Once We Were Giants

By Craig Donovan

People choose a career in the public sector for a variety of reasons, but most of us were in large part motivated because we wanted to do more, to be a part of something bigger and more useful than a for profit company whose goal was to make money. When we first started to learn about public administration as opposed to political science, we learned about some wonderful things that our government and the folks who worked in it had accomplished.

Our government (federal, state, and local), once built dams, bridges and roads. We electrified the nation. We developed and enforced safer working conditions. We built a public health system. We cleaned up the air and water that for-profit companies had polluted. We saw to it that our food was safe and our medicines effective. We kept the banks and financiers honest. We developed the largest public education system from kindergarten through college open to one and all. We built the greatest infrastructure any country has ever known and put a man on the moon. For three quarters of a century, the people who worked for government could be proud of the roles they played in the building of our modern nation and the lives of the people in it. Once, we were giants.

Today, things are quite different. Our elected officials, who once fought to lead us in serving and protecting our fellow citizens, became our greatest critics who fight to be the biggest leaders in dismantling and destroying us. The visionaries who laid out the new challenges we rose to meet have grown silent. If you want to be a part of the great things governments can do, you must look elsewhere.

We are not building the greatest high speed rail system to connect our vast and far flung country together. We are not upgrading our aging electrical grid. Not only are we not building new roads and bridges but we are letting the ones we have, crumble beneath us. Our internet system is not cutting edge or even available to all. Our public health system is mostly gone. We have no new bold initiatives to harness the sun or the winds or the currents. We are not planning for the changes our evolving climate is producing. Our government is not building the biggest, newest, best or most innovative anything here in America.

As someone who was once a business owner and government practitioner, now turned academician, it is harder and harder to inspire each new class of students with the visions of what they might accomplish as part of their government.  Today, working for government is mostly just about getting a job. Many in government still make less than their private sector counterparts and will top out far below what they could make elsewhere. By and large we still have decent benefits, compared to the private sector, but those benefits are under continual attack.

After 9-11, there was resurgence in interest and pride in our government and those who were part of it. But again, no visionaries came forward to harness this rebirth of spirit and it ended up being channeled into ‘going shopping.’ I was part of a group who worked to form a national public service academy, along the lines of the public military academies. Not because we do not have a variety of excellent pathways into public sector education and leadership, but because, just like for the branches of the armed forces, we would benefit as a nation from having a focused point of pride that says public service is a major pillar of and value to our country. No such academy was ever created.

Once, those of us who chose a lifetime of public service were giants doing giant things for our country no matter what our position or place of employment. We will never again be a truly great nation, never again be a true leader and model for the other nations of the world, until we have the heart and the vision to dream and build great dreams as a nation—inspiring our future generations of American youth to dedicate their lives to their country and their fellow citizens.

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