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The Value of Public Service: Cultivating Communities

by Darin Atteberry, City Manager, Fort Collins, CO and Alliance for Innovation Board Member

Public service is a privilege. Every day I have the opportunity to make my community a better place.

For those of us who have chosen public service as a profession, it is clear that the work we do matters. We directly impact people’s lives in very tangible ways. We provide the necessities – clean drinking water, emergency response, drivable roads, electricity – and these are critical to a community.  But beyond the list of important services, we have a larger role. Public employees help define and differentiate communities. We build and maintain parks, we support cultural facilities and recreation, we conserve and protect open space. In short, we help create quality of life. 

For most of us in the public sector, our job is more than a paycheck. From parks crews to utility line workers, parking attendants to police officers, I know I speak for my colleagues across the nation when I say we take great pride in the quality of our work.  We take great pride in our communities.  And we take great pride in serving.

Increasingly, local governments are run with the same professionalism, efficiency, and high expectations of private business.  To achieve that high standard, we must ardently commit to transparency and continuous improvement.  Just as private shareholders expect dividends, our communities expect us to provide cost-effective, high quality services. We want to do the best work we can, and then find ways to do it even better.

This is where innovation comes into play. In my experience, some of the most innovative minds come from the public sector.  They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, decreasing resources, increasing pressures, and rising expectations of government have certainly spurred creativity. Public employees across the nation are finding new ways to provide services. We’re redefining partnerships to include public, private, and not for profit collaboration, as well as shared services among public institutions. Innovation is moving beyond a concept to a concrete and necessary practice.

While I cannot understate the character and commitment of public employees, it is crucial that we understand that public service is not solely the responsibility of government.  All of us – from individual residents to global organizations – have to share in the responsibility of caring for our communities. 

Our perception of public service must evolve.  Governments at all levels no longer have the resources and ability to play the traditional role of problem solver. And quite frankly, the assertion that government has all the answers is an outdated and paternalistic model.  Instead, governments, residents, organizations, the private sector, and nonprofits need to redefine our relationships. We must cultivate a collaborative problem-solving culture where we all have the responsibility to address challenges and prepare for the future together.

This is the true value of public service; it’s the ability to bring people together to accomplish a common goal.  To help move beyond political beliefs, and beyond the hard lines we too often draw between your opinion and mine.  I believe that people, at their core, care about their community, however that may be defined. Some may want less government, some may want more, but most want to live in a place that’s safe, welcoming, and where people genuinely care for one another.

If we can all agree that we play an important role as public servants, then we can elevate our conversations to address real issues. We can all take responsibility for our actions and speech.  We can disagree while maintaining civility and an authentic commitment to find solutions that are best for our community.  We can pledge to behave with integrity and candor with the intent to foster trust, because trust is imperative.

I believe public service reaches beyond a responsibility to our current community. We have a growing obligation to ensure that our current plans, investments, and actions do not harm future generations.  We need to genuinely embrace a model of sustainability in which environmental stewardship, fiscal responsibility, and social awareness are equally important.

It’s our job as public servants to contribute to quality of life, to demonstrate transparency, to pursue excellence, to innovate, to collaborate, and most importantly to lead by example.  This is not a profession to choose without thoughtful consideration. There is certainly more fortune, free time, and privacy to be found in other careers. But I can think of no other occupation more rewarding.

Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” By that definition, we’ve all earned the prize.

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City of Fort Collins, CO

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