Public Service is No Longer Just Government Service

Thoughts from a career federal executive on the anniversary of 9/11.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a young David A. Bray, who was then working for the Centers for Disease Control's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program, was supposed to brief the FBI and CIA on what technologies could be used to respond to a bioterrorism event. Bray had to postpone that briefing to shift into emergency response mode. The events of 9/11 and the anthrax episodes that closely followed it spurred him to extend a planned three-year tour in public service into a longer stint that led to becoming a career federal executive. He is now the chief information officer at the Federal Communications Commission.

In May, I wrote about what might happen if the “best and brightest” of the millennial generation just say no to working in government. That post prompted Bray to share some thoughts about the distinction between the perceived dysfunction of the political system and the effort required to make representative democracy work. Bray, who characterizes himself as a Generation X/Generation Y “tweener,” argues that we should broaden the conversation to be not just about government but rather about redefining public service as a whole.

Below are some of Bray’s more specific thoughts, with the caveat that they are solely his personal views as a concerned member of the public.

On politics vs. public service:

I was crazy enough to start working as a government professional when I was 15. They offered an interesting opportunity involving computers at a Department of Energy facility. Since then I've worked in both the private and public sector.

From those experiences, I think a lot of people don't recognize that while there's a political dimension to the U.S. government -- namely the people we elect and who in turn can nominate or confirm individuals to political appointments -- there's also a decidedly non-political dimension as well, focused solely on getting the work of democracy done without partisanship.

It concerns me when I see books or posts that say millennials are turned off by dysfunctional politics and thus must be turned off to government. Such discussions miss the fact that we will always need non-political individuals willing to step outside their own self-interests and do the work of democracy.

With the Internet, and the coming “Internet of everything,” we are seeing massive opportunities to revise how we get the work of a democracy done. Public service can be more transparent. Public service can engage citizens more. Public service can hold leaders more accountable. With all these advances, however, we need to have honest conversations about the rapid changes. We need to talk about how they are placing additional burdens, absent of politics, on how non-partisan individuals make democracy work.

On public service, government and the startup mentality:

Public service is helping get democracy done, and it begins with all members of the public willing to do this. It's all of us -- you, me, our next-door neighbors, and neighbors in distant states.

If you imagine public service as a triangle, living in a representative democracy means that it involves all of us at the top. Then at the other two points at the base of the triangle are private-public partnerships in support of social endeavors (beyond just individual corporate interests) on one side and government professionals brokering these efforts with the public on the other side.

In the private sector, startups are favored because they don't have the burden of legacy infrastructure and can use venture capital funds to "fail fast, fail often" until they find a profitable model that leads to an initial public offering of stock.

Public service however -- especially when it comes to what government professionals can do -- has the necessary burden of legacy organizations, including existing infrastructure as well as legal code. Collectively we the public probably don't want a sudden change in our laws, or at the very least I'm not sure we could all agree on exactly how we would want those laws to suddenly change. Furthermore, if government professionals were to adopt a "fail fast, fail often" model, there wouldn’t be a source of venture capital funding in hopes of an IPO. We have to be fiducially accountable for the best use of taxpayer funds as we work to adapt to our rapidly changing world.

This means that experimentation needs to occur not only by government professionals, but also by members of the public directly and private-public partners. Citizens can explore new approaches to informing public service, such as the jury-based approaches to decision-making being tested in parts of Australia. Private-public partnerships can experiment with building bridges between the public and government professionals to advance the work of democracy in ways not possible prior to the Internet.

On working for change within the bureaucracy:

Certainly, it is possible to have non-partisan change agents within a bureaucracy. I’d like to think I was hired as one back in the 1990s and that I continue to gravitate to these environments: bioterrorism preparedness and response in the early 2000s, service in Afghanistan to rethink our efforts there in 2009, and overcoming legacy IT at the FCC most recently.

The Founders were change agents for their time, and throughout our nation's history there have been other change agents in government as well. They have never been the majority and they certainly haven’t been the target of recruiting efforts. But the same is true in private sector companies. Ford Motor Co. was the first organization to document what is called the 20/80 rule: "80 percent of the value created is likely to be generated in the 20 percent of time when, through a combination of circumstances, the employee is operating at his/her highest level of effectiveness."

IBM nearly went bankrupt in the 1990s before a small team of change agent insurgents turned the company around. Several other companies have similar stories of change agents making a difference.

I believe a variation of the 20/80 rule applies to public service. To expect that there will ever be more than 20 percent of individuals across public service focused on transforming beyond the status quo is to have unrealistic expectations of human nature. First, there will always be a need for folks dedicated to just keeping the trains running in a fair and repeatable manner -- there’s significant value in that. Second, public service is meant to be hard to change. It's worth going back to the Federalist Papers No. 51, in which James Madison wrote in 1788: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

The Founders had fought a war against a king, and the last thing they wanted was to give too much power to any one individual who would wield it like a monarch. The brilliance of the Founders was using ambitious human nature as a check and balance against the ambition of other human natures. Bureaucracy itself is not a bad thing; personally I celebrate that there are checks and balances in our system. Having too much power can corrupt the decisions of even the best human being.

That is why I think articles saying millennials are discouraged because they have to "hack the bureaucracy" are missing the point. Of course you have to hack the bureaucracy. You have to build coalitions. You can’t attempt to create a change effort by yourself or just from one office. You have to work across all of public service, setting aside your own ambitions and truly taking on the mantle of the greater good. What we face now, however, with the exponential increase in Internet technologies, is a speed and volume unprecedented in the history of humanity. We need to have nonpartisan, apolitical conversations on getting the work of a democracy done under such circumstances.

On attracting more millennials to public service:

First, reframe the narrative. Current narratives have oversimplified discussions to five-second sound bites. Millennials are smart and perceptive enough to appreciate the issue is not simply one-sided.

Second, at a national level the political leaders of government, elected or appointed, need to reach out to nonpartisan government professionals. While cities can be run solely by a mayor and his or her political supporters, a nation cannot. There need to be elements removed from politics to ensure that works gets done regardless of who is elected.

Third, political leaders need to understand that the non-partisan parts of government will support whoever is in charge and in fact help them avoid the missteps of previous political leaders. Non-partisan executives leave their politics at home. We focus on the public -- not our individual ideologies.

With these three elements in place, we can have a meaningful discussion. This includes a frank conversation about transparency. I celebrate that the Internet has allowed the public sector to be more transparent and more accountable than ever before. At the same time, if politics requires political individuals to make compromises, have we gained dramatic transparency only to lose the ability for political individuals to make compromises and still claim success to their constituents? Do we the public still permit elected individuals to compromise or are we forcing a winner-take-all mentality that undermines a nation brought together by representative democracy?

Similarly, I celebrate that the Internet now allows us to interact and engage on social media. I do wonder, however, if those same advances make it easier for echo chambers to arise, where we dismiss information that challenges our existing worldviews and selectively seek information that reaffirms what we already believe to be true. I also wonder if those same advances in Internet technologies and social media make it easier for us to "armchair quarterback" or oversimplify situations.

For example: In 1908 a young Ensign Chester W. Nimitz ran his destroyer, the USS Decatur, into a sand bar in the Philippines. Had this event happened today, all the major news outlets would have had helicopter footage of the breaking news around the clock, including Twitter hashtags such as #FireNimitz. Pundits would press for a review of Navy procedures at all levels, including mass resignations or court martials. But in 1908 Nimitz was found guilty of neglect of duty, issued a letter of reprimand and then returned to duty. Later he became Fleet Adm. Nimitz of the United States Navy during World War II.

On attracting the “best and brightest” to public service:

I think some, not all, of the best and brightest definitely are attracted to public service. There’s joy in tackling incredibly hard national issues. There also are three additional adjectives that I think are missing beyond "best" and "brightest": driven, compassionate, and self-sacrificing. You see it in both our military and civilian service. Public service is about serving issues and causes bigger than yourself. Public service is about serving in a non-partisan fashion, focused foremost on the public. Public service is about setting aside ambition to build coalitions of change agents across organizations and sectors to get the work of democracy done.

A few weeks ago I had the honor of emceeing the Next Generation of Public Service Awards. We recognized 30 finalists at the local, state, and federal levels who have done impressive work that embodies some of the best, the brightest, most driven, compassionate, and self-sacrificing people you'll ever meet. Click here to watch a video about them.

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