Speaking of Public Service
Bob and Janet Denhardt
In our last column, we talked about the soul of public administration. Let's make the issue a little more personal. What brought
you to the public service? What gives your work meaning? And how can all of us, as public servants, talk about public service in a way that celebrates
the "soul" and meaning of the new public service?
We are often struck by how our students react to classroom discussions about the value and meaning of the public service. Their attention is captured;
they listen more carefully to each other and the conversation is more charged with emotion. Reticent students become engaged and involved. Many seem
excited and almost grateful to have the chance to talk about what public service means to them. Some confess that they had never thought about the larger
meaning and societal value of their work. Perhaps most telling is the frequency of such comments as, "I wish my supervisor/employees felt this way
(and talked this way) about the public service."
Ironically, most of us probably do value the significance, the meaning, the "soul" of public service. We just don't talk about it very much. In our
efforts to improve productivity and efficiency, we seem to have lost track of how we speak to each other about what we do? Our speech has instead become
overrun with words like efficiency, deadlines, productivity, measures, objectives, analysis, performance, alignment, structure, customers, and procedures.
It's not that these words and the values they invoke are unimportant. Far from it. But, if we fail to talk as well about the public service in a way that
reflects its inherent value and societal meaning, we contribute to the loss of the soul of the field-a loss that robs us of our own excitement and satisfaction
and robs citizens of our caring and commitment. If we fail to infuse our teaching, our supervision and leadership, and our everyday conversations with words
and phrases like public service, citizenship, public interest, meaning, values, ethics, community, democracy, to name just a few, we miss opportunities to
enhance and advance the heart of public service.
Research tells us that public service motives are quite real, both in terms of understanding why people choose public service jobs and in understanding how
public servants can be successful and motivated in work situations often characterized by a lack of resources, problems that are both complex and intractable,
and to the need to serve a public that often resents and criticizes them. How else can we explain the dedication and commitment of the people, who work to make
the world safer and cleaner, improve our health, teach our children, and unravel the host of societal maladies that confront us? What else can keep the police
officers, the social workers, the city managers, the planners and analysts, the inspectors and the clerks, the receptionists and the supervisors doing the "right"
thing and serving their country and their communities with energy, resolve and, yes, even joy?
We have suggested that at the core, public servants want to do something that matters and has value. If that is true, it is critical that we find a voice that
applauds, recognizes and advances these values. We need to find the words to bring the heart and soul of the public service to life. The next time you talk
to an employee, a student, a colleague or even a friend, ask yourself how your speech reflects the soul of public administration. Think about the specific
words and phrases you use to motivate and inspire. Both as citizens and as public servants we would be well served if each of us consciously, deliberately and
frequently reminded ourselves and others that what we do, what they do, profoundly matters. We urge you to join us in making an effort to talk about the heart
and soul of public service. Think about what brought you to the public service. What gives your work meaning? And what are some of the words and phrases
you can use daily to promote those ideals? And let us know!