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The Challenges That Set Public Service Apart

Given how ready the public is to heap disdain on governments and their workers, it's encouraging that so many still feel passionate about public service.

One of my favorite teaching tools for my graduate class in public administration is a video of two people engaging in something of an act of civil disobedience at a state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. A young man, along with a friend operating a video camera, enters the DMV and insists on paying a fee of $60 or so in pennies, nickels and dimes.

The DMV employees do seem ill-equipped to deal with such antics. They tell the young man they can't accept pennies, then that they can't accept them without counting them. Then they ask him to count the coins himself and roll them -- they even inform him of the location of the nearest Coinstar money-counting machine. Finally they resort to calling over a state trooper to help make sense of the situation. In the end, the transaction is completed and the young man and his videographer depart the DMV claiming to have proven that government is inefficient and only too ready to inconvenience citizens.

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I'm a passionate supporter of public service, so you might wonder why this video is one of my favorites. I love it because of the reaction of my students. They consistently fall on the side of the DMV staff. While they acknowledge the shortcomings demonstrated in the film, they're quick to point out that working for state and local governments is no easy task. In short, these students recognize the unique challenges of working in the public sector, challenges like these:

You have to serve everyone. I love certain computer products that have a piece of fruit as their logo. But let's be honest. The company that makes them is not interested, or concerned, about serving anyone outside of those who can afford its products. Those in the public sector, however, are bound by constitutional values of equality, fairness and representation. Government's customer base is, well, everyone. Indeed, that's one of the things that draws us to public service.

Public-sector employees are disliked. There's a long and colorful history of public servants being on the receiving end of public and private vitriol. The oft-mentioned lengthy line at the DMV; the faceless, uncaring Washington bureaucrat; the callous and uncaring caseworker -- all of them provide unlimited fodder for ridicule and disdain. And it doesn't get easier in election years, when politicians turn their attention to the supposed evils of "big government."

Most citizens don't know what they don't know. Americans know more about "The Voice" than they do about their own local and state governments. Citizens want government there during emergencies, but they don't want to support the training and infrastructure necessary to ensure readiness. They want short lines at the DMV, but they aren't willing to pay the bill to make them shorter. It's a lack of connection between what they want and understanding what it takes to get there.

Where, Harvard teacher Dan Fenn once asked, "did the American people ever get the idea that figuring out how many blue chips to put into laundry powder so it could be called 'NEW Swish' and increasing point-of-sale purchases is more important than keeping the nation and our homes safe, and mapping the oceans, and managing the infrastructure of a free society, and providing food and housing, and caring for the most vulnerable among us -- all the tasks to which public servants devote their minds and hearts?"

If you're in public service and you read this quote, you have to feel pretty good. I know it makes me smile -- just like those two adorable citizens, happily making sport of the DMV, who don't know what they don't know about public service.

Patrick S. Malone is executive-in-residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University.
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