This year, May 5-11 is Public Service Recognition Week. Since 1985, the first full week in May is designated as the annual celebration of the contributions of public servants in federal, state, local, and tribal government. Across the nation, more than 22 million dedicated people serve in government, including in our public schools and universities.

Although we have emerged from the pandemic, it is important to remember that public servants, including in local government, continued to do their jobs quietly and effectively throughout the crisis. Government employees risked their health and the health of their loved ones to deliver essential services, including to the neediest members of our society.

Public servants at all levels were on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus. Many healthcare professionals who courageously and selflessly cared for COVID-19 patients were government employees. Other public servants continued to protect our nation and our communities, fight fires, operate public transportation, preserve the environment, provide social services, deliver mail, and maintain public facilities and infrastructure. Their colleagues delivered essential services behind the scenes, less visibly but just as importantly.

Local Government Vacancies

Today, public servants continue to serve the American public even as government struggles to attract and retain talent. Critical jobs go unfilled in law enforcement, 911 call centers, public health, public transit, public finance, and other occupations. In March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 492,000 vacancies in state and local government but only 182,000 hires. The ratio of vacancies to hires in state and local government is more than twice the comparable ratio in the private sector.

According to one headline, “A Slow-moving Crisis is Paralyzing States and Cities.” As another journalist put it, “Government Worker Shortages Worsen Crisis Response.” It’s not hyperbole to say that when government fails, people can die.

A national survey revealed that 59 percent of state and local government employees were considering changing jobs or leaving the workforce entirely. And 77 percent said that vacancies have put a strain on their workloads, with 34 percent characterizing the strain as “significant.”

The Vicious Cycle

It’s a vicious cycle. Vacancies cause excessive workloads, which create stress that leads to turnover, and then the resulting vacancies are hard to fill.

Despite this workforce crisis, public servants persevere to deliver essential services to the American public.

Their dedication stands in sharp contrast to heated rhetoric about the role and effectiveness of government. This debate frequently generates more heat than light, especially during election season, when harsh and usually unjustified criticism of public servants can reach a crescendo.

Unfortunately, most members of the public don’t understand the ways that government positively affects their lives. As I quoted one person in my book Engaging Government Employees, “Keep government out of my life but don’t mess with my social security.”

Calls to Serve?

Despite the challenges of attracting and retaining government talent, the American public continues to ask government to solve some of our toughest and most intractable problems. We expect government to protect our nation and our communities; maintain a strong economy; provide emergency and disaster relief; ensure what we eat and drink are safe; fight poverty and homelessness; maintain our infrastructure, parks and recreation facilities; protect us as consumers; safeguard the environment; ensure affordable healthcare; educate our children; and play a leadership role in creating an equitable, inclusive, and diverse society.

President George H. W. Bush characterized public service “… as the highest and noblest calling.” He also said, “There is no higher honor than to serve free men and women, no greater privilege than to labor in government,” and described public servants as “… the most unsung heroes in America.”

Calls to serve like this motivated the best and brightest to make a difference through government service—in Washington, in their state capitals, and in their local communities.

Unfortunately, this is too often no longer true. Public confidence in all levels of government is down, and too many young people consider government careers boring and bureaucratic.

What to do?

To revive the excitement about public service, government needs to communicate and market careers as unique opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people government serves. Jobs that provide purpose and meaning.

At an event where I spoke recently, an attendee asked me why I do what I do. The question wasn’t just about my current job, where I promote public service and effective HR practices. It was really about why I have spent almost 50 years working in and with government at all levels (mostly in).

The short answer is that I do what I do, and will continue to do it as long as I can, because I believe in government and the ability—the potential and power—of government to help the people it serves live meaningful lives.

The public servants I have worked with and known don’t want awards, big salaries, or hefty bonuses. They just want to make a difference. And they do, every single day. They also want the people they serve to understand and appreciate the contributions government makes to our nation, our states, and our communities.

While we should celebrate these contributions year-round, it is especially fitting we do so during Public Service Recognition Week.

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