Why we serve

May 10, 2013

(Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

Federal employees have different reasons for choosing a career in public service. Some have been influenced by personal experiences or external events. Some have followed in the footsteps of their parents or have been inspired by other role models. Many have a strong sense of idealism and share the common thread of being mission driven and wanting to help people and make a difference for society.

In keeping with this year’s Public Service Recognition Week (May 5-11) theme of “Why I Serve,” my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, asked Cabinet secretaries, other federal leaders and some rank-and-file employees about their reasons for choosing to work in government. Their responses are illuminating and, in this often cynical world, quite inspiring.

Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, for example, is among those influenced by external events in his life. “I serve because I grew up in New York City at a time when homelessness was exploding, when we were wondering whether American cities would survive,” said Donovan. “I was at the 1977 World Series in the Bronx when broadcaster Howard Cosell said to the audience, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.’ I felt like, having witnessed that, the best way I could give back was by working in public service to try to end homelessness and bring cities back.”

Andrew Rabens, a special adviser for youth engagement for the State Department, found his motivation after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which he said ignited a desire to better understand the similarities, differences, ambitions, aspirations and dreams of people around the globe. “September 11 happened three days into my first week of freshman year at Harvard, and ultimately helped change my trajectory from someone intent on becoming a professional tennis player to someone intent on entering into the global political environment,” Rabens said.

Ernie DuBester, chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, said that he was part of the earlier generation that was inspired by President Kennedy’s call to public service. “In my field of labor-management relations, I have had the privilege of serving at three different agencies—two in leadership positions. My experiences have sustained my lifelong belief that all federal employees make a noble contribution to our country,” DuBester said.

Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shared that his father's example led him to public service. “He had a distinguished, 37-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I grew up admiring the work he did and the people he did it with. While he worked, I explored incredible places like Florida's Sanibel Island, Big Pine Key, and Merritt Island; and Georgia's Okefeenokee Swamp and Blackbeard Island,” Ashe said. “Through these experiences, I grew to understand how important and rewarding it is to protect wildlife and wild places for current and future generations. I serve because it makes my country better and it makes me better as a citizen and a person."

Likewise, Anthony S. Lloyd, commanding officer for the National Maritime Center, U.S. Coast Guard, noted he followed in the footsteps of family members who served in the military and found the Coast Guard to be “a unique and challenging opportunity.” The humanitarian aspect of the Coast Guard’s mission, such as helping people during earthquakes and hurricanes, has been most fulfilling, he said. “Wanting to do these types of operations is why I wanted to serve and why I chose the Coast Guard.”

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander also took the military route, starting at West Point to get a good education and expecting to serve for just five years.  “Along the way, I was captured by the people in the Army. I enjoyed the camaraderie and was inspired by the sense that we serve something larger than ourselves,” Alexander said. “It is a privilege and honor to serve here with these great folks who have a common dedication to the defense of our nation."

Many others have been driven by mission and the opportunity to use their skills and knowledge on behalf of the country. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said his service is dedicated to having “the greatest possible impact improving health,” while Louis W. Uccellini, the director of National Weather Service, said he is firmly believes in “the agency's mission to protect life and property” by delivering the best possible forecasts and warnings.

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said she “answered the call to work in public service because I know government scientists, inspectors, and educators have an opportunity to put science to work to improve the safety of our food supply, ultimately preventing on a large scale the illnesses I once treated as a practitioner.”

Myron Diftler, Robnaut Project lead at NASA, said he has always loved working on robotics and has had a fascination with space exploration. He said it has been a dream come true to “work on something that I love and to have that work contribute to the development of the first in a line of robots that will accompany astronauts on their missions in orbit around the Earth and beyond.”

Neha Sheth, an attorney in the Office of Human Rights and Refugees at the State Department, worked during law school in Nepal on providing reparations for victims of Nepal’s civil war, and for civil rights organizations in Argentina. She always envisioned a career that involved service, and working at the State Department has allowed her to combine that goal with her passion for international affairs.

For Carolyn W. Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, working for the government fits perfectly with her “passion for helping others,” while Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she serves because “I think the future can and should be better than the present, and I think working in public service is the best way to help achieve that.”

“I did it when I was a governor. I focused on education. In my current role, I focus on security and immigration and the rule of law and each of those are very different in a way, but they do have that common uniting theme,” Napolitano said.

And then there’s acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator Bob Perciasepe, who said his reasons for working in government are quite simple straightforward.

I’m just trying to make a difference in the world. It may seem idealistic, but there's nothing wrong with idealism,” Perciasepe said. “I started working in city government where it's close and personal and when you are trying to deal with a neighborhood problem and you have to go to the meetings at night. Having that experience and working at the federal level has been a remarkable blessing.  I’m really in awe of the work that we do here.”

Why did you choose a career in public service? How do you believe your work is making a difference? Please share your “Why I Serve” stories in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Read also:

A great speech on why to go into public service

Ideas for Public Service Recognition Week

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