For most of human history, working in civil service or for the military was revered. Only the best of the best, or those with the best connections, made it into the elite community of officials running towns, cities, states, and countries. But in America, for the last 40 years, we have denigrated what were previously considered plum jobs. Since Ronald Reagan came to Washington, we have been destroying the image of public service.
And now we’re living COVID-19 -- a crisis affecting us all at once. A crisis that is laying bare how government works in a way few people previously understood. It is making heroes of the procurement officers in health departments across the country. Public employees – usually cast as uninspired, uncaring, and untalented – are keeping our nation in motion during this time of global closures. Maybe, just maybe, the true value of civil servants will again be realized, and they’ll regain the luster they rightly enjoyed for most of the entire history of civilization.
I hope so. It’s time. It’s actually way past due.
I had the chance last June to testify before The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service – a bipartisan, 11-member group created by Congress in 2017 to develop recommendations to inspire more Americans to serve. Moving more Americans to active participation and contribution to our society is essential to our nation’s long-term viability and success.
A March report issued by The Commission to Congress and the President introduced Inspired to Serve which offers a bold plan to boost all forms of service to “address domestic and security needs, invigorate civil society, and strengthen our democracy.”
The U.S. has had a strong spirit of service for centuries, yet today, just 24 million people participate in some form of military, national, or public service for our common good. With America’s population north of 329 million, that’s a pretty poor showing. A mere seven percent of our people are engaged in public service.
Sectors including security, disaster response, education, conservation, healthcare, and housing depend upon citizen participation. But Americans clearly have not been able to ditch the feelings that have long come from repeated and unchallenged “I’m here from the government and here to help” messages.
Post pandemic, we must inspire civil service as we restructure our healthcare system, update our disaster response capacity, improve schools, upgrade infrastructure, adapt to climate change, and defend the population where needed.
It’s time we all come together for good and back up our government. We need a civil service reboot so we don’t short circuit the next time we face never-before-experienced situations. The patchwork response to COVID-19 proves we need more than 1 in 13 people participating in service roles.
What does that mean for brands, agencies, and marketers? That we have a role in changing the perceptions of marginalized people. Stop piling on and further sullying the reputation of civil servants -- aka government employees, even those at the local DMV -- by casting and depicting them as incompetent oafs and the source of great inconvenience and problems.
Commercials and pop-culture bits must stop teasing and marginalizing public servants. Who would want to face family and friends after their job took a public beating on a late-night talk show? Why would people want to serve and be part of something with such a sullied reputation? Who would volunteer for that?
We must market the value and user benefit of their work. It’s these very government employees who are teaching your kids, delivering your mail, and responding to emergencies. Position them as the noble, diligent, competent experts that have made our society the envy of most of the world for the last 75 years.
We’ve been given a real-time, high-stakes lesson in the essential role of excellence civil servants play in the health, well-being, and safety of America. Madison Avenue, please accept this call to arms and work to create a culture that reveres public service.
It’s our way to serve our nation.