The Value of Public Service: These Are the Days

ARTICLE | Oct 19, 2011

They start like any other day…those days when you are reminded, sometimes painfully, of why you have given your life to public service. 

It may be a plane crash that calls upon every first responder resource you have for miles, or the team response to a mentally unstable gunman taking innocent people hostage, or an adoption ceremony in which a group of siblings that have been abused by their meth-addicted parents have finally found a permanent, loving home…These are the days that make us proud.  They are the days when all the training, all the difficult resource decisions, all the criticisms, and all the frustrations of conflicting policies and ideologies somehow converge to lift you up and focus your attention on what it means to be in public service in America today.

There are too many days now when we have to have the painful conversations that responsible leaders cannot turn away from…”I’m sorry, but we are going to have to eliminate your position.  We just can’t get the funding together.  I know you’ve been an outstanding resource to our organization for (fill in the number—5? 10? 15? 20?) years, and we are deeply grateful for your service, but we just don’t have the budget to keep you on.”  And there are the days when frustrated citizens, some of whom haven’t had work in many months, take out their anger on their local government leaders…”You’ve got to do more!  People need jobs, and need their dignity restored!  How would you know…you HAVE a job and a pension that I PAY FOR!!”  Or the days when neighborhoods and advocacy groups fight for more of the budget pie for their priority at the expense of others…”You can’t cut the Senior Bingo group!  It’s the only thing that our respected elders have to look forward to during the week!  Cut the (fill in the blank) program first, or while you are at it, why don’t you reduce the wages of your employees!  We hear they are paid much more than private sector folks who are doing the same job!!”

We don’t begrudge anyone who finds the seemingly endless assaults on public service to be more than they can bear, and leaves our professional family.  It’s understandable.  But we celebrate those who stay, because what we do is noble work…work with dignity…work with integrity.   What we do requires that we remember that SERVING OTHERS, and putting their needs above our own, is always Job One.  Whether that means patiently helping a senior citizen understand the limits to how we can help them with problems with their mortgage or their Social Security payments, or whether it means filling sandbags during a flood, or taking food to the firefighters on the line in a wildfire, or insuring that neighbors are trained and made aware of how they can help each other in an emergency until we can get there, our duty is to lift other people up, to empower them to be and do and dream whatever they are capable of.

What other job can one name that provides the chance to impact thousands of people’s lives for the good on a daily basis?  What else could one do that would put to the test, every day, one’s commitment to the values of honesty…and respect…and fairness…and tolerance…and innovation…and compassion?  Only in public service do we get to show up every single day, challenged to be our best for other people in every single decision, every single action, every single hour

“I am only one, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something, and I will not fail to do the something that I can do.” – Helen Keller

Today and every day, let’s celebrate the people who serve.  We cannot do everything, but we can do something, and we will not fail to do the something that we can do.

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