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Government Can Work

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Ten years ago a friend and colleague of mine was teaching a course at the Kennedy School of Government and invited me to lecture his students. I gratefully accepted his challenge and entitled my lecture "Government Can Work." For this I was rewarded by being introduced as an Irresolute Idealist.

Over the course of the last thirty years I have been involved in a myriad of public policy issues, a veritable generalist in a world of specialization. I have also had the unique honor and opportunity to speak before various elected officials' leadership training institutes in my current capacity as assistant for intergovernmental affairs for the Governor, a position that allows me to interact on a daily basis with local elected officials representing nearly 2,600 municipalities across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Each time I have an opportunity to address gatherings of students interested in public policy or elected officials, I preface my remarks by lauding the notion that public service is a noble avocation. Similarly, I remind everyone within earshot on a daily basis that elected officials represent not special interests, but public interests. Unfortunately, this concept is too often lost upon our intergovernmental institutions and those who run them.

Also unfortunate is the idea that one who promotes the notion that government can work for the betterment of society and the greater good should or could be labeled as an irresolute idealist. I always remind people that the underlying rationale for involvement in public service or elective office ought to be to make things better for people. When this basic principle is lost or becomes clouded it demeans the purpose of government and those who have devoted their professional lives to make it effective.

Such is the case currently. Eight years of outright incompetence, indifference, and seeming contempt for the institutions of government itself have deepened the cynicism in the public at large towards its government and provided red meat to those constituencies who unconsciously benefit from government programs while decrying their availability to others. The contempt that many conservatives feel for government finds great comfort in attacks against the notion of progressive taxation, for instance, and the notion that redistributive schemes are anything more than merely setting priorities.

As this sorry Administration limps towards a merciful termination, as Dubya slinks back to Crawford to do whatever it is he does when not making the world a more dangerous and unsafe place, let us as a society renew our social contract with our government and its leaders.

Yesterday's historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States represents many magnificent things to many people, but to me it most importantly represents the triumph of a return to good government and public service. Not since John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 has the country been as energized or excited about charting a new course.

It is now time for those who have already dedicated their lives to the pursuit of public service to step up to the plate and make known their intentions to use their considerable skills and experience to make this government as efficient and as effective as it can be. This will be no simple task; the clean up work that needs to be done is enormous. But I would argue that this is the true essence of patriotism. Restoring respect for and confidence in our government will require a rededication on behalf of all who believe in government as a solution not the problem.

I vividly remember President Clinton calling together a meeting of political appointees immediately after the Oklahoma City bombings. Nearly 3,000 strong gathered at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC to hear from the Commander in Chief that day and I will never forget him telling us that day that "you cannot love your country and hate your government."

Today begins a new chapter in the magnificent story that is this country. Of all the things for which we can be proud of, reconstituting the public consensus that public servants actually serve the public good must rank as one of our top priorities. It just might make irresolute idealists out of us all.