The deaths of four Americans -- U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and computer expert Sean Smith -- in the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya, revealed that government service is not something that should be taken lightly. Yet, unfortunately, the public sector has come under an attack of a different kind this election year, one that not only marginalizes the inherent value of government service but also misrepresents and undermines the role of government in our society. Managing the public's business has never been more important than it is today and the pursuit of excellence in government at all levels has never been more needed to restore public confidence in our societal institutions.
In January 2004, I published an article called "The Search for Meaning in Government Service" in the Public Administration Review, one of the top-rated, peer-reviewed academic journals in the field of public administration. Drawing on reflections from the field which included hundreds of personal interviews with public servants at all levels and functions both pre- and post-9/11, I discussed how the human quest for meaning is expressed through government work. I also called for rediscovering the spirit of public administration by recruiting, retaining, and rewarding public servants who are driven by the search for meaning and who seek a noble calling through government service.
I am trained academically as a political scientist with all of the "liberal" trappings that come from having been baptized in the ivory tower. This said, I've also been blessed (no pun intended) over several decades to have worked in the field with representatives across the political spectrum, including serving as a foot soldier in the so-called "Reagan Revolution." And while I've experienced the best and worst of such public sector initiatives and innovations as the "devolution of roles & responsibilities" between levels of government, "service shedding," privatization of public services, public/private "partnerships," RIFs ("Reductions in Force"), public sector union busting, and the like, my passion for good government has never waned. If anything, my authentic commitment to elevating the deeper meaning of government service as a noble calling has increased over time. Indeed, there is no greater calling than managing the public's business -- efficiently, effectively, and equitably.
In many respects, the November 2012 elections do not speak well for public trust and confidence in government in the United States. Americans in large numbers seem not only to distrust but resent their government. Unfortunately, they've come to view government, especially the federal government, as being wasteful, oppressive, and insensitive; and people doubt that public officials act in the public interest or in accordance with commonly held values. This is unfortunate although not entirely unexpected or unwarranted. We've been in this place before, most notably in November 1980. But let's face it, the public has also lost trust and confidence in the private sector's capacity to do "good," not simply to make a profit at the public's expense. While the lines between government and business have often become blurred, this doesn't take away the necessity to maintain such lines. The public's interest demands that government exists -- for the people, by the people, and of the people.
On Nov. 6, let's among other things seek to rediscover the soul of government by recognizing and honoring what it means to be a public servant and collectively ensure that government service in all of its forms be viewed as a noble calling rather than simply as a job or career. Only in this way will we be able to address both the crisis of competence and the crisis of spirit that are putting our nation's future at risk.
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the co-founder of The OPA! Way® paradigm of "Living & Working with Meaning" and the OPA! Center for Meaning in Santa Fe, New Mexico USA. A practicing political scientist, he has worked closely with the White House under three presidents and was one of the initial faculty evaluators for the Innovations in American Government Awards Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. You can find out more about Dr. Pattakos, author of the international best-selling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," in his full bio.
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