September/October President's Message - From Rick

By Rick Sepler, AICP
Veterans of Public Service

Many APA-WA members currently work in or for the public sector.  Additionally, there are many who list jurisdictional or agency planning on their resume or currently represent private clients with the government.  As I understand it, there are no monuments in Olympia to public servants, nor are there statues adorning the entryways of county courthouses and City Halls celebrating those who devoted their professional lives to keep the machinery of government working.  As a profession, we are perhaps too acclimated to letting others take the credit for our efforts or are trained to be modest and deflect attention. Additionally, there is a strong thread in American culture that reflects not only a distrust of government but also of public servants.  This thread perpetuates the myth of inefficient bureaucrats who are more concerned with following arcane ministerial procedures rather than providing service to the public.  If you are reading this column, you no doubt will take issue with this characterization – service to the public is a core value of our profession.

Patrick S. Malone, an executive-in-residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University, wrote that working for state and local governments is no easy task. There are many unique challenges for those working in the public sector. Malone noted that some of the challenges include:

  • You have to serve everyone. Private sector companies can focus on those targeted consumers who are able to purchase their products. However, those in the public sector are bound by constitutional values of equality, fairness, and representation. Government's customer base is by its definition all-inclusive. Indeed, that's one of the things that draws us to public service.
  • Public-sector employees are disliked. As mentioned previously, public servants are often characterized unfavorably by the very communities they serve. From the endless lines at the DMV to the uncaring bureaucrat, public servants are often the target of disdain and ridicule.  Election years often amplify this negativity as candidates rail about the evils of “big government.”
  • Most citizens don't know what they don't know. Malone observed that Americans know more about "The Voice" than they do about their own local and state governments. Citizens want government there during emergencies, but they don't want to support the training and infrastructure necessary to ensure readiness. They want short lines at the DMV, but they aren't willing to pay the bill to make them shorter. It's a lack of connection between what they want and understanding what it takes to get there.

Yet despite these challenges, it is amazing how many public servants accomplish changes for the good!  Those who enter public service choose to do so because they want to make an impact. Some changes take longer than others, but it’s not because those in government work less or move slower than the private sector. Often change takes more time because it meaningfully involves a public that wants things to happen fast until it affects them.

Those who best serve our communities have developed replicable strategies that address and overcome the challenges associated with public perception. These “public service veterans” have a high degree of empathy with both their organizational mission and citizens and have found a way to convey that their actions lead to positive change in their communities. It is in APA-WA’s interest to continue to find opportunities for our “veterans” to share the strategies they have employed. Although it might seem daunting at first, over time individual actions can cumulatively change how public servants are perceived.

Return to the September/October issue of The Washington Planner