Two Words — Public Service


My wife and governor who sometimes does a late night edit of my column may not like this RFL, but here goes anyway . . .

In this column I have frequently written about some of the wonderful corporations that serve their clients and provide outstanding workplaces for their employees. But in this 4th of July week when we celebrate that we are a government of, for, and by the people — I feel it’s overdue that I say a word about public service and public servants.

So often we, as citizens, forget the real meaning of both parts of the name “public servant.” The public part is worth celebrating. In government we serve everyone. Where a corporation has the luxury to be focusing in on their particular shareholders and on their specific customers, the government serves all. It can’t say, “I don’t want to build roads for them, or there.” “That client is a jerk; I’m done working with him.” “I want to find a different niche.” “I’m only going to serve customers who can pay x, y, or z.” No. Government is universal, so everyone has an equal right to public goods, time, and attention. This means that public servants deal with folks that many would rather ignore. Public servants work with prisoners and their families; obnoxious campers; with foster care children and abusive parents; with unreasonable parents and apathetic parents; with drunk drivers and with people who, for their own private gain, pollute the environment, rip off consumers, endanger workers, or cheat on their taxes. I am thankful there are people who will serve all the public.

The vast majority of public employees I have encountered see themselves as “servants.” Many serve people every day whom David and Isaiah and Jesus and Mohammed said we were sent here to serve. Many feel it’s an honor to serve. When our State was facing a huge budget deficit, public servants gave sizable concessions to help balance the state’s budget. I suspect that in the next round of contract negotiations they will contribute again. And I resent the aggressiveness of those who so quickly seek a pound of flesh from these public servants, when we so seldom acknowledge them, thank them, and celebrate them for the service they do on our behalf. They make our cities, states and our nation good; they give credibility to our laws and life to our constitution.

At the risk of seeming self-serving, I also think we ought to credit our elected leaders from time to time. I am amazed at the sacrifices of school board members, city council people, legislators, mayors and judges. Sure they have egos. Who doesn’t? But the vast majority are primarily motivated to serve – taking on tough problems and tough citizens and doing the best they can. I will keep celebrating the best corporations and their impressive leaders. But how about a little perspective? In a 2006 study of the top 350 corporations, the compensation of CEOs was 411 times the amount of the average worker. I’m proud that my wife has from her first year in office given back 5% of her salary, but with or without that giveback, the multiple of her salary to the average worker – as with all public servants I am aware of — is at the most four or five, not four or five-hundred.”

Our government is as good as the people we elect. Last week two really talented people told me that they used to think about a career in politics, but not any more. They wondered why anyone would put up with the crap (their technical word) that people in public service take. The answer is that it’s a fantastic calling to commit to the public – all of the public – and to attempt as best they can to serve, and to

Lead with their best self,


P.S. I wrote last week about Parker Palmer’s idea of the broken-open heart, and I gave a link to the book in which it was contained. Bless Parker for sending me the following note: “You may want to let your newsletter readers know that there are cheaper ways to get my essay on “The Politics of the Brokenhearted” than buying the book, “Deepening the American Dream.” E.g., go to and scroll down to my interview, where you can download a pdf file of the piece.”