Positive Public Service

Making Good Government the Rule Rather Than the Exception

Photo by Jomar Thomas on Unsplash

I’ve worked in the public sector for over twenty years both as a consultant and a government employee, and have seen government at its best. But I’ve also seen many challenges that stifle committed public servants even when they are doing some good in the world. I believe a lot of frustration stems from their perception that they are not maximizing their potential, hindering government’s effectiveness as a result. When people who want to make a difference are not fully utilizing their skills and talents, it can have a debilitating effect. And bureaucracies are fertile ground for that. I know it first-hand.

The question is, what is holding them back? There is a lot of insight that can be gleaned from the experiences of public servants coupled with research from the field of positive psychology. The information points to a variety of opportunities to help government tackle public sector challenges by enabling more fulfilling work for the employees who have been called upon to address them. As part of my capstone research for the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, I interviewed several current and former public servants to learn what contributed to their best experiences working for the government. Comments from participants included:

It made me feel like I could have done it for free. Brought me personal fulfillment at a level that I hadn’t encountered professionally before. It made me personally optimistic and countered the perception that work is a thing that you do as opposed to being a big part of yourself.

I felt proud and confident that I could do things I never thought I could do before. I remember feeling extremely competent. It was really using my strengths in service…all of my values came together.

We set a goal and worked very hard to achieve it. It wasn’t just chitty chatting and going nowhere — I can’t stand that.

I had always worked in the executive branch of the agency but when this supervisor came it was like a breath of fresh air. She treated me like a colleague and not like I was her employee. She treated me with respect and involved me.

It created a camaraderie that even now…I am still sometimes stunned by the brotherhood and sisterhood that we have.

It pushed me to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do. Made me feel as though I can accomplish things that I never thought I could accomplish before. Made me feel better about myself and my potential.

It felt sexy and cool to work for the government.

Not all but many in government…are making a choice to be there — so the great experience really validated this choice to serve the public.

This may run counter to what many people think of government workers, particularly when seeing embattled public servants in the media or looking over the counter at a seemingly complacent DMV clerk. But such experiences are possible at all levels of government. Recently, after a hard fought victory in Congress on healthcare, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy reflected on his experience in a similar manner, saying:

There are so many days when you wonder whether a career in public service is worth it. All the frustration, the personal attacks, the gridlock — it often makes you wonder whether there’s a better way to spend your life. And then a day comes like today. A day when out of darkness, something truly amazing happens. It’s days like that, all too few and far between, that keep you coming back, to try and try and try again.

Senator Murphy’s experience includes components that I found in my research to be part of public servants’ best experiences. After reviewing responses from all of the public servants whom I interviewed, I found these key themes to play a prominent role:

  • challenge & learning: working on difficult tasks that required new skills
  • impact & efficacy: realizing one could truly make a difference
  • leadership & empowerment: entrusted by a manager to work towards achieving a clear goal
  • collaboration & camaraderie: being part of a supportive team
  • purpose & public service: motivated to help others

Unfortunately, such experiences may be the exception rather than the rule. But that doesn’t mean that public servants should have to settle for less. Around the world, many of them are driven to serve others, but that desire can leave one feeling empty if actual progress is not being made. As I’ve learned, that means they need to be empowered to tackle difficult projects with a passionate team and stretch themselves to new limits to help others in a meaningful way. Managers and leaders in government are in an important position to clear a path to make this possible — making public servants’ work experiences more fulfilling, and making public service more impactful as a result. There’s a lot of potential to be unlocked when you consider that nearly 22 million people work for the government in the U.S. alone.

And that’s where the field of positive psychology can help by informing how best to go about seizing the opportunity before us. Research has demonstrated that life can be full of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, and so the same should be expected of government work. It’s not a pipe dream. Many public servants have already found invigorating work delivering critical services in ways they didn’t think possible, and they want to be given the chance to do it time and time again. I know that first-hand, too.

More of my research on this subject can be found in my paper, “Positive Public Service: Turning Purpose Into Progress by Changing How Government Works From the Inside”, available on Penn’s Scholarly Commons website.

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