Tag Archives: public service

Graduation Day

Today is Sunday, Mother’s Day–and graduation day for IUPUI and SPEA, where I teach. When the speaker originally scheduled to speak to our SPEA graduates had a conflict, I was asked to pinch-hit: here’s what I will tell the class of 2015.


I know some of you are disappointed that Chief Hite is unable to be here, and instead, here you are getting yet another lecture from a SPEA professor. But—as I’m sure the Chief would tell you—the nature of public service is that you serve the public: when duty calls, convenient or not, you answer.

That reality—the nature of public service, of stewardship—is what has triggered the few observations that I’d like to share with you today.

You know, I often say that I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. People in my age cohort too often criticize younger generations, because you occupy a world we have trouble understanding, a world that makes a lot of us uncomfortable. But those criticisms are misplaced—they are a product of discomfort with the inevitable, which is change.

My experience with your generation, and especially with SPEA students, gives me a lot of hope for the future, because I see in you a concern for the common good that has been absent from far too many people in my own generation.

Many of you are criminal justice majors who will work in various capacities to protect the citizens of your communities and keep the streets of our cities safe. Others of you plan to enter organizations in the nonprofit sector, working with others to “mend the gaps,” to address the unmet needs of society. Still others of you have ignored the constant drumbeat of rhetoric denigrating government and public service and will go to work in our much maligned but irreplaceable public sector as managers and policymakers.

Your preparation for these roles has revolved around a central question: how do we work together to construct a just society? That question has lots of “subparts”: How do we mediate the tensions between the rights and prerogatives of individuals, on the one hand, and the common good, on the other? Who gets to decide what the common good is? Can government institutions ensure justice and maintain social order without doing unnecessary damage to individual rights? How? And how do the roles you plan to fill advance the common good?

In your classes, you have come to understand essential elements of what John Locke called a “Social Contract,” a reciprocal relationship between the institutions of society—predominately government—and its citizens. Social contract theory holds that the many benefits we share as members of a polity carry with them obligations for informed civic participation. I have no doubt that each of you will fulfill those expectations and discharge those obligations—I just hope you will encourage others to become involved in America’s ongoing experiment with self-governance as well.

Finally, I hope you have gained an appreciation for the importance of the physical and social infrastructure upon which everything else ultimately rests.

These days, too many Americans seem oblivious to the immense importance of that infrastructure, the multitude of systems and institutions—both physical and social— that our cities, states and nation need in order to function, let alone flourish. We take for granted that we can walk safely on most of our streets and sidewalks, that our garbage gets picked up, the streetlights come on at dusk, that firefighters rush to the scene when there is a fire—We take for granted that someone is watching our air quality and preventing industry from dumping waste and polluting our waterways—that someone “downtown” somewhere is ensuring that the buildings we enter meet safety standards and the zoning regulations that protect our property values are upheld. As I have often told my classes, I’m grateful that I can go to the local Kroger or Marsh and buy a chicken without having to personally test it for e coli. So I’m grateful for the FDA, and especially grateful that I rarely have to think about its existence.

I think we’re all grateful that our toilets flush.

I know that all of that sounds boring and mundane and unromantic—but when those largely invisible, taken-for-granted networks of support don’t work—or when they have been corrupted or co-opted so that they only work for some groups and individuals—the whole society fails to function as it should. We Americans like to applaud entrepreneurs and others who provide the goods and services we purchase in the marketplace, and they deserve that applause, but we need to remind ourselves that those marketplaces can’t function without the physical and social infrastructure that you have been trained to provide and facilitate and supplement.

The American motto is e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. Those of you in this room today are preparing to engage in perhaps the most critical task implied by that motto: creating the means by which the many unite into the one.

Many of you in this room who have been my students have been nothing short of inspirational. I know that you leave SPEA with the smarts and the skills and the heart to make a real difference in our communities. What each of you will do is more important than you may recognize right now, and I know you will do it with intelligence and integrity.

So—congratulations, best wishes….and I hope you will keep in touch with those of us on this stage. Your old professors will be rooting for you!

Diminished Expectations, Diminished Performance

I haven’t been particularly kind to several of our elected officials lately. Believe it or not, I take no satisfaction in criticizing the failures and foibles of those who’ve been elected to manage the affairs of the republic. Ultimately, after all, the fault lies with the voters who elected them.

We the People don’t have very high standards. We seem to regard these empty suits as “good enough for government work.” In short, the low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s be brutally frank. Why would people who are moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert or literally dozens like them? How can we expect capable management of agencies charged with oversight of complex and interrelated public functions when the politicians to whom those managers must report have absolutely no idea how government and the economy actually work?

We recently heard elected officials insist that an American default on the debt would be “no big deal.” We’ve heard characterizations of the Affordable Care Act and HIPPA that have betrayed total ignorance of the provisions of both laws. We’ve heard assertions of constitutionality and unconstitutionality untethered from even the most tortured reading of our constituent documents.

There’s nothing wrong with policy debates. Indeed, such disputes can be very productive—but only if the debate is grounded in reality, only if it addresses genuine issues and employs credible information.

When aggressive ignorance is a political virtue and professionalism, knowledge and expertise are vices, we shouldn’t be surprised by a deficit in competent public management.

In the jargon of economics, we get the behaviors we incentivize.

Civility, Civic Literacy and Public Service

There is a robust debate underway about what it will take to attract the best and brightest of our young people to public service. As someone who has taught public affairs for 15 years—and with several years of government service in my own background—I have a theory that I would sum up as “civility, civic literacy and a meaningful opportunity for service.”

By “civility,” I mean a collegial and supportive workplace in which partisan political considerations take a back seat to achievement of the common good. By “civic literacy,” I mean familiarity with accepted understandings of America’s history and constitution. And by “a meaningful opportunity for service,” I mean an approach to administrative practice that balances ends and means in pursuit of the public interest.

There was an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent academic journal. The articles wrestled with confounding questions: what is the difference between argumentation that illuminates differences and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely rhetoric that focuses on, and disrespects, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. (An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.”)

One of the most trenchant observations came from a professor who attributed the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” In other words, if your motivation is simply to beat the other guys–to keep the President from a second term, for example–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, civility is absent and governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, the professor pointed out, is that they do not in fact respect their opponents. For a variety of reasons, they hardly know them, and it’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a lack of civic literacy abetted by disregard for fact and truth and enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the left and right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost much of the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect. It is easier still if we lack even an elementary grounding in the origins and philosophy of American government, a lack confirmed by one dispiriting survey after another.

There is ample research confirming the existence of a worrisome civic deficit. I have reported much of it in this blog. If nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying has it, it should not surprise us that citizens accept the spin and outright fabrications of the pundits and “talking heads” who have political axes to grind.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics? Forget elective office–who wants to go to work for a government agency the very existence of which is regarded as illegitimate by a substantial percentage of one’s fellow-citizens?

Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating the role of government and the value of public service to an audience ill-equipped to evaluate those arguments. Now we are paying the price for our neglect of civic education and our unwillingness to defend the worth of the public sector.

Americans have a bipolar approach to issues: it’s either all good or all bad. But government is neither. We don’t have to abandon critical evaluation of government’s performance, but we do need to remind citizens of government’s importance and value.

I firmly believe in the line from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. If we rebuild civic knowledge and respect for civility and public service, young people will answer the call.