The Search For Meaning In Government Service

02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Question: Why doesn't the civil servant look out her window in the morning?
Answer: So she'll have something to do in the afternoon.

Doing the public's work, in my opinion, has always been a noble calling even though working in government does not always conjure up positive images among citizens. Ideally, the link between the governed and the governors should be both authentic and transparent, which would allow citizens to remain engaged with and expect only the very best from their public servants. Similarly, the delivery of public goods and services by or through government should always reflect a passion for excellence, a concern for guarding the public's trust, and a focus on advancing the public's welfare. Unfortunately, I think that public trust (and confidence) in government to achieve these aims has effectively collapsed, resulting in both a crisis of competence and a crisis of spirit on a national scale. One can only "hope" that the new regime will be able to "reinvent" government and restore confidence in the way that the public's business, at all levels, is managed.

Let me also suggest that the concept of public service, including government employment, should be viewed with respect rather than disdain. President Obama's "call to service" notwithstanding, public employment should, by definition, provide a path that is both honorable and meaningful. In this regard, let me share with you, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I have written and spoken about this topic in the past, most notably in the Public Administration Review, the premier scholarly journal of public administration, and as chair of a national initiative to promote the concept of public service for the American Society for Public Administration. Hence, my passion for public, i.e., government, service is longstanding and unwavering.

This said, the attractiveness of seeking a job in the public sector--let alone a career path--waxes and wanes. "It's close enough for government work." "Innovation in government is an oxymoron." Statements like these are not only indictments of those in the public's employ, but also reflections of ourselves, for, as Aristotle observed, "Government is more than a legal structure, more than an arrangement of offices; it is a manner of life, a moral spirit." For public servants, Aristotle's wisdom strikes at the heart and soul of who they are and what they have chosen to do. It also reflects the concept and spirit of public service in significant ways, for it suggests that working in government really does mean something--above and beyond the obvious fact of gainful employment.

Not everyone who works in government, of course, is aware of, let alone admits to, such fundamental, existential concerns. Yet, the search for meaning at work, including that derived from government service, has moved to center stage, and the need to reflect on the meaning of our work is perhaps greater today than ever before. People in all walks of life are becoming more comfortable asking the "big" questions, that is, those dealing with their meaning and purpose in life. And I suspect that in light of the current economic crisis, such questions are surfacing more often and more quickly!

The Viennese psychiatrist and philosopher, Viktor Frankl, espoused that "man's search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life." And it is this key principle--Frankl called it our will to meaning--that has prompted me over the years to explore the existential needs and preferences of public servants. Indeed, as someone who has worked in and with government, and as a professor of public policy and management who has helped to prepare many others for public sector employment, the search for meaning in government service is more than a rhetorical or academic question. On the contrary, the search for meaning, I propose, is the very platform upon which the concept and spirit of public service come alive in a real, practical sense. Listen to some comments from a few of America's "unsung heroes" working in government:

I was conversing amiably with some sort of stock broker in a pub several years ago. As he is discussing the advantages of zero coupon bonds and short maturation derivatives, he thought to ask what I did for a living. When I made it clear that I worked for the U.S. government, he swiveled around to the person sitting to his left and continued the conversation.--Employee, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration

Maybe I am following an impossible dream, but my focus is in making a difference in people's lives beyond my lifetime. I believe that public service is the highest expression of democracy in action. I know my place, I know where I belong.--State government employee

We have turned into a society where public service has deteriorated to become synonymous with self-service--what's in it for me? We as a society have lost our focus. I'm here to say that there are many career people like myself who are praying and working toward finding that focus.--State government employee

I am attracted to the ideal of public service. It is fundamental to my own personal values and provides an opportunity for me to live these ideals. My father was a police officer for over 30 years and my mother a health professional in a hospital setting. I come from parents who believed that helping others was the best way to spend your life...service to humanity is the best work of life...need I say more?--Federal government employee

Unfortunately, these are not the kind of comments one hears in the popular media, nor are these the kind of public servants who are showcased before wide audiences and offered the opportunity to share their stories and messages about what they do and how they find meaning in government service. However, if our country really expects to manage the public's business effectively, efficiently, and equitably, then something is going to have to change in the way that government service is perceived and treated. In short, the spirit of America demands public servants who are driven by the search for meaning and who seek a "noble calling" through government service. It is the responsibility of all of us to support them (and each other) in the quest. The future of our Nation depends on it.


You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the international bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, in his HuffPost Bio and at See also his "Dr. Meaning" Channel on YouTube: You can contact Alex at: