Two Words — Public Service


My wife and governor who sometimes does a late night edit of my column may not like this RFL, but here goes anyway . . .

In this column I have frequently written about some of the wonderful corporations that serve their clients and provide outstanding workplaces for their employees. But in this 4th of July week when we celebrate that we are a government of, for, and by the people — I feel it’s overdue that I say a word about public service and public servants.

So often we, as citizens, forget the real meaning of both parts of the name “public servant.” The public part is worth celebrating. In government we serve everyone. Where a corporation has the luxury to be focusing in on their particular shareholders and on their specific customers, the government serves all. It can’t say, “I don’t want to build roads for them, or there.” “That client is a jerk; I’m done working with him.” “I want to find a different niche.” “I’m only going to serve customers who can pay x, y, or z.” No. Government is universal, so everyone has an equal right to public goods, time, and attention. This means that public servants deal with folks that many would rather ignore. Public servants work with prisoners and their families; obnoxious campers; with foster care children and abusive parents; with unreasonable parents and apathetic parents; with drunk drivers and with people who, for their own private gain, pollute the environment, rip off consumers, endanger workers, or cheat on their taxes. I am thankful there are people who will serve all the public.

The vast majority of public employees I have encountered see themselves as “servants.” Many serve people every day whom David and Isaiah and Jesus and Mohammed said we were sent here to serve. Many feel it’s an honor to serve. When our State was facing a huge budget deficit, public servants gave sizable concessions to help balance the state’s budget. I suspect that in the next round of contract negotiations they will contribute again. And I resent the aggressiveness of those who so quickly seek a pound of flesh from these public servants, when we so seldom acknowledge them, thank them, and celebrate them for the service they do on our behalf. They make our cities, states and our nation good; they give credibility to our laws and life to our constitution.

At the risk of seeming self-serving, I also think we ought to credit our elected leaders from time to time. I am amazed at the sacrifices of school board members, city council people, legislators, mayors and judges. Sure they have egos. Who doesn’t? But the vast majority are primarily motivated to serve – taking on tough problems and tough citizens and doing the best they can. I will keep celebrating the best corporations and their impressive leaders. But how about a little perspective? In a 2006 study of the top 350 corporations, the compensation of CEOs was 411 times the amount of the average worker. I’m proud that my wife has from her first year in office given back 5% of her salary, but with or without that giveback, the multiple of her salary to the average worker – as with all public servants I am aware of — is at the most four or five, not four or five-hundred.”

Our government is as good as the people we elect. Last week two really talented people told me that they used to think about a career in politics, but not any more. They wondered why anyone would put up with the crap (their technical word) that people in public service take. The answer is that it’s a fantastic calling to commit to the public – all of the public – and to attempt as best they can to serve, and to

Lead with their best self,


P.S. I wrote last week about Parker Palmer’s idea of the broken-open heart, and I gave a link to the book in which it was contained. Bless Parker for sending me the following note: “You may want to let your newsletter readers know that there are cheaper ways to get my essay on “The Politics of the Brokenhearted” than buying the book, “Deepening the American Dream.” E.g., go to and scroll down to my interview, where you can download a pdf file of the piece.”

  • Well, this is definitely one to read and share. Heaven knows there is plenty of disagreement amongst public servants and their constituents, too. Now that I think of it, I even disagree occasionally with Dan’s politics (though, being true to his messages on leadership, he doesn’t often go there). Still, despite the occasional falls from grace (ala Randy Cunningham or Dan Rostenkowski), I believe most public servants are honest, honorable and above all, not just ‘servants’. Thanks to Dan for the reminder. For all of us who claim to be servants, public or otherwise, let us each take a moment to stop and think to whom we truly owe our allegiance and whether we are ‘leading with our best self’ to serve those people.

  • This topic brings to my mind Servant Leadership. Robert K Greenleaf naturally comes to mind as a brilliant inspiration in this venue. From the time I accepted my first position as a pediatric Nurse at Sparrow Hospital, oh so many years ago, I thought of myself as a servant to the families that suffered at the bedside of their children. It was success through trust, bravery, and forgiveness (Warren Bennis) and that skill was developed and applied to the rest of my career. Maybe I have taken the liberty to define my public as anyone that crosses my path. Certainly I am not a public official 🙂 I am one that serves now as a Coach to executives eager to develop their leadership skills to create this servant leadership model for the good of their public. There are days it takes a deep swallow to hold back the feelings of privilege to serve and believing that a greater public is touched. What a wonderful cycle. I am hoping you can related to my perspective and that of those who embrace the public service day to day one person at a time. All the best, Desiree Simon

    • Desiree,
      Perhaps you knew that I just attended and spoke at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership conference in Dallas last week. Greenleaf was a remarkable guy and others can learn why you and I are so impressed by going to There is some great stuff there!

      • Dan,

        I had no idea! However, as I mentioned you triggered much about Servant Leadership for me so it has become a part of the fabric of who you are which says so much.

        Have a wonderful day and thank you for the link. I have several books authored or written based on his work.

        Desiree Simon

  • I would hope your message was sent to the editors of the Lansing State Journal and to those state legislators who continue to attack state employees, i.e. your public servants.

  • My family takes me for granted (they don’t understand me) as I persevere into library building, scouting (mentoring), township governance, youth sports coaching and the like. I’ve been struggling for some time now as a new leader in government and I’ve resolved to accept the attacks and insinuations made by my fellow citizen. Prior to our states fall from grace, I worked diligently to bring friends and family to the public service realm, but to no avail. After watching me doing the things I do, they each chose not to partake, though still complain about the job I have… I will always see myself as a public servant and can appreciate the people that have stepped back from that “line of volunteerism” while I stand strong to my beliefs and the way I was raised, at that line! People have to choose how they live their lives. I choose to have god first, my wife and family second, and then my community… in that order…well, I’m living the good life, that’s for sure!

    Because I too ‘Lead with my best self.’

    • Mike,
      Good for you! My experience is as Cheryl Crowe put it, “the first cut is the deepest.” You develop some thick skin in this game. The trick becomes: how do you stay open to others’ views – including those that are delivered with acid and anger – without letting those views totally drag you down. It is one of the practices and disciplines – i.e., not an inborn talent – necessary for a successful life in public service,
      I love your ending: you ARE living the good life, and I imagine you are a pretty good example for others to do the same.

  • I am a public servant who is very proud to serve. I also come from a long line of civil servants. I want to add to Gary’s comment. My life changed when LSJ decided to put the searchable database on line with our pubic servants’ name, work location, Department, classification and salary. It was a reckless and, I think, potentially harmful decision. This is not because the salaries are shown with names (though who really needed the names) but because the database search can be used for purposes which, I sincerely hope, LSJ did not intend. As a cautious single mom, I usually don’t tell people my last name until I know them well. Now I can’t share with them what I do and for which department I work. With my first name (only a partial spelling is needed) and that additional information, someone can easily search this database and find my last name. If you are a state employee with a unique first name, it is even easier. I have also warned our student assistants (a unique classification shown in the search results) to not let anyone at college know they work for the state. Again, it is too easy to check this database and find their last names and where they work. Is it worth the risk? And what are we teaching the next generation about being public servants in Michigan?

    • I read the thread above and what I think most people don’t understand is that being a public employee always becomes more than just doing a job even if we don’t intend it to be that way when we first sign up. And it is because service work in the public sector is rarely about gain. We learn to work without anticipation of gain. Service in the private sector is rarely not about gain and the hope of gain. It is true that some political leaders have completely sullied the name of public service and there are selfish public employees, but for each one of them there are thousands of employees who demonstrate constant and consistent small acts of service-without-gain. There have been times that I have mused about running for “public office”, but I have found that having a non-political government organizational leadership role is the most rewarding. I feel that the service that occurs here is not often respected by the members of legislative bodies. And that weakens their ability to lead.

      I have a friend and college classmate who served in the Reagan and both Bush Justice Departments, who at a college reunion several years ago expressed frustration that it didn’t seem worth being a public servant (and soon afterwards left into the private sector) because of how negative government was becoming. It’s too bad because he is a creative, disciplined and ethical lawyer. Likewise during these times of frontal attack on public servants in Michigan I hear similar comments.

      But I wonder if our response should be different – maybe it’s time for those of us who have dedicated years in careers as workers to begin thinking about being legislators or journalists, even. After all, we know how to (to paraphrase Dan’s exit line) serve, and sacrifice and work diligently for the public with our best selves. What better way to take service to a higher level?

  • Dan,
    Thank you for the recognition you gave to those who work for the State Of Michigan and other Public Institutions. Unfortunately, State Employees have been the scapegoat for the poor economy the State is currently experiencing. One particular radio station and neswspaper in Detroit constantly comment that State employeees earn execessive compensation and benefits for what they do and that State employees should receive pay and benefits that mirror what workers in the private sector receive.I cannot remember the last time I heard a broadcast on WJR that had anything positive to say about State Employees. More improtantly, some of of their on air personalities haven’t a clue of the labor market and who earns what nor do they know that State Employees cannot even compare with benefits other non State Public Employees receive. I find it enormously frustrating when I read comments made by Senator Bishop along with editorials and opinions on the radio that go unchallenged regarding State Employees. The Senator is quick to criticize the pay we receive but mentions nothing about the prior Governor’s pension. WJR never attacks the Federal Government about Federal Employee pay. In fact, when was the last time a Federal Employee took a pay cut or freeze?
    The comment is not done to pit worker against worker but to highlight why many state employees are angry about the unfairness of this topic.

    The Governor leads by example and she is to be lauded for sharing in the sacrifice she requests of her State Employees and for her constant expressions of appreciation for the work they perform. Unlike Governor Granholm, who leads with her best self, the former Governor never took a pay cut and left the State with an unemployment rate of over 6% and a one billion dollar shortfall which is a fact that Senator Bishop will never admit to.

  • I have been a public servant for over 30 years and am proud of the work I have done and continue to do on behalf of the people. What disturbs me, however, is that in recent years I have observed a shift to leaders who value personal loyalty above loyalty to the citizens and to the oath of office we took to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Our loyalty needs to be to the public and not to temporary office holders or individuals. To do otherwise can lead to corruption that inevitably gets discovered and erodes the public’s faith in government and our democracy that we celebrate this July 4.

  • Hello Dan,
    I certainly appreciate reading your blog on Monday mornings. In several ways, living in Virginia creates a separation to what it is that you are saying, as I do not follow Michigan’s current events closely. That said, I can comment on Virginia, and sad to say, it is not an uplifting storyline.
    I recently became a foe of the county where I live governing body. Every 20 years, a comprehensive plan must be enacted, either by creating a new one or improvising/changing the current plan. Well, apathy of the citizenry has led to disastrous results. The comp plan proposed was unbelievably draconian in nature, with two strong elements in place; that of unparalleled, unwarranted, and unnecessary removal of our constitutional rights as Americans. It is the closest thing to Socialism I’ve ever seen, and I was not going to sit idly by and watch it unfold. I did what a modern day Paul Revere would do, sounding the alarm. It created a groundswell of opposition by many different walks of life individuals. Due to the enormous egos of the 5 member board of supervisors in our county, along with insider cronyism and corruption (I guess that was best exemplified by the current administration in Washington, D.C., and mirrored here at the county level), the board decided to approve this plan. I asked them, if during the process of creating this new comprehensive plan, did they look into the actual costs associated with the concepts within that speak about large increases in government growth; their answer was, “no, we didn’t give it any thought.” HOW RECKLESS of these individuals. I guess when the US Treasury is opened up for folks such as Halliburton to get their greedy hands on however much of taxpayer dollars they want, without impunity, that sets examples for the trickle down effect all the way to the county level in a rural mountain area of Virginia. A few reprieves were made because of the fear of retribution associated with elections, but all in all, the continual erosion of our constitutional, personal and property rights are being breached in a very real, very sad way. Just look at the outrageous civil penalties added to traffic violations here in Virginia that went into effect July 1st. For example, an administrative/civil penalty of $1050, on top of the associated fine, for failure to use your turn signal in a lane change oo street interchange turn. WOW!! 🙁 It is time for all Americans to stand up strongly opposing the ‘public servants’ who want to serve, not for servitude purpose, but for personal gain, be it financial, or a focus on getting themselves recognized in some capacity with regard to self gratification. In Virginia, there is a VERY STRONG absence of the mindset of servitude associated with the concept “of, by, and for the people.” These public officials have the audacity to laugh at us when they tell us, look out, wait until you see your new property assessments come October. If America doesn’t wake up, and step up to the plate to thwart these Socialists from taking away everything we’ve worked for, it will become very real, the reality that apathy is taking us into bondage.
    RANT OVER!!!!
    On a refreshing note, during a road trip to upstate NY, I noted an on duty, uniformed State Police trooper in PA changing the tire of someone on the side of the interstate. It blew me away, because it would be a cold day in hell before a trooper in Virginia would offer up that kind of assistance!!

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