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A Look at Public Service

Jim Mahoney
August 24, 2022

Several semesters ago, I had a young graduate student who was fully engaged in my class, very articulate, thoughtful, and activated by nearly everything we did in class. I enjoyed her complete participation but at the end of each class she would seek me out and want clarification of an assignment, wonder why our technology wasn’t better, question why a guest speaker hadn’t addressed a certain issue, or offer me suggestions for improvement. I loved her participation and near the end of the semester after class, she again approached me with feedback. This time after she completed her inquiry, I asked her a question. “Sara,” I said, “when you see a donut, do you just see the hole?” It took her a few seconds to get my point and then we both laughed. The truth was, I did enjoy her a lot but if you only heard her after class, you might think she found nothing right, useful, or redeeming about my class.

Fast forward to today as I watch reports of hundreds of teacher vacancies unfilled across the US. I read our local metropolitan newspaper where it’s clear the city public safety department has difficulty in recruiting candidates for the police academy. I listen to a friend’s account of nursing shortages in her hospital and the everyday turmoil it creates trying to assist patients. Even our military is experiencing major challenges in reaching recruiting goals. Why? Answers, of course, are complex but it does appear that there are less people inclined these days to work in the public service sector and at the same time it seems to coincide with less public support for them.

I have spent my career working in public service and with public servants. I can say this with certainty: nearly all enter their respective service positions because they want to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s not the salary, certainly not the pension system anymore, or public appreciation for their efforts. I see repeated examples of folks today bailing from public service jobs, advising their children not to follow their path, and simply giving up. The public they serve sees only the holes in the donut. The media seems to mostly report on the holes. Activists love holes. The irony is while the public decries the work of public servants, their communities are going to be a lot less safe, a lot less educated, and a lot more vulnerable without them. We have now circled the wagons and are shooting within.

We take awful situations where a public servant has failed and suggest it is the norm. It is NOT. But we publicly excoriate the offender and make public servants less effective. The teacher is afraid to say anything because they don’t want to be the viral hit on social media, the safety officer is reticent in pursuing a criminal, and health care givers order way too many tests to cover their backside. Incivility is rampant and can’t be ascribed to one party. We are losing public servants over it and the public will be less well-served because of it. Worse than lowering standards to fill vacancies, I worry we may never recover from the loss of heart these public servants bring each day to their work.

We need a public to support public service and public servants. It’s not simply about raising salaries to attract folks, appreciating them one week a year, or stop screaming “I pay your salary.” It’s respect for the person doing the job in the arena that others can’t or won’t do. It’s to not be outraged until you get all the facts and calm down. It’s dialing back some of the negative emotion and dialing up more appreciation. A little less immediate judgement and a little more respect and reservation. Assume good intentions first, malfeasance last. And please don’t let one negative experience allow you to paint an entire sector with all its servants in the same color.

Why not think of public service at its finest? Consider the firefighters rushing up the steps of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save lives. Army Rangers climbing the cliffs at Normandy on D-Day to secure Europe and save the world. Our medical professionals acting tirelessly during the darkest days of the pandemic. Teachers who covered their kids to protect their lives during school shootings. Few of us would really want to live in a world without public servants preforming invaluable public service. God bless them