Guest Blog (Michael Lipsky): ‘The public service’ includes state and local workers

From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post contributions that offer interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. Michael Lipsky is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization. An expanded 30th Anniversary edition of Michael’s book, Street Level Bureaucracy, will be published this month. This post originally ran on the Demos blog,

The first week in May was Public Service Recognition Week. Although the week in principle is dedicated to all public service workers, most of the attention went to the civilian federal workers who number two million throughout the country and overseas.

But there are other public service workers who deserve more than passing recognition: the 15 million men and women who work in state, county and municipal governments around the country.

The enduring value of the state and local public service was dramatized for me during the great snows of February that inundated the Washington area where I live. One memorable incident occurred in nearby Loudoun County, when an elderly resident fell ill and required emergency evacuation. Because of the storm there was no way a helicopter could evacuate the person, and the family despaired.

But an EMT team was able to make its way through the four foot high drifts. The technicians stabilized the injured party, while equipment was mobilized to clear the mile-long secondary road leading to the house. The excavation took hours. In the end the injured party was transported through the snow to the ambulance, and taken to the hospital.

The emergency medical team and the road crew were all members of the state and local public service.

The range of jobs in this sector is almost as broad as a list of all occupations. Butchers and bakers work for local governments, as do engineers, IT professionals, plumbers, architects, arborists, electricians, nurses, firefighters and substance abuse counselors.

When citizens actually interact with government face to face, it is mostly with the state and local public service. Sometimes the interactions are straightforward, as when one seeks to renew one’s driver’s license at Virginia’s streamlined Department of Motor Vehicles. Just as often, it is with trained professionals with multi-layered job descriptions.

To work in the public service means that the final decision about what constitutes a job well-done is meeting a public need, and knowing that you have extended yourself on behalf of others. In contrast to private sector counterparts, the important bottom line for public service workers is not profitability but the public good. Unlike workers in the private sector, public service workers have a more complex set of objectives, reflecting community expectations established through our governments.

Of course, public sector jobs must be structured to make them manageable. But police officers are never off duty, and teachers are always asking whether they have extended themselves enough with the time and resources available to them. There is always another client to see at a work-training center, or another call that a social worker could make on behalf of an elder requiring services.

In short, much of public sector work requires deep commitment to a service ideal. The rescuers on the snowy night in February were not watching the clock as they made their way through the snowdrifts.

Teachers, who represent three out of every ten state and local public employees, instruct in their subject matter but also model behavior, maintain discipline, and nurture students’ curiosity. Law enforcement officers, who represent one out of 20 state and local workers, are expected to enforce the law, maintain order, and deter destructive behavior in unscripted moments that cannot be reduced to simplified job descriptions.

Presently, the work environments of our state and local public service workers are being crippled by the fiscal crisis in the states. Even with the continuation of Federal “stimulus” funding to the states, legislatures face gaps of $260 billion in the next two fiscal years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

For the public workforce this fiscal crisis, as in previous recessions, threatens job security. Colleagues will be laid off, critical positions will remain unfilled, caseloads will increase. It means a decline in the well-being of our communities as parks, libraries, and other public facilities reduce their hours. Once again state and local workers will be asked to do more with less.

This is a difficult time for our state and local workforce. At the very least, we can offer our friends and neighbors who work for state and local governments our thanks for their service.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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