04/09/2012 08:38 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

The GSA Junket and the Dedication of the FDNY: Contrasting Images of Public Service

The image and reality of public service came home to me once again last week. In Washington, D.C., we were treated to the spectacle of another scandal at the Government Services Administration. As reported by the Washington Post's Lisa Rein and Joe Davidson:

The chief of the General Services Administration resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and four managers were placed on leave Monday amid reports of lavish spending at a conference off the Las Vegas Strip that featured a clown, a mind reader and a $31,208 reception. Administrator Martha N. Johnson, in her resignation letter, acknowledged a "significant misstep" at the agency that manages real estate for the federal government. "Taxpayer dollars were squandered," she wrote.

As if that was not enough, another stellar GSA staffer posted a YouTube video poking fun at the culture of corruption that obviously permeates parts of that agency. Most of us weren't laughing.

In sharp contrast to the nonsense at the GSA, I had the pleasure of attending a graduation ceremony last week at the New York City Fire Department's Officer Management Institute. That wonderful celebration was not held at a Vegas hotel but at General Electric's John F. Welch Leadership Development Center training facility up in northern Westchester. There I saw FDNY officers receiving diplomas for completing a management training program that has its origins in the aftermath of the horror of 9/11, and is dedicated to improving the performance of this heroic agency.

The history of the Fire Department Officers Management Institute (FOMI) provides a strong counter-image to the disgusting picture painted by these self-indulgent GSA meatballs. On September 11, 2001, 343 FDNY members died in the attack on the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of that tragedy, General Electric, the FDNY, the FDNY Foundation, the Columbia Business School and faculty from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs created an Institute to improve the management training of the folks running the FDNY. For the past 10 years the program has benefited from GE's generous donation of their state-of-the art training facility for this intense, residential training program.

My friend and colleague, Columbia Professor and former FDNY Deputy Commissioner, Bill Eimicke, designed the program's curriculum and was the Institute's founding faculty director. He recruited me to teach in the Institute and I have had the honor of working with these dedicated public servants for a number of years. When I teach these fire officers and officers of the city's emergency medical service, I am always moved by their sense of purpose and mission as well as their intense work ethic.

The Fire Department Officers Management Institute is a partnership between a government agency, a university, a corporation and a foundation working together to promote the public interest. It is a community effort of the highest order. The current Commissioner, Salvatore Cassano, was a graduate of this program's first class. In its ten-year history, the Institute has graduated over 160 senior officers. At the graduation ceremony last week, Commissioner Cassano and all the Institute's partners spoke about the importance of their collaboration and the emotion behind their words could not be missed.

I have taught public management to current and prospective public servants since 1981. I am not going to claim that all of my students have been perfect, selfless or brilliant; but the overwhelming majority have been dedicated, idealistic, mission-driven and community-minded. The FDNY is far more typical of our government workforce than the embarrassing crew we see at GSA. It is unfortunate that the image of government has been sullied in this way. It discourages young people from seeing government work as a path to public service.

This is not just the fault of GSA. For over three decades, American conservatives have attacked and tried to delegitimize government and its workers. In Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in January, 1981 he famously declared that: "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." While no one would ever claim that government's performance is flawless, I assume Ronnie wasn't thinking about the FDNY when he said that government was a problem. My guess is that if your house is on fire; that is the moment when government looks a lot more like a solution than a problem.

I suppose that may be the difference between the federal government and local governments. Many of the tasks of local government are non-optional services: firefighting, police, schools, hospitals, transportation, parks, water supply and waste disposal. While we all want those agencies to be well-managed, efficient and effective, most people understand the need for government to deliver or at least manage those services. In Washington, government work is often several steps away from the direct delivery of essential services. The three biggest jobs of the federal government are collecting and distributing taxes, national defense and setting national policy. Other than the military, national parks and federal prisons, most federal workers do not directly deliver services. Their job is to guide and fund the work of others.

New York City is a stark contrast to the federal government. It is America's largest local government, and is heavily engaged in direct service delivery. The city's daily functioning depends on a competent, and even innovative set of government agencies. In February, I wrote about the impact of anti-government rhetoric on financing local governments. My concern here, is that the politics of the GSA scandal will result in "rounding up the usual suspects" and paint all government workers with the same negative brush.

There is little question that we will soon see a relentless barrage of negative news on the GSA as Congress begins a series of oversight hearings. As Charles S. Clark observed last week in Government Executive:

The revelations of spending excesses at a Las Vegas training conference will keep General Services Administration officials in the hot seat in the coming weeks as both chambers of Congress rev up for hearings on the agency's inspector general report and broader performance issues. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Tuesday called a spring-break press conference to warn that "the $800,000 Las Vegas junket is only the tip of the iceberg." He plans a hearing later this month to shift the focus to the "billions of dollars in taxpayer money wasted on vacant and underutilized buildings" that GSA is charged with unloading.

Elected officials cannot resist media attention, and a wasteful Las Vegas junket is too tempting a target to let pass. But when the hearings start and the rhetoric begins, I am going to focus my attention on the kind of people I work with in the FDNY and the dedicated public servants all over the United States whose hard work enables our families and communities to thrive. It may be out of fashion to celebrate their excellence and their service, but I think such a celebration is long overdue.