Every now and then, it is good to stop doing what we do every day and reflect on why we do what we do. After all, there is supposed to be a difference between a human being and a machine. Machines produce work according to some set of procedures or rules. Human beings do the same thing . . . but we also wonder why.
Having just spent the last several days with hundreds of municipal officials from across the State of Florida, having joked much, listened much, said much, done much together, it seems natural to reflect back on all that was heard and said and done and ask what it all really is about.
Why do people give so much of their time and effort to work that typically doesn’t pay as well as it would in the private sector? Why do they keep doing the job even when they are being condemned, in public, by those who fail to understand their service or choose to play politics with their reputation and life? Surely there are easier ways to make a living.
Yes there are.
But most of the municipal professionals and the elected municipal officials I have the great privilege to know are fully conscious of what they have chosen to do and why they have chosen to do it. If they haven’t figured that out, or if their purposes and the realities don’t match, they don’t stay in public service for long. The costs are too high, and the rewards too subtle.
It really doesn’t take too long to figure out the central element of municipal service. The dozens of youth gathered at the conference this past weekend clearly had, even though they have yet to have a long career of public service to teach this important lesson.
I asked them a deceptively simple question: “Compared to other units of government, a city is important because . . .” Their answers were parsed and presented in a word cloud that gave greater emphasis to those words that came up most frequently, those ideas most central to their responses. And here’s what their combined answers produced:
First and foremost, it’s about people.
Indeed, in a truly distinctive way, governing at the municipal level, especially in a home rule state like Florida, is about the people. The people created the city by adopting a charter. From time to time, they may restructure the city by amendment. Until the people agreed to it, it didn’t exist. And the work of forming and amending tends to be more intimate, more personal, more community-driven, than we see when we are asked to amend the state constitution, where massive ad campaigns full of false promises and terrifying (and equally false) warnings drown out civil conversation and rational thought.
But forming the government is only the foundation of a municipality’s connection to its people. The primary work of its employees is service provision: police, fire, EMT, streets, parks, recreation, water, sanitary sewer, storm water, inspection of buildings and facilities, review of plans for future remodeling and development, and a host of other activities involving direct, personal contact with people and their most significant assets and liabilities.
Similarly, the primary work of municipal elected officials isn’t about sweeping policy pronouncements or thousand-page legislative initiatives so complex that almost no one knows what’s in it or what its consequences will be. One even is hard pressed, at times, to figure out who to blame or praise for such state and federal legislative “achievements.”
But the citizens know who to praise or blame when things work or fail in their city. As a practical matter, in fact, they tend not to notice when things work, a point well-made by Florida’s Local Government Coalition last year. It’s when things don’t work, or don’t work as they want them to, that they seek out its employees and elected leaders. And they know where to find them.
They find them in stores and supermarkets, in parks and club meetings, during sidewalk strolls and town hall meetings, all of which are just down the street from where these citizens live. Their municipal officials don’t go away to do the people’s business: they do it right at home, where they can be seen, and where they can hear.
Municipal service is, first, last and always, a people business. Those who stay in it and thrive aren’t always rewarded by the people, even when their service is exemplary. The people can be, at times, the toughest of all masters.
But they also are the only master walking this earth worthy of such devotion as so many municipal officials and employees show. Not party, or platform, or pride, or profit . . . people.