public school in the poorest section of Washington, DC.

My brother-in-law was an officer in the Wisconsin State Patrol who served on the governor’s executive protection unit where he helped protect two governors and their families. My sister-in-law, a career civil servant, is an executive in the Wisconsin state agency that protects children and families.

My nephew is a retired Deputy U.S. Marshal who served two tours in Iraq as the leader of a Special Operations Group that protected Iraqi judges. Our son-in-law has served four tours in the Middle East as a member of the Wisconsin National Guard. One of our nieces is a Postal Inspector and another nephew taught in a public school in inner-city Chicago.

So public service runs deep in my life and our family—and that is why my commitment to government is personal. I truly believe what I and our family have been able to achieve could only happen in America—and government has had a lot to do with that.

That’s why I have devoted 50 years to working in the public sector. And that’s why I do what I do—and will keep doing it as long as I can.

That’s also why I continue to be committed to helping government attract, develop, engage and retain the talent the public sector must have to continue to deliver, day in and day out, for the American public.

Author: Bob Lavigna is Senior Fellow – Public Sector for UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group), where he advocates for, promotes and advises on effective HR practices for government. He previously was Director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Human Resources for the University of Wisconsin, Vice President – Research for the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Director of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. Bob began his career with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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