By Phil Keisling, Director of Center for Public Service
Last month – the evening of Saturday, April 18th 2015 to be exact – I had the privilege to be in the Smith Center ballroom at PSU with more than 300 “friends of public service.” The audience for this CPS Gala included hundreds of graduates from Lewis and Clark College
and Portland State University public administration programs as well as participants in various leadership development and training programs the Center has sponsored over 40 years. Former and current elected officials, including Governor Barbara Roberts and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, were also in attendance. Among the audience, the most inspiring were the dozens of younger men and women in attendance, many of them still pursuing their graduate and undergraduate degrees, who are eager and ready to pursue their own careers in public service in the decades ahead.
In designing the event – CPS’ first-ever “Celebration of Public Service” — we consciously chose to think in three dimensions: to honor the past, to acknowledge the present, and to inspire the future.
In honoring the past, we bestowed on one of our own, Dr. Douglas Morgan (see photo), a richly deserved recognition as the recipient of our first “Public Service Lifetime Achievement” award. Acknowledging the present, the entire audience engaged in a real-time, interactive poll and pondered the current state of public service in Oregon. As for the inspiration for the future, we honored a team from Metro with our first “Oregon Innovation Award” and our commitment to assist them in developing new mechanisms for broad multicultural engagement and public outreach.
In retrospect, the event was conceived in one of those classic moments when the power and appeal of a particular idea simply overwhelms common sense; and in all practicality, it caused us to try to shoe-horn a new (and major!) obligation into an already over-burdened and under-resourced world. As one colleague kept reminding us, “Of course it’s crazy – and, of course, we just have to do it!”
Indeed, I still marvel that the Center’s amazing staff, students, and various volunteers not only pulled it off, but did so with such amazing grace and teamwork. But that spirit is also as apt a metaphor for the current condition of public service as anything else.
More than 150,000 Oregonians work for a local, state, federal, or tribal government entity; roughly the same number work for one of the state’s more than 20,000 non-profit entities. Yet for all its impact – roughly 1 in 4 jobs – “public service” as a career path does not exactly top the popularity charts or have much hold on the public imagination.
Before Amy Poehler’s “Parks and Recreation” sitcom came along, can you think of a single television show whose public service protagonists were employed in something other than police, military, or hospital-related work?
While many public service professionals regularly risk their lives in fulfilling their duties, or toil to save the lives of others, they’re more the exceptions than the rule. The vast majority of public service professionals focus on things that don’t make for good drama but are still essential (and so often taken for granted) tasks.
Providing safe drinking water and sewage systems. Building and repairing roads. Helping children, the sick, and the disabled get the assistance and attention they need to keep them safe. Enforcing zoning regulations, educating the next generation, helping people navigate through various forms and procedures.
By definition, public service is about trying to solve problems that will never be fully solved, or trying to plan for a future that will never quite turn out the way anyone can predict. There never is any finish line – which is why, for today’s practitioners especially, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s no end to being asked to do even more, with even less.
This can be more than a little discouraging, for sure. But while I can’t point to any data – indeed, I doubt the questions were even asked – I strongly suspect that no generation of public service professionals has ever felt as appreciated as they deserved to be. Complaining about government is as common a trope among the general population as grousing about Portland rain or crowded airplanes. Expectations about public service have always been out-sized compared to the resources allotted. Those of us who choose this world for their life’s work – or a part of it – do so in spite of this reality.
But that’s also exactly why I was so struck last month – a bit overwhelmed, really, thoughin a good way – by the energy and the enthusiasm in the room that night. Sometimes, it’s important to give something back to ourselves, too. If others aren’t throwing parties to honor what we do, well, we can (and should) do it ourselves.
So to those who were there and to the many others who couldn’t attend, a simple “Thank you!” is more than in order. And then, of course, on the following Monday it was back to work for most of us, continuing to do what’s important and essential.
See more info and photo of the Gala see: http://www.pdx.edu/cps/gala-2015