Public Service in an Age of Cynicism

Now is the time to refocus on the values that make public service truly worthwhile and rewarding.
by | September 21, 2010

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy called upon a new generation to "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy's assassination and a series of wars, political scandals and now a fiscal meltdown have disillusioned Americans about their government. We live in a far more cynical age. The recent pay scandal in tiny Bell, Calif., feeds the worst perceptions of those who claim that public service is all about self service.

Of course, there was no "golden age" when leaders were all statesmen and government was free of corruption. In fact, there've been far worse times. A century ago, in Licoln Steffans exposed corruption in his book, Shame of the Cities, that was far more pervasive than our recent scandals.

American history runs in cycles. Periods of cynicism always give rise to movements for reform. Out of the "shame of the cities," the city manager system was born, which aimed to professionalize local administration.

Today's public-sector professionals are naturally defensive about the rising tide of anger and distrust we encounter from citizens. To restore public trust, the strength we need to draw on is not our professionalism, but our idealism. Now is the time to refocus on the values that make public service truly worthwhile and rewarding. What public service today needs is "leadership at the core of better communities" -- the motto of the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA).

That doesn't change just because times are tough. In fact, difficult times demand more of us.

Let's face it. Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo's $1.5 million pay package is a grotesque outlier, but some of our fellow public servants enjoy pay and perks that are out of place in the "new normal." Generous compensation may have been appropriate when times were better and councils sought to lure the best and brightest. But not when more than half of the workers in America have lost their job or had their pay or hours reduced. Yes, some private-sector executives continue to defend top-heavy compensation. But they're a poor example to emulate.

At a time when the Bell city manager has become a poster child for mercenary greed in the public sector, we can lead in the other direction.

California city managers, for example, have embraced transparency. Cities have scrambled to post compensation information on our websites and assembled a statewide database listing pay for nearly every city manager. We've crafted a set of guiding principles for setting executive salaries -- that if adhered to can prevent scandals like the one in Bell.

Yet I'd argue we should go further.

Let's start with retirement security. Guaranteed annual pensions of half a million or even a quarter of a million dollars aren't justified in the public sector. Nor should pension costs be borne entirely by taxpayers -- an equal sharing would be more equitable.

Excessive leave time is indefensible. Vacation and leave time accruals that become backdoor pay days undercut the very work ethic we expect of our entire workforce.

Bonuses awarded without criteria for objectively measuring performance fail the test of accountability and look like rewards for pleasing our elected employers.

Minor perks and special privileges grate on both citizens and our employees. Reserved parking slots, city-paid club memberships, free sporting or entertainment tickets and "business lunches" on city credit cards are not venal -- but are out of sync with the new normal.

Public-sector executives needn't take a vow of poverty. But the right standard isn't "What could I make in the private sector?" or "What could I make in the next town over?" It should be Tenet Three of the ICMA Code of Ethics: "The highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public."

Today's unrelenting attacks on government and public servants are misguided. We need not bow to those who have nothing constructive to contribute except to castigate everyone in public service.

What we do owe ourselves and those we serve is our best work and highest commitment to the ideals of public service.