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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Parks and Recreation on ‘Sexy’ Public Service

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Leave it to a TV character to do what no actual politician has been able to accomplish in recent years: speak persuasively, even movingly, about the meaning and value of public service.

Last night, the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation finished its seven-year run, cementing its legacy as the most pro-government sitcom in the history of television. The last episode, like those before it this season, jumps ahead in time to various points in the future. It begins with the gang from a small city’s Parks Department getting together in 2017, before they all move on to new phases in their lives, to help fix a swingset at a local park.

Then, in a scene set eight years later, they all get back together for a reunion. The show’s central character, relentless do-gooder Leslie Knope, offers a toast to her former coworkers:

When we worked together, we fought, scratched and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about -- small incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.” And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with the people you love.

Later, Leslie is shown receiving an honorary degree from Indiana University, in a scene set 10 years further into the future, in 2035:

I started my career more than 30 years ago, in the Parks and Recreation Department right here in Pawnee, Indiana. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor. Soon, a new unknown challenge awaits me, which to me even now is thrilling, because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn’t sexy, because it definitely is. But that’s not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing alongside people we love. So I thank those people who have worked with me, and I thank you for this honor. Now go find your team and go to work.

In these days of shutdowns, sequesters, pay freezes and attacks on bureaucratic bloat, it’s easy to lose sight of that simple truth. But Leslie Knope and company never had an easy time of it either, and never got much in the way of public or political support. So they did what they could: Formed a team and went to work. There’s a lesson in that.

Watch part of Leslie’s speech:

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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