Public Service in the Middle of Chaos

On January 16, 1883, President Aurthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law.

You can tell a post is going to be good when it starts with a plain historical fact. Nothing boring about that.

This act and others like it established a non-partisan workforce. Instead of hiring federal employees through a Spoils System (as in “to the victor goes the spoils”), employees would be hired based upon merit — some measure of quality of the candidate.

Prior to this time, federal workers could be hired or fired for political reasons. Loyalty eclipsed competence. Allegiance overshadowed ability. Fealty blanketed skill. And the whiteboard known as America’s federal workforce was erased and redrawn with each new government over and over and over again.

In hindsight, the problems of such a system are obvious. Even with the current transition between governments, change is challenging. But with the old ways of doing things, the only way to maintain continuity was to maintain workers that seek to harm the new administration.

Until the early 1900s, American cities also faced similar turnover. In order to have effective local governments, cities gradually adopted a political system that integrated a city manager somewhat separated from partisan politics. To this day, city managers serve as a point of expertise and continuity, even though parties change.

We lost public trust

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Pew Research — Public Trust in Federal Government

The past several decades have been marred by declining trust in the federal government. The government is the only entity that can keep its job when its boss (the People) trusts it 20%. Partisanship does impact these numbers. Republicans have more trust in Republic administrations. Democrats have more trust in Democratic administrations.

Paradoxically, the highest level of trust in the federal government since Watergate was in response to 9/11 — a horrible failure of the Intelligence Community that begat further bi-partisan failures.

Mistrust has understandably continued to grow. Since 9/11, we’ve entered two long-term wars, engaged in torture, detained prisoners without trials, mismanaged the housing market, spied on Americans, audited partisan (mostly conservative) groups, murdered innocent black men and women, mismanaged Veterans’ healthcare, mismanaged the COVID response — and these are just the things that most people agree are factual. Note: I am not assigning malice to anything here. But the decreasing amount of faith in our institutions is hardly surprising.

We fail big. We fail often. And that failure culminated in one of the most stunning displays of violence at the heart of the federal government.

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Could better executive leadership prevented these events? Absolutely.

The dry tinderbox of mistrust was ready to burn though.

Who am I

My name is Denny Headrick. I’ve worked on the back of a garbage truck for a small city. I’ve worn the uniform of the United States Air Force. I’ve taken the oath of office for civil service.

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God

Millions have done these things before me. Millions will do these things after me. Who am I to this office and what is this office to me?

With the shift of executive leaders every few years, many of us lack purpose. For those with purpose, it’s frequently out of a sense of duty to their superiors.

If your purpose is to serve your bosses, and your bosses constantly shift, you don’t have purpose.

Regardless, I’ve never got the sense from anybody I work with that their work performance is impacted by partisan beliefs. We’re better than that, but we’ve got so far to go.

To get where we need to go as public servants, we need a sense of purpose and a guideline for ethical behavior that transcends politics.

Purpose and Ethics

The purpose for government and public servants is simple:

Create value for the public.

Seeing this purpose when playing a support role may be difficult, but creating value for other public servants should create value for the public.

Straying away from this purpose creates problems. Can it be argued that agency infighting prior to 9/11 created value? Shooting unarmed black men?

Some scenarios are complex and make it difficult to determine the right path. I’ve recently become enamored with ethicist W.D. Ross’ seven prima facie duties as a guide:

1. Fidelity. Keep promises and be honest and truthful.

2. Reparation. Make amends when we have wronged someone else.

3. Gratitude. Be grateful to others when they perform actions that benefit us and we should try to return the favor.

4. Non-injury (or non-maleficence). Refrain from harming others either physically or psychologically.

5. Beneficence. Be kind to others and to try to improve their health, wisdom, security, happiness, and well-being.

6. Self-improvement. Strive to improve our own health, wisdom, security, happiness, and well-being.

7. Justice. Try to be fair and try to distribute benefits and burdens equably and evenly.

W.D. Ross is clear that these aren’t absolute rules. Some situations require judgement. But we as public servants (and all our other hats) will benefit fulfilling these duties and associating with others that fulfill them. If we do these things, trust will rightfully go up.

How do you view your service or job? What gives you meaning? Let me know below.

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