Over the past few days, we witnessed testimony of civil servants in hearings on Capitol Hill, who exhibited deep professional expertise, a complete devotion to the mission of their agency, and an honesty that naturally arises from a code of ethics motivating service to others above all.
There are millions of such persons in the US civil service, military, public health agencies, as well as state, county, and city institutions. Many of them have educational achievements, creative thinking skills, energy and drive that exceed most employees of private sector organizations. Many have chosen to work in government as a way to serve the larger society. They believe in the value of strong societies, and they use their roles in an institution to achieve this.
They are, as a set, relatively modest personalities; few seek the limelight. They work on really big problems. The problems their work pursues are not solved easily. Satisfaction from their work relies on deferred gratification. The problems often involve multiple stakeholders with competing interests. Solutions depend on understanding and empathizing with all of those stakeholders. Hence, the personal success of this staff often depends more on listening, comprehending, and reflection. Only with those traits can creative solutions that maximize benefits with minimal harm be achieved.
Recent history shows that institutions designed to serve the common good can indeed be easily weakened. This has occurred in the eco-system of US state universities through diminished funding, in state public health agencies, and in some Federal agencies. Weakened institutions designed to serve the common good tend to fail in their mission at a higher rate. Loss of trust in such institutions is understandable.
With such distrust, some believe that real change can arise only at micro-levels, with a small number individuals of good will sharing goals and working collaboratively on solutions. Such actions can indeed improve the group good, but scaling those solutions depends on large scale cultural changes to spread the behavior over millions of such groups. Much good can come from such small-scale actions. They are necessary, but not sufficient.
With compromised common-good institutions, it is easy to give up hope for societal improvements and turn away from institutions. With weakened institutions, it is tempting to turn to direct action to demand and shape large scale change.
There is, however, another way forward, focusing on attempts to increase the efficacy of common-good institutions. When the best minds and hearts in the society devote themselves to these institutions, they become stronger.
We saw a glimpse of the strength of character and intellect of such people over the past few days. I hope it inspires a new generation of “women and men for others” to choose to devote their energy to renewing such institutions.