October 07, 2013

We the people...

I am going to violate my own rule here, that is to never write about work... But...

In this lapse of memory, the message Congress is sending – with the latest furloughs and shutdown – to a potential new generation of government workers is: if you have passion about making a positive difference, this is not the place for you. If you want to help the public sector and our nation compete in a global economy, if you are creative and have good leadership traits – we do not value you; instead we see you as a burden to the taxpayers.

The message we are sending with the continued furloughs and pay freezes will discourage talent from remaining in the public sector. Our “dis-investment” in the public sector will accelerate the erosion of infrastructure necessary to ensure the U.S. retains its competitive workforce, infrastructure, and services required for 21st century commerce to thrive.

Right now, we the people are woefully lopsided in our investment in the private vs. public sector. There may be good reasons for how we ended up lopsided: the visible returns from the private sector are immediate, more visceral, and personal compared to returns from the public sector. We can make individual choices where we want to put our investments in the private sector, whereas the public sector requires pooling our money. Pooling public sector investment means our money is placed into civil service investments with which we might not personally agree. Yet these lopsided investments have to end, and if we are to be a representative democracy vs. either an oligarchy or dictatorship, we must accept that sometimes elected representatives will make choices different from our own.
We must also recognize that, barring public service without any human participants, it will be less than perfect, as recognized in the 
Federalist Papers No. 51:

“…what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary…”

Yet with this recognition, we still should diligently strive for increased effectiveness, excellence, and accountability to the U.S. public. Doing this requires attracting talented, creative workers with leadership skills into public service – a hard sell to do in the midst of sequestration, salary freezes, and furloughs with no hope of ever having a billion-dollar IPO. If we do not attract talented workers, our public service will not adapt to the changing dynamics of a global, interconnected world and our nation’s common infrastructure and services necessary for 21st century commerce to continue to thrive.
To fix our neglected and unbalanced public sector portfolio: perhaps we solve this problem by blurring the lines between the public and private sector, allowing greater partnerships between the sectors for mutual benefits?

Perhaps as part of a three-way dialogue among the U.S. public, the private sector, and civil servants we discuss how the work of civil services could be redesigned to encourage greater grassroots participation and greater visibility into what public servants are doing for the benefit of we the people. Perhaps we enable more government agencies to recoup costs in providing their services through transaction-based fees, licenses, or other measures more directly linked to the service provided than taxes, which to the public appear abstracted from the benefits provided?
Perhaps we encourage the MacArthur, Gates, or Ford Foundations to recognize outstanding government institutions and individuals who chose a path of furloughs, freezes, and no IPOs because they believe in public service. Or perhaps we encourage two or three-years of public service in some form, locally or nationally, as a bridge between schooling and employment, fostering a greater sense of civil engagement, addressing youth unemployment, and bringing a wealth of new ideas into public institutions?

All of these possibilities represent solutions much better than a shutdown, and much better than continuing to neglect and undervalue the work products and services of creative, talented workers – often invisible – who chose to work in the public sector. We must readjust our investment portfolio before the benefits our robust public sector historically provided to gird our private sector are eroded in a global marketplace. We must attract, recruit, and retain talent in our public sector to help it adapt to 21st century challenges and new opportunities.
Most importantly, we the people much remember what history taught us – continuing a successful, thriving U.S. private sector requires a similar investment in a successful, thriving public sector. Without it, “we the people” are no longer we.

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