During my four decades of public service I have worked with many amazing people – some heroes who have risked their lives to save others, some who have risen to the occasion during crises like the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, and many who have quietly gone about the business of serving the public with great dedication day-in and day-out. I was born while my father was at sea on a Coast Guard cutter.
In the current political climate and discourse over the national debt, we have done a poor job of distinguishing between the need for fiscal responsibility and the value of public service, which is enduring.
While politicians necessarily haggle over policy, budgets and the size of government, it is worth remembering that it does not serve any of us as Americans when government employees are denigrated or vilified. We all want the best government possible, and our aim should be to encourage, not discourage, bright, capable people from serving their fellow citizens.
During Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard saved over 30,000 people. In the midst of last year’s Gulf oil crisis, we had employees from the Food and Drug Administration checking on the safety of the seafood; scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency monitoring water quality and the impact of the oil on the beaches and marshes; workers from the Fish and Wildlife Service working day and night to protect the birds, turtles and other sea life; members of the U.S. Geological Survey working technical issues related to controlling the well; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration providing key data on weather and environmental conditions.
For sure, government work may be just a paycheck for some employees, and as in any organization, there are those who don’t quite cut it. There is no institution, whether governmental, or in the private and nonprofit sectors, where mistakes are not made. But the great majority of public servants I have known and worked with, whether at the local, state or federal level, have been hardworking people who often sacrifice their own time and resources to make a meaningful contribution.
In many ways, government is a lot like oxygen. You are not necessarily aware of it until you need it and don’t have it anymore.
Imagine what it would be like taking your children to school and finding no one there to teach them, calling 9-1-1 and having no one respond to your emergency, having no sanitation workers to pick up your trash, no one building or maintaining our roads, no one guarding our borders, no one manning or embassies abroad, or no one providing health care to our wounded warriors or sending out Social Security checks.
The truth is that each and every day, civil servants are finding solutions to serious problems, assisting Americans in need, keeping us safe and advancing our national interests.
I have always felt that there is something distinct and noble about a lifetime of public service. Our democracy, our institutions and our well-being depend on people with an unwavering loyalty and commitment to serve.
President John F. Kennedy eloquently spoke about the importance of our federal public servants in 1962, a description that is worth repeating. In JFK’s view, public service was “a proud and lively career,” and government workers were engaged in a high calling.
“The success of this government, and thus the success of our nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services,” Kennedy said. “In foreign affairs, national defense, science and technology, and a host of other fields, they face problems of unprecedented importance and perplexity. We are all dependent on their sense of loyalty and responsibility as well as their competence and energy.”
President Kennedy had it right, and it would serve our nation well if more of us, along with our elected leaders today, provided the same kind of support and recognition to our civil servants. To my fellow public servants, thank you for your service.
Adm. Thad Allen is the former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and led the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. He is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and serves on the board of directors at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which provided this commentary.