Honoring Public Servants in the Midst of a Pandemic

May 4, 2020

Government workers have long put their lives on the line to protect us but today, they’re doing so on a massive scale and under the most challenging circumstances.

Federal, state, local, and tribal governments deliver vitally important services to the American people every day. Since 1985, Americans have honored our public employees during the first week of May. This year, with all the sacrifice and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Service Recognition Week has even more resonance than usual. Public servants at all levels of government have long put their lives on the line to protect us, and this work is taking place on a massive scale under the most challenging circumstances today. 

Our approximately 22 million public servants have an important role in meeting the most critical public needs. They have been indispensable since our nation’s founding in helping to build a more perfect union dedicated to liberty, justice and equality for all. And throughout our history, they have been critical to maintaining continuity of government during changes of political leadership and in times of crisis.  

In the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, many dedicated public servants—doctors, nurses, first responders—are providing the life-saving services that we depend upon for our safety and health even as they sacrifice their own. Other public servants are still working valiantly to provide police and fire protection, educate our children, conduct medical research, provide income support to individuals and businesses, care for veterans, deliver our mail, steward our natural resources, and protect our environment.

To all of them, we give our thanks and owe a sincere debt of gratitude. 

Before the pandemic arrived on America’s shores, necessitating a societal-wide lockdown, the National Academy of Public Administration named “Modernize and Reinvigorate the Public Service” as one the Grand Challenges in Public Administration in November 2019. The need for leaders, managers, technical experts and front-line workers in the right jobs with the right skills at the right time has become even important as governments are increasingly called upon to address complex and interconnected “wicked problems” like this pandemic.   

As a former director and an acting/deputy director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in presidential administrations of different parties, we believe strongly that public service is an important calling. We have witnessed personally the positive impact that government has on people’s lives, including during times of national tragedy like September 11, 2001. We also have witnessed the frustration of many public servants who are trapped in dysfunctional systems and many citizens who want their hard-earned tax dollars to be spent more effectively and efficiently. 

During this year’s Public Service Recognition Week, as we not only struggle with immediate challenges, but also wonder when a new “normal” life will resume and what it will entail, Americans should:

Elevate the concept of public service. It is easy to forget that the government is all of us and each of us. With many current public servants risking burnout and approaching retirement, we hope that recent graduates and mid-career practitioners will consider becoming a public servant at one of our levels of government. Your knowledge, skills and abilities are needed more now than ever. 

Honor and protect our public servants. We should honor and recognize their commitment to providing effective and efficient—and life-saving—public services each and every day. We should ensure that they have the working conditions, the pay and the equipment (including personal protective equipment) required to do their jobs. 

Commit to reforming human capital systems and processes. So many public agencies struggle with laborious and time-consuming hiring practices, limited salary flexibilities, and promotion rules that value longevity over expertise and performance. Reforming and adapting these systems and processes to a 21st century environment along the lines proposed by many good government organizations can help us recruit, retain and train the public servants we need—both now and long into the future. 

With this public health and economic crisis, Americans are living through the most challenging time in our national life since World War II. Yet, as Americans, we should never forget that we are resilient, resourceful and creative. We have been through tragedies before, and we will come through this one. And one of our greatest assets in helping ensure that success is the expertise and dedication of millions of public servants, who are on the front lines helping government deliver on its promises to the American people. Together, we will prevail. 

Dan Blair, former acting director and deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management and former president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, is senior counselor with the Center for Presidential Transition. 

Janice Lachance, former director of the Office of Personnel Management, is executive vice president for strategic leadership and global outreach at the American Geophysical Union. 

Publication Type: In the News; Commentary