When I asked him what he’d like me to write about as a guest blogger for It’s Logical, Kelly suggested that “I would love to hear about an inspiring moment of public service you have encountered or something that has you excited for the future.” That requires some thought and therefore becomes a challenge. Before I began to write in response to that request, I spent some time thinking about what it really means.
To me, public service is more of an avocation than it is an expression of a point in time. A person’s aptitudes can lead them towards seeing the value in service and, if they’re true to that part of their makeup, they’ll be providing service to society through a number of channels over a number of years.
I’ve seen lots of public servants who express that value through small things like being on the parent council at school or participating in a bottle drive for a charity. Some will take it further and belong to a service club or take a leadership role in their faith community. Yet others will make a career out of public service. Some will work for the government and become a - capital letters - Public Servant, while others will still put their effort into serving others in many ways that don’t involve getting a paycheque from one order of government or another.
When I think of inspiring public servants – rather than inspiring moments of public service – there are those who I’ve never met; truly inspiring people like the Famous Five who fought for personhood many decades ago. Their legacy of service lives on today in who gets to choose our governments. And there are those who I know at least a little bit, like the late Lois Hole, who eventually became Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor, but who I encountered in my library life. These are modest people who did great things from which we all ultimately benefit.
When it comes to public service, honorifics really don’t matter. I have the privilege of working with many dozens or hundreds of local elected officials over the course of any given year, and I see them falling along a continuum between those who’re in the job for themselves, and those who’re in
the role because they want to serve others.
There is a huge difference between someone who is a true leader and someone who is just an authority figure. Many mayors and reeves I see are both leaders and authority figures, and those are usually the most effective people. The authenticity that comes with public service provides the individual with more authority than just the chain of office does.
I’ve also seen many a council member or even a public member of a board or committee who are more the ‘leader’ than a lot of mayors. I see this in people who are willing to step up, and take on the tasks that might be low-profile but which are necessary. These quiet selfless acts that almost nobody knows about are the true mark or inspirational public service to me.
The second part of Kelly’s query to me was what excites me for the future in terms of public service. Oddly, I think the COVID-10 pandemic plays into this. Society has been forced to make decisions that it may not have otherwise made for years or even decades to come because we have had to adapt to an external rapidly changing circumstance. What excites me is the possibility that we might learn from this. Tomorrow doesn’t have to be as challenging as it seems. We’ve shown ourselves that innovation is possible, and that risk is tolerable. I often ask my local government clients what they would keep from among the changes that COVID-19 has forced on us. Some suggest there is nothing they’d keep and that they can’t wait for restrictions to be lifted and for us all to go back to the way things were in the ‘before’ days. This saddens me a bit. When ‘leaders’ are challenged and respond, it surprises me that they’d revert back to the way it used to be when they’re given a huge opportunity to ‘level up’ to a new way of serving.
I have much more hope for those who say there are post-pandemic changes that will stick, and most of those are about how we interact with one another. We’ll stay with virtual or hybrid council meetings, we’ll host open houses in ways that work for people, we’ll question the services and programs we provide to make sure they still are valuable and that they build the well-being of citizens. These are the types outcomes that inspire me. Leaders think this way, authority figures don’t – or they’ll just take credit for someone else’s effort and accept none of the risk. I certainly see those people too.
Most of us choose to live in community with one another. As Mr. Rogers is purported to have said, “always look for the helpers”. Those are the people engaged in true and authentic public service.
Ian McCormack lives in the space between appointed or elected officials and organizations’ managers.
Since 2000, Ian has worked on governance and structural reviews, strategy development and implementation, and orientations or refreshers for boards of directors and elected officials. He has done this both as an employee of government and as a business adviser in the private sector, working for himself and others.
As a nationally recognized Certified Management Consultant (CMC) his areas of interest include local government, libraries, post-secondary education, health, non-profit organizations and community safety.