An educated citizen, President John F. Kennedy said in a commencement speech at Vanderbilt University in 1963, “has an obligation to serve the public.” It might be as a civil servant, a lawmaker, an elected official or candidate for office, Kennedy said, “but he must be a participant and not a spectator.” The language is a little dated -- when we talk about educated citizens today, we mean women as well as men -- but the need has never been more urgent.
Fortunately for our democracy, plenty of educated citizens continue to answer Kennedy’s call. In this, Governing’s annual Public Officials of the Year issue, we are honoring nine of the best of them: a governor, a mayor, a cabinet secretary, a sheriff, a chief information officer, two state legislators, a county administrator and a city health commissioner.
These individuals have excelled at some of the toughest jobs in the world, and as is so often true of the best leaders, they’ve made what they do look easy. But don’t be fooled. The work is difficult, and it’s been made harder by a particularly harsh political climate driven by cable news, talk radio and other forms of divisive media. When all politics is framed as reality TV, it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about criminal justice reform, tax policies -- really anything. Instead, a thousand victories go unrecognized and smaller numbers of mistakes and failures are magnified.
In my long career as a government auditor, I was usually tasked with getting to the bottom of things when debacles, disasters and scandals occurred. What I found in most cases was that there wasn’t just one terrible thing that had happened or one bad person acting with malice, but a cascading series of bad decisions by decent people with good intentions. The capacity of the acts of public officials to sometimes inflict terrible harm is a testament to the stakes involved.
The other side of that, of course, is the capacity to do great good, to have the opportunity to shape the destiny of a community or a state for the better. Most private citizens have little idea what their public officials actually do or how important it is for them to do their jobs well.
But we at Governing know, and we think it’s important to identify exemplars of the best among them and tell these public officials’ stories, holding them up as surrogates for all those others in similar positions who work unrecognized. By telling these stories, we hope to encourage and inspire others to be participants, not spectators, in public life.