Protesters angry about stay-at-home orders rally at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 30, 2020.

Protesters angry about stay-at-home orders rally at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 30, 2020. Paul Sancya/AP

Balancing Freedom and Responsibility on the Front Lines of Public Service

The pandemic has amplified Americans’ love-hate relationship with their government.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of anything, it’s that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with our government—and the public servants who work there. 

On one hand, we treasure the individual freedoms that are guaranteed by our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and their progeny, and in many instances, we just want the government to leave us alone. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it’s one of the things that makes us uniquely American. However, paradoxically, we Americans also want the government to be there for us, to keep the peace and protect us from harm, especially in times of extraordinary crisis, like the pandemic that besets us today. 

Without exception, public servants have responded to that paradoxical call, sometimes at great personal risk, and in so doing, they’ve given us yet another reason for expressing our appreciation during this Public Service Recognition Week.

This paradox goes back to our founding, when Madison, Hamilton, and others debated the nature of our fledgling democracy in the Federalist papers. They understood that the acts of individual citizens, all personally and perfectly rational, could still have a deleterious collective affect, and that led them to propose a system of checks and balances designed to curb the excesses of those individual interests. They also predicted tension between those interests and the collective, albeit a healthy one, and as we fast forward to today’s COVID-19 pandemic, we see that tension playing out every day in the debate between stay-at-home orders and re-openings.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the United States was created in part to strike a balance between individual “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on one hand, and the greater public good on the other. After all, freedom is never free. It requires compromise, something we should have learned in high school civics classes. However, our front-line public servants find themselves in the middle of that debate, trying to strike that lofty balance whether they know (or like) it or not. To most of us, they are the government, and while this week tends to focus on thanking them for their service to us, this is a part of their jobs that remains even more unsung and unappreciated.

So, in addition to thanking public employees for all the things that they do, I think we also need to thank them for trying to help us find that balance between our American antipathy towards government and the need, sometimes grudgingly acknowledged, for what it does.

I saw that first-hand way back in the late 1990’s, when I was chief human resources officer for the Internal Revenue Service. Trying to overcome a history of taxpayer intimidation, the Service was under a congressional mandate to become more customer-focused (not an easy thing to do for a tax collection agency). Led by then-Commissioner Charles Rossotti, “service to each, service to all” became our mantra. 

Intended to strike a balance between the needs of an individual taxpayer—the “service to each” part—with the needs of the many, as reflected in the tax laws enacted by elected representatives in Congress, our employees demanded to know which one was more important. But then, like now, there’s no right answer to that question. It’s not either/or but both. Then, as now, it comes down to the way each public servant tries to strike that balance between individual freedoms and collective responsibility, even as they just try to do their jobs. 

That was not an easy thing to ask of IRS employees back then, nor is it any easier to ask it of public servants now. However, its importance is underscored by the coronavirus pandemic, and it is one that is occurring every day on the front lines of government, where individual public servants—police officers and park rangers, nurses and doctors, even building and food inspectors—have to find a balance between the individual freedoms afforded their neighbors (including the freedom from harm), and the public interests that they are sworn to protect. Indeed, nearly every civil servant that comes in contact with the public faces that challenge.

One could argue that the same is true for workers of all stripes, particularly those who own and operate small businesses. They too have to choose between their personal safety (and that of their customers) and their economic livelihood. As our fellow citizens struggle with that choice, their love-hate relationship with government becomes all too real. So, even as they worry about “big government” infringing on their financial well-being, they also look to the government to provide them an economic safety net, police and fire protection, and if they should become sick, health care.  

This love-hate relationship Americans have with governments is especially relevant during this year’s Public Service Recognition Week. It manifests itself in the day-to-day interactions citizens have with public servants, whether those interactions occur in person or online. And given the pressures that every American faces in this crisis, those interactions can be even more testy and tense than normal, especially when they are magnified and amplified by the media. 

For the nation’s public servants, too often that means that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and for that, we owe them an extra dose of appreciation this week. 

Ron Sanders is director and clinical professor with the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs; he also serves as chair of the Federal Salary Council. A 37-year civil servant and 21-year member of the Senior Executive Service, he was associate director of National Intelligence, associate director of the Office of Personnel Management, chief human resource officer for the IRS, and director of civilian personnel policy for the Defense Department. The views expressed here are his alone.