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A New Spirit of Public Service?

“I am committed to public service.”

Elected officials and candidates running for office regularly repeat that phrase. It is meant to inspire us and subtly remind us that the individual is virtuous and committed to representing the people.

But what does committing to public service mean?

We knew what it meant when former President John F. Kennedy’s declared at his inauguration in 1961, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Today, public service has become a listing of personal priorities of the individuals seeking or holding office. I am certain that some individuals are sincere; some base their priorities on what will enhance their political power or increase election probabilities, while others want to change policy to reflect overcoming a personal problem or challenge faced in earlier life. The idea of public service gives individuals a greater moral sense of “goodness” and wanting to help others. It allows the committed public servants to stay above the debate on whether the law actually gets the desired outcome. It provides objective results and ensures a debate of policy change must occur. Simply, can the investment sought and results that have occurred justify program or project continuation?

There is a new theory of public service emerging with all the changes going on in America. It calls on individuals to focus on accountability, transparency and objective performance metrics. It tries to view government stewardship as an important value and seeks to see a demonstrated return on public investments, no matter what the level of government.

We live in an age when all public institutions should be transparent and accountable. Many organizations, foundations and interest groups focus on the inputs into government (campaign donor giving, special interest group participation, open meetings and conflict of interest standards). This focus on inputs has provided and engaged Americans across all political viewpoints to become more involved with their government. Many positive government reforms have resulted. Two groups that should receive recognition for this effort are Open Secrets and the Sunlight Foundation.

But what about government outputs? There are relatively few organizations that focus on systematic spending reviews, performance measures and an objective view of results.

We face greater financial pressures on citizens than ever before. Real-world economics, at all levels of government, dictate that public service initiatives cannot continue to increase or the number of programs becomes enlarged without serious and objective performance evaluations. I am not saying we need less from government, but that we need to be sure that the commitment to public sector “public service” ideas, projects and initiatives can prove their impact.

Smart IT experts, following the wave of business performance technology, will figure out ways to measure, publish and demonstrate government program effectiveness.

What does this new “public service” mean for government?

  1. Respect for government programs and public officials will be enhanced since the discussion on these investments will now provide real results to all stakeholders;
  2. Elected officials will need to think in terms of economic consequences in addition to any positive social benefits of their public service idea;
  3. Stakeholders will be able to see for themselves results in real time. It will reduce the anxiety many now feel when they see the price of government increasing but the benefit of government flat or declining;
  4. More accountability in government will occur. Transparency will allow all transactions and decisions to be made public. We continually find that sunlight encourages greater effectiveness and efficiency; and,
  5. Change will accelerate among government institutions, with what we see as the crass politics of today impeding good decision-making.

As a Virginia resident, I see this new view of public service as a commitment to what the Founding Fathers referred to as “civic virtue.” In their day, government officials made decisions independent or even contrary to their own interests.

Unfortunately, we are now in a period when public service decisions being made are based on how it advances one’s career, often at the expense of stewardship and contrary to democratic values.

The new view of public service will revive the enduring values of stewardship, transparency and accountability by looking at government outputs based on performance metrics. Let’s hope it spreads quickly.

David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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