Appreciating Public Servants in an Age of Cynicism

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, something interesting and unusual happened: People applauded their public employees.
by | May 6, 2013

On April 20, I received a one-line email that read, "When have you ever, ever, ever seen citizens applaud police work?" The writer, Mark Abrahams, lives just outside of Boston, where suburban residents had lined the streets the previous evening wildly cheering the law-enforcement officers who had captured the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Abrahams is a CPA who has spent decades as a public official and a management consultant specializing in governmental financial, performance and operations management. He's part of a community of experts in government accountability, efficiency and effectiveness that I've been part of for many years. We share a certain culture, and part of that culture is that after your second decade or so of government auditing, nothing surprises you.

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But when I followed up on his email, I found that Abrahams was more than surprised. He was amazed that so many different law-enforcement organizations--among them the Boston, Watertown, MIT, transit and state police as well as the FBI and ATF--could work together so well to achieve what they did over the space of little more than 100 hours. They didn't bump into each other, they didn't let egos get in the way, and they didn't operate in silos.

But it wasn't just the police. The media, the medical staff at the hospitals and ordinary citizens at the scene of the bombings all responded extraordinarily well. Many of the first responders to treat the injured were bystanders who jumped in to apply tourniquets and other medical aid while knowing full well that another bomb might go off. Public service has many forms and is not the sole domain of government employees. In that moment, all these folks were public servants. The positive outcomes that occurred were co-produced by the regular folks and the paid professionals.

The bombings and the ensuing manhunt were a time of high drama, and the police were the most visible actors, but it's important to remember those who serve largely unseen but whose work we could not live without. More than 21 million state-, local- and federal-government workers--from engineers and mechanics who inspect and maintain our roads and bridges to child-protection workers and schoolteachers and librarians--provide many of the essential elements of the orderly world that we desire and too often take for granted. Disrespect for these public workers seems to have grown in recent years, fueled in part perhaps by the recession but also by the declining trust in government that has been going on for decades.

And there's a disturbing flip side to that decline in trust. It seems to me that the resentment and disrespect have become mutual between too many government professionals and the citizens they serve. In my long career in government, I came across more than a few co-workers who had not much more than contempt for the intelligence and the morality of their fellow citizens.

Cynicism seems to be the rule of the day. Perhaps that's why Abrahams was stunned when he saw citizens spontaneously standing in the street and applauding the police. He said he'd never seen or heard of citizens applauding any public service, and that it brought tears of pride to his eyes.

My guess is that those applauding citizens were as surprised by their reaction as Abrahams was. They, too, felt pride--in themselves, in their towns and in the police officers who are their employees. Of all the positive outcomes that arose from the response to those terrible events in Boston, that may be the most important.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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