Public Service in an Age of Corrosive Cynicism

As disdain for government grows, it’s more important than ever to recognize those who do outstanding work.
by | May 10, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

"Trying to recruit and retain the best possible workforce is tough, and it's especially so when people are working a gazillion hours a day, paid well below market value and trashed day in and day out in the news media and on the Hill and told that they are incompetent and not doing a good job." That's how federal Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius put it, defending government workers a couple of days ago at an event celebrating Public Service Recognition Week.

Public Officials of the YearWhile it might seem that cynicism about the value of public service and the worth of government employees is more corrosive than ever, there's nothing new about it. One of the reasons Governing created its Public Officials of the Year program back in the 1990s was to call attention to and recognize, at an annual event, those career, appointed and elected public officials who were doing outstanding work on behalf of their city, county or state governments.

Sebelius, then the insurance commissioner of Kansas and later that state's governor, was herself one of Governing's honorees back in 2001. One of last year's honorees, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, gave an acceptance speech that was both a sobering recognition of the growing disdain for public service and a powerful call to do more to get people to appreciate the value of public institutions and the work of government. He noted that the theme of the discussion that evening had been one of "understanding that politics and public policy can and should be noble" but that "unfortunately for every table that's full here tonight, there are tens of thousands of tables where they decry government, where they decry public service, where they decry the institutions of government."

This need to counteract the negativity about government and to recognize the value of public service also was one of the reasons we created the Governing Institute. First among the principles of the institute's charter is that "government work is honorable and the institutions of government and those who work in them should be respected." Through the Governing Institute, we intend to strengthen the Public Officials of the Year program and take it beyond simply the wonderful annual event that it is. (I can attest personally to the success of the annual event as a morale-boosting reward for public service: When I was honored by Governing in 2003, it was absolutely the highlight of my career.) We intend to increase our involvement with past and future winners year-round and to create a community by and for public leaders to tap their energy and expertise in support of improving government outcomes.

We are also working to develop cooperative relationships between Governing and master of public administration degree programs at major universities. These schools should be sources of innovative ideas to meet the public-policy challenges faced by our governments. We want the best and brightest faculty and students to write for our publications and our website, speak at our events and help us to network with thought leaders.

The idea underlying all of these efforts is that there is no better resource to encourage and inspire the next generation of public servants than today's experienced and accomplished leaders. As Gov. Beebe put it near the close of his remarks, "This country is still the greatest experiment in democracy of the globe. And it deserves to be maintained and sustained, and that only happens when good people get involved in public service."

That is our purpose at the Governing Institute: supporting and improving public service and pushing back against those who denigrate it and deny its value. Something to remember during Public Service Recognition Week.