Making Government Cool Again

In the final stretch of his campaign, President Obama, speaking at a forum on national service at Columbia University, said he wanted to "make government...
by | September 7, 2009

In the final stretch of his campaign, President Obama, speaking at a forum on national service at Columbia University, said he wanted to "make government cool again."

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) appreciates that sentiment. Obama's words made a lot of us take notice because we've come to expect people, especially politicians, to rail against government.

That wasn't always the case.

Many in my parents' generation went to college on the GI Bill, purchased homes with FHA loans, viewed public service work with respect, and recognized the government's role in lifting a broad swath of society into the middle class.

But by the time I began working as a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania caseworker and then union staffer in the 1970s, an onslaught of anti-government rhetoric was already beginning to erode public confidence in and funding for public services. When I was president of the Pennsylvania Social Services Union, an affiliate of SEIU, I saw Pennsylvania's governor run radio ads against his own state workers to try to push through steep cutbacks in health care and other job-security protections.

In the decades since then, government has been continually scapegoated, ridiculed, and starved of resources, while public services in our country are in crisis.

We are facing massive budget deficits at all levels of government, while states like California are teetering on the brink of a federal bailout.

Collapsing bridges and child welfare horror stories make headlines, but people who work in government know there is disinvestment and neglect everywhere.

Public service employees at all levels of government are an essential, but often overlooked, part of the solution. The people who do the work are often the best people to ask for ideas about how to do it better, faster, or cheaper.

Just ask Matt Edgerton, a public school custodian from Marysville, Washington.

Matt's ideas for reducing the environmental impact of his school have kept the equivalent of six school buses of trash out of the landfill this year alone, saved his school district $5,000 on its utility bill, and given hundreds of children firsthand experience with recycling and conservation.

Matt knew involving the middle students would be integral to the program's success. A "Green Team" made up of students, teachers, managers, and parents helped build support for one of the biggest changes, getting rid of the 100,000 plus Styrofoam trays thrown away annually from the cafeteria's breakfast and lunch programs. Now students separate their own lunch waste into separate containers for garbage, combined recyclables, and compostables, reducing cafeteria waste from 56 bags a day to just five.

The district now plans to expand the program to other schools and ultimately district wide.

Matt's Green Team might never have happened but for a national, SEIU-sponsored contest designed to give members an avenue for their ideas on improving the quality of the services they provide.

SEIU members in other parts of the country are also challenging themselves to look for ways to improve their work, partnering with elected officials and managers along the way.

In California, state employees who are members of SEIU have identified over $1 billion in potential budget savings, and our union is working with state managers and legislative committees to identify more savings and revenue generating ideas.

In Colorado, Governor Bill Ritter announced his Government Efficiency Management Review Team. State employees joined him at the press conference, presenting him with "1,000 Good Ideas to Improve State Government" that had been collected from front line workers across Colorado.

On a national level, SEIU's one million public service members have committed to being a leading force for quality public services in our communities as a core mission of our union. Now, leaders, staff, and rank-and-file members are engaging in a discussion about what kind of shift in priorities and focus it will take to put our commitment into practice.

We hope managers and elected officials will be open to new and different ways of engaging with our union and encourage frontline employees' ideas and innovation.

We know that we have to own part of the problem. While many of the attacks on government are disingenuous and unfounded, government can be bureaucratic, old fashioned, or incomprehensible to the people it is intended to serve. Too often, when government should be setting an example for transparency, efficiency, and cost effectiveness, it is not.

SEIU's work in this area is just beginning, but we can see the potential.

For every Matt Edgerton, there are thousands of other public employees with insight and ideas on the work they do and the people and communities they serve.

If elected officials, managers, and frontline staff work together, we can create a public sector that is equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century and build better communities for all of us.

Andy Stern is the president of the Service Employees International Union and the author of A Country that Works (Free Press).

Andy Stern | Service Employees International Union |