“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Nelson Mandela
The famous quote by America’s thirty‐fifth president, John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” well embodies and supports inspiration for entering public service. For those who have chosen public service as a profession, it is clear that the work they do matters. They directly impact people’s lives in very tangible ways. They provide the necessities – clean drinking water, emergency response, drivable roads, electricity, healthcare – and these are critical to a community. But beyond the list of important services, they have a larger role. They help improve the quality of life. For most people in the public sector, their job is more than a pay cheque. What matters to them is the opportunity they have been given to serve their community and country, and many of them take great pride in their work.
Public service is a noble and important calling which is based on the belief that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income or status; that certain services need to be centrally administered in order to be effectively managed for the common good and that some services are needed to protect all citizens. It is often characterised as the most economical way to provide a service to all citizens rather than depending on the individual capability of citizens of the state to meet those needs.
What ties all public service workers together, however, is the belief that serving the needs of the public is noble and dignifying. The public sector serves a threefold vital role as the provider of public goods, the guardian of the common good and the promoter of civic good. As an arena where collective social problems are solved, many people are drawn to the public sector because of their desire to be change agents and to make a difference in the society in which they live.
It is because of this philosophical foundation that public service is viewed as essential to the wellbeing of a democratic society. The vast majority of people in this line of work are proud of how they make a difference and find great personal satisfaction in serving their community. Public service belongs to a different breed of professional life. It comprises people not interested in becoming rich, but making meaningful contributions to the society. Public servants are as capable and intelligent as their counterparts in the private sector, but how they are unique is their willingness to forego personal gains in the longing to make the world a better place. They seek out meaning over profit.
In choosing to serve the public, the public servant knows that he has been offered a daily opportunity to make his community a better place. Our country exists today because of the many public servants who have risked their lives and fortunes, putting the interests of their country ahead of their own. Their sacrifices, courage and vision as public servants have inspired many others to follow the path of excellence and commitment to the higher good of the nation. Today’s public servants must share this same need to care for the commons, to promote the public good, and to see free and democratic self‐government succeed in our corner of the world. By doing so, they fulfil their sense of calling, and they address their own deep need for significance. Like the founding fathers of our nation, those who have chosen this life of service need to realise that it is not just their fellow citizens but also themselves who are the true beneficiaries of the service they render to the public.
Today, many public service institutions across the nation are finding new and creative ways to provide quality services to the people. They are redefining partnerships to include public, private, and not-for-profit collaboration, as well as shared services among public institutions. Whether it is the assistance they provide in the event of human disaster, implementing quality services and programmes that make people want to live in the communities in which they serve, or simply helping people to realize their life’s aspirations, there truly is a higher moral purpose to the work that public servants do.
In many public service institutions today, innovation is moving beyond a concept to a concrete and necessary practice. While we cannot understate the character and commitment of public servants, it is crucial that we understand that public service is not solely the responsibility of the government. All of us – from individual residents to global organisations – have to share in the responsibility of caring for our communities. Our perception of public service must evolve.
• To be continued.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
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