By Jim Miller
When Pride Still Mattered is the title of a book by David Maraniss about the life of Vince Lombardi (yes, I am an avid Packer fan). And, while there is much not to like about his management style, everything you hear or read confirms that Lombardi instilled a sense of pride in his players that made the intangible, but all important, difference.
He repeatedly drove home the point that players had a commitment not only to themselves to perform at their very best, but to enhance the image of the organization they represented, the Green Bay Packers.
Unfortunately, all too often these days, we see examples of just the opposite.
A while ago, for example, I received an email with a picture attached showing a stretch of highway where the travel lanes and shoulders had been restriped.
The picture was noteworthy because the person doing the striping, presumably a public employee, simply painted an indentation around a branch that had fallen in the path of the otherwise straight line.
The picture included the caption, “It’s not my job.” Of course, this may have been contrived, but for many it undoubtedly confirmed their suspicions about lazy or incompetent public employees.
In a similar vein, a city official recently told me about an employee in her organization who is frequently absent, often on Friday or Monday. After the more conventional excuses—such as recurring bouts of the flu—no longer passed muster, she confessed that her absences were mostly attributable to her popularity.
With a straight face, she reasoned that her numerous outside commitments to serve as a bridesmaid, visit sick relatives, etc., were all unavoidable consequences of her extensive social and familial relationships. “My job isn’t as important as my other priorities,” she implied.
Certainly, such conduct is not limited to the public sector. How often have you arrived at a restaurant and been ignored while waiting to check in? Or, once seated, had servers pass by, failing even to acknowledge your presence or that your server will be there shortly? Again, the message seems to be: “It’s not my job.”
Such performance conveys a lack of pride not only in one’s own performance, but also in the person’s organization.
All employees, regardless of the type of organization for which they work, have an ethical responsibility to do more than simply get by. In addition, however, those in the public sector must constantly be aware that how they conduct their jobs contributes to the public’s attitude about and confidence in their governments.
That is a critical difference.
If I am unhappy with the service I receive at a restaurant, I can go elsewhere and my bad experience will ultimately be forgotten. But unless I move, I will continue to interact with the same local government that gave me unacceptable service. One such incident may not seem important, but as that and similar stories are told and reinforced throughout the community, citizen trust in government is eroded. Many people unfortunately hold government in low regard to begin with, and such examples only reinforce that perception.
The burden to set a standard for excellence falls especially to elected officials. Above all else, building and maintaining citizen trust should be a primary job of all elected officials. That means insisting on exemplary, not merely adequate, performance by employees, but also making sure that their own public conduct and decision making as a governing body are respectful and fair, even courageous if need be. Because of their visibility and stature, elected officials must be role models for government at its best.
Ronald Reagan once quipped: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Humorous, perhaps, but in reality the most terrifying expression to all in government should be “good enough for government work.”
Government service is not easy. It may, therefore, be tempting to succumb to the “it’s not my job” mentality, but that should be as unacceptable to us as it would have been to Vince Lombardi. Perhaps the best mantra for all in government, elected or appointed, should be “pride still matters.” Imagine for a moment how that might change our citizens’ perception of their government.
Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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