The Blog

Restoring Honor to Public Service

When George Washington took the oath as president, public service was an honored obligation. Today, most Americans associate honor with military service but tend to view those who enter civil service as "feds," "bureaucrats," and a necessary evil.
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When George Washington took the oath as president, public service was an honored obligation. Today, most Americans associate honor with military service but tend to view those who enter civil service as "feds," "bureaucrats," and a necessary evil. They think "the best and the brightest" either are or should be in the private sector. This is healthy neither for the nation nor the public service.

In June 1940, the French government surrendered to Adolph Hitler and began to round up German and Jewish refugees, sending them to Nazi extermination camps. The State Department, which wanted to limit immigration and maintain good relations with the new Vichy government, refused most requests to issue visas to refugees. However, Hiram Bingham IV, the American Vice Counsel in Marseilles, ignored his superiors and issued 2,000 travel visas and fake passports. After complaints from German and French officials, he was transferred to Portugal and then Argentina. There, he reported on the practice of giving safe harbor to Nazi war criminals. When the State Department refused to investigate, Bingham resigned in protest.

How do we get more like him? As his case shows, honor demands not just good technical job skills but an orientation to the inherent values of life, liberty, and justice enshrined in the Constitution. We need government employees who do their jobs well, but honorable service demands more.

Public servants must see themselves as citizens first, and government workers second. They need a passionate commitment to making what Washington called the "American experiment" work. Their primary touchstone must be their Oath of Office, which demands moral thought and action. They must see themselves as trustees of founding values. If this sounds like idealism, what are the Declaration of Impendence and Constitution if not enshrined idealism? The public servant must ask if actions taken "establish Justice," as the Constitution's Preamble promises. This will often mean acting with benevolence, charity and love for others, which is what the Danish civil service did when, unlike the French, it refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis.

For the honorable public servant, efficiency and effectiveness -- paramount in the private sector -- are not always the most important values, because the audience for public servants is citizens, not customers. Citizens need to be actively engaged, while customers need only to consume goods and services. Honorable public servants, know that a passive citizenry is not the ideal to seek because it makes their job easier but the danger to avoid because it distances the public from its responsibility to share in governing. The honorable public servant has a time horizon that looks long-term. The "bottom line" for public servants is democracy not profit.

If we aim to restore honor to public service, we must educate government workers to understand the need for honorable action. They must learn to think Constitutionally, which means they must understand both the Federalist and anti-Federalist views that have been with us since the Founding and the central values that govern our republican government.

We must also identify and publicly recognize public servants who honor their oath by being moral exemplars. Those in our armed forces make sacrifices in (and too often of) their personal lives that most civil servants are never asked to make. They deserve all the honors we bestow upon them. Yet, honoring civil servants need not diminish the honor accorded to our military. Honoring public servants is not a zero-sum game.

We must support as well those who are "morally injured" due to their faithfulness to the demands of their oath. Such injury occurs whenever public servants witness action that violates the oath -- and often when they exhibit moral courage in trying to bring such action to light and change it. Unfortunately, the response of agency superiors to the morally courageous has too often been ostracism or retaliation, not support.

Honorable public servants can hope for respect from a thankful public. But they should not count on it. They can hope for assistance from their leaders. But they should not count on that either. What they should count on is what they can control -- meeting the highest standard of duty and fidelity to the Constitution and the people. That requires constant self-reflection and improvement.

This is what Hiram Bingham accomplished. He was not recognized for it until more than half a century later, when Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a "courageous diplomat" award posthumously to his children. But he did not act to earn honor. That came, albeit belatedly, because of who he was and how he understood his role as a public servant. It would further honor him, and serve us well as a nation, if we encouraged more to follow in his footsteps.

(This blog is excerpted from my latest book: To Serve with Honor: Doing the Right Thing in Government.)