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Why This Work and Why Now? Choosing a Career in the Public Sector

By Laree Kiely

Ted Gaebler retired this year from a 10-year position as city manager of Rancho Cordova in California. Many readers here will recognize that name. A few may not. He hasn’t been as much in the public spotlight lately because he has been busy doing the work of a public servant and hasn’t had as much time to write.

You might ask why I bring him up in this month’s column, especially since it’s about going into public work rather than retiring from it. And as much as I respect and revere Ted, I do not write to honor him here so much as to examine him. Here’s why. After teaching leadership for over 30 years, I have come to believe that reading the many books that claim to “teach” leadership (often written by people who have never lead anyone) is far less instructional than reading biographies and learning about people who have been in real leadership positions.

gaeblerTed is a smart, innovative and out-of-the-box example of the types of people we need going into this field today. From his practitioner experience, he wrote some incredible and seminal books on “reinventing” government–not from theory but by real example. I believe his 1992 book, Reinventing Government, still stands as the best-selling book about government ever published. His ideas came from his, as well as others, real world experience and a kind of wisdom, often contrarian, that is all his own. Unless you intend to study public administration for the purpose of being a faculty member at a university, you will be a practitioner. His books have influenced thousands. But this column is not about his books. It is about Ted.

Why would a man with this kind of wisdom end up in public service? Because he wanted to make a difference. Because he saw a need (that government needed bright people who can navigate it and improve it) and matched his skills and passion to trying to meet that need. Working in the public sector did not make him independently wealthy. With his great mind, he could easily have stayed in the private sector and become a gazillionaire. The public sector is messy, complicated and unpredictable and doesn’t pay all that well by comparison to other fields.

How about you?  The time for people who want to make a difference is right now. Boomers are moving on thus opening up positions that have been stagnant or stuck for a while. Keep in mind, this isn’t so that you can just walk in and pick up where others left off. It means coming in with fresh new perspectives, entrepreneurial and innovative minds. We’re in the middle of chaos and the best time to make a difference is in the middle of chaos. It’s time to reinvent the public sector. In his book Positive Outcomes:  Raising the Bar on Government Reinvention, Gaebler stated, “We cannot predict where you will go as government leaders/future leaders, in your quest to provide efficient and effective public service to your customers. But you are the stewards of innovation and change.”

This means one reason NOT to go into the public sector is because it’s all you know. This work in the coming years isn’t going to be for the weak of heart and it’s not going to be predictable. These careers will not be more stable or less risky. Those days are over. Every position in every sector is unstable and risky these days.

Notice I am using the word “career” here not “job.” Woody Allen once said 80 percent of success is just showing up. No longer true. Henry Ford once said, “I don’t need you to bring your minds to work, just your hands and feet.” Please, on behalf of all citizens, leave your hands and feet at home if you must, work virtually if you can, but please send your minds to work. We need thinkers now more than ever.

Make sure it’s what you REALLY want to do. Go out and get a lot of exposure to possibilities so you can make an informed choice. Then realize that if you do this work, like Ted, it has to be something you really believe in. You won’t become independently wealthy. You probably won’t be famous. So what are the rewards? There is enormous need and enormous challenge and variety right now. You don’t get to wield power but you can have tremendous influence. We are only on this planet for a short time. What impact, no matter how small, do you want to have for having been here?

So keep this in mind as you make your career moves. We spend most of our waking hours at work (sometimes even dragging it into our sleep and dreams). What kind of work do you want to do? Martha Graham helps us think this through by saying, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

If you think your energy and expression might be to serve the public, Gaebler says “…there are at least three obligations in service delivery by public organizations:

  1. To the citizens as community attending the public’s interest.
  2. To the citizens as customers delivering public services to deserving citizens.
  3. To the citizens as owners safekeeping the common wealth.

These three views need to be appropriately served and observed if a democratic republic is to thrive. The nature of the relationship is built on principles established by the Constitution, which recognized the need for flexibility as America grew and developed.”

If any of this information resonates with you, by all means pursue a career in the public sector. If not, there are many other types of jobs out there. This one demands heart and soul.

Maybe Ted will write another book during this new chapter in his life. We hope so. In a 2010 interview in Western City Gaebler was asked, “If you rewrote your book today, is there anything else that you would focus on or include?” He said, “I am very positive about government. Where can we get the energy source to inspire people to devote themselves to making our governments better? That is the book I would write, something that would act as an incendiary agent to catalyze government change for the good.”

Ted Gaebler retired this year from his city manager’s job. We are sure, however, that he did not retire from public service. He can’t. Being a public servant isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. If you want to know why to go into public work, don’t study the academic models or the career postings to see what’s out there. Study people like Ted, and if you can find the same passion he has then follow his lead. He’s the real deal.


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., is president of the Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years.  In addition to leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in leadership and organizational impact. Please send your comments and questions to us 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.

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