“You Wouldn’t Understand Because You’re Not Actually a Public Servant!”

That was the response I got on a call a few weeks ago whilst having a lively conversation with a member of a government’s civil service.

“You wouldn’t understand because you’re not actually a public servant.”

At first this was tough for me to handle. I was taken aback. I’ve lived my life for governments; opting at every turn to do something for the civic and social good over my own private interests.

In this person’s defense, indeed I am no longer a full-time staff member in a government — I work with multiple in an advisory or consultancy role.

I think that’s public service.

I also now work with a handful of government-focused startup companies — all of which dedicate their lives and livelihoods to helping people.

I think that’s public service.

And I also now serve on the board of a handful of nonprofits working hand-in-hand with governments and elected officials — not to just help them in the polls or elections, but in getting them better, deeper, and more insightful engagement with their constituencies.

I think that’s public service as well.


So I suppose I was taken aback not so much at the critique of me — indeed I’m happy to admit there are many things I don’t know — but more of the broader implication. Aren’t those advisors, consultants, and volunteers working with government, public servants; those startups optimizing governments’ technology, public servants; and those nonprofits dedicated to improving civic life, public servants?

I sincerely hope so. Because it’d be a sad world to live in where folks, ranging from the volunteers I’ve been inspired by like Joel Riphagen, and Maya Wallace in Sacramento, to the entrepreneurs I’ve learned from like Nick Bowden and Scott Burns, in Kansas City and St. Paul, to the nonprofit leaders I know like Seamus Kraft (OpenGov Foundation) and Tiffani Ashley Bell (HumanUtility), weren’t considered public servants. They live their lives to serve the public. That’s all that they do. When they could do much else.

As do so many others.

We need to expand our definition of public service to not just include the amazing people who sit within City Hall to those who sit on the outside, helping prop it up.

Because public service shouldn’t just be a job description, but a job; it’s something you do, wherever, and however you can.