The Nobility of Public Service

January 18, 2021


A time-honored tradition of representative democracy is tolerance of dissent.  As such each of us has a right to express our viewpoints, opinions, and ideas as to what is inefficient, wasteful, and dysfunctional.


One of my neighbors was a highly intelligent and well read follower of government decision making and actions at local, state, and federal levels.  Sharp and articulate both verbally and in writing our dialogue sometimes meandered into his most recent ramblings about street and infrastructure disrepair, wasteful spending, and compromises of integrity.   Resolution of the state of affairs often concluded in a stalemate over a couple of beers and a gradual digression into conversation about sports.


On more than an occasion or two as he was conducting his discourse, holding me in rapt attention, I would interrupt with, “That really is a good idea.  What a pity you’re not holding a public office.”  Admittedly part genuine and part patronizing on my behalf.  At that point he would demur, citing work and family obligations, disinterest in political involvement, and nod to a green, yet overgrown lawn.


A fundamental concept of government is to provide public services that are otherwise unattainable for most of us, especially in urban and developed settings.  As an example, take the dwellings we reside in.  Local government provides us with clean water, sanitary sewer, thoroughfares, fire and police protection, and a host of other services.  The provision of each of them is made available through the economies of scale we share with our neighbors.  For most of us, were we to contract any of these services on our own it would not only be inefficient, but cost prohibitive as well.


The January 6 attack on our federal government was shameful.  Further, as a former 31 year employee at the local government level any assault on our regulatory and legislative systems strikes a nerve.  Unfortunately it is not a new development.  It has now been 34 years since the Edmond, OK Post Office shooting.  The massacre at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in that same state came just nine years afterwards.  The Columbine High School incident in Colorado is now 22 years ago.   It would be inaccurate were I not to admit that there were times I felt threatened or unsafe.  Lucky was I that matters never escalated beyond that.


Aside from physical concerns, far more common are the criticisms. For one, since government service is funded by the tax paying public almost everything about the organization and its operations is an open record for residents:  decision making, budgets, regulations, employee salaries. The difficult conversations I recall were often at public places such as the soccer fields or the super market:


“How come the building department denied my permit?”

“When is the highway division going to repair my street?”

“I see that you got a pay raise!” or “I can’t believe that’s what they’re paying you!”


In spite of the perils and frustrations in my own career, and even considering the most recent events, I reflect back on time in public service with pride and gratitude.  Regardless of the political leanings or faith beliefs of my colleagues we all sought to live up to the mission of our organization to provide a service to the best of our respective capacities.  What were to high points?


  • For one, it was interesting work.  There was always a sense of knowing the “pulse” of the community, what was going on, and who the main players were, be they heroes or villains.
  • The fine men and women in protective service environments, such as Fire and Police, demonstrated high levels of professionalism and bravery, integrity, and the ability bring order to situations previously comprised of chaos and confusion.
  • There were opportunities to build foundations to spur community investment, foster economic development, or serve those who were in great need.
  • Each day, there was a genuine opportunity to make a difference in the life of someone else.
  • For the most part, co-workers shared the same passion for seeking service above self.
  • Finally, it was a noble career choice.  As in a variety of other service environments, what can be of any greater good than having an opportunity to help others?


In consult to Career Development clients, it is enlightening that very few entertain thought of pursuing public sector work, at least initially.  Perhaps it is partly some of the previously shared concerns, notions about compensation levels below market, or even lack of awareness.  Simultaneously more and more job seekers, I find, express a drive to identify employment where they not only achieve a sense of fulfillment, but have a chance to serve and find altruistic benefit, too. 


Public service not only provides that opportunity, but in addition needs loyal and dedicated employees more than ever as well.


The Seed Sower