The Value of Public Service: Cultivating Communities


Since I had to get on LinkedIn for the SAF group (which is open to all and has interesting discussions), I also signed up for the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, which helps place federal lands issues within the context of other public debates.

They posted a link to this essay by Darin Atteberry, City Manager, Fort Collins, CO and Alliance for Innovation Board Member today. Here’s an excerpt:

While I cannot understate the character and commitment of public employees, it is crucial that we understand that public service is not solely the responsibility of government. All of us – from individual residents to global organizations – have to share in the responsibility of caring for our communities.

Our perception of public service must evolve. Governments at all levels no longer have the resources and ability to play the traditional role of problem solver. And quite frankly, the assertion that government has all the answers is an outdated and paternalistic model. Instead, governments, residents, organizations, the private sector, and nonprofits need to redefine our relationships. We must cultivate a collaborative problem-solving culture where we all have the responsibility to address challenges and prepare for the future together.

This is the true value of public service; it’s the ability to bring people together to accomplish a common goal. To help move beyond political beliefs, and beyond the hard lines we too often draw between your opinion and mine. I believe that people, at their core, care about their community, however that may be defined. Some may want less government, some may want more, but most want to live in a place that’s safe, welcoming, and where people genuinely care for one another.

If we can all agree that we play an important role as public servants, then we can elevate our conversations to address real issues. We can all take responsibility for our actions and speech. We can disagree while maintaining civility and an authentic commitment to find solutions that are best for our community. We can pledge to behave with integrity and candor with the intent to foster trust, because trust is imperative.

I believe public service reaches beyond a responsibility to our current community. We have a growing obligation to ensure that our current plans, investments, and actions do not harm future generations. We need to genuinely embrace a model of sustainability in which environmental stewardship, fiscal responsibility, and social awareness are equally important.

It’s our job as public servants to contribute to quality of life, to demonstrate transparency, to pursue excellence, to innovate, to collaborate, and most importantly to lead by example. This is not a profession to choose without thoughtful consideration. There is certainly more fortune, free time, and privacy to be found in other careers. But I can think of no other occupation more rewarding.

Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” By that definition, we’ve all earned the prize.

Do you agree? What do you think keeps “us” from that approach in federal land management?

8 thoughts on “The Value of Public Service: Cultivating Communities”

  1. thanks for posting this Sharon, as a public employee myself I appreciate and agree with it, it’s a good goal both personally and institutionally. In the case of USFS, I think many employees work hard to live up to these goals. From my perspective, one thing that keeps the institution as a whole from embracing this philosophy is its quasi-military and very hierarchical structure. As in the real military, that can have a tendency to lead to butt-covering, blame-shifting, and secrecy. I don’t have an easy solution, that’s just one observation/opinion.

  2. Many people refer to “community” as a short-hand way of saying that economics should prevail over concerns about the environment.

    This seems like an opportune time to raise the question about our definition of “community.”

    It used to be just free white male landowners, then was (slowly) expanded to include all people. But someone observed that “the long arc of history bends toward justice.”

    Some might say that the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act have expanded the community of interest to include non-humans, at least at the species level. I think we are destined to expand the definition of community to include ecosystems, and the biogeochemical systems that sustain us.

    • 2nd Law, here’s my pragmatic philosopher’s view of this.

      1. People have different values for different things.
      2. Things that can’t talk, like animals, or things that are abstractions and do not exist physically, like ecosystems, will not be presenting their values in any discussions
      3. Therefore the problem reduces to people with different values, some people who claim to represent abstractions or the silent, and others not.

      Some ideas of justice would involve the rights of local people to use their natural resources and to remove threats to their local communities as they see fit.

      • Pardon me for slightly disagreeing (though partly agreeing) with each of you. I think that an ecosystem is very real even if our understanding of it may be abstract; the distinction is largely semantic. “Predation” is an abstract concept, but a lynx eating a hare is very concrete. A wolf eating a rancher’s sheep is a very real physical reality, better not try explaining to an Idaho rancher that it’s just abstract predation! An ecosystem is a large set of interacting components and functions (of which, for example, predation is one). We need to come up with a mental construct (abstraction) in order to wrap our heads around all this, but that doesn’t make the ecosystem any less real. NFMA and ESA do take some steps towards ecosystem awareness and even advocacy, although they’re both pretty strongly tethered to short-term human utility (renewable resources, plants/animals of esthetic, recreational, scientific etc. importance). I think one reason ESA originally passed with such wide bipartisan support was that many in Congress didn’t recognize its ecosystem implications but rather thought they were mainly saving a few photogenic animals (condor, bald eagle etc.), kind of a domestic version of CITES. But in some ways that’s a good thing, since self-interest is a powerful motivator (whether for individuals, or for a society). A theme of the original posted essay above is transcendence of personal self-interest for some greater social good. I think 2ndLaw’s comments address an even bigger challenge, transcendence of society’s (or a species’) apparent self-interest for some larger (ecosystem, Gaia, whatever) benefit. Since Sharon brought the philosophical perspective into play, there’s a lot of work on the interface of evolutionary theory and philosophy, biological altruism is one name for it, that may relate to how such an apparently anti-Darwinian scenario might play out, here’s one good reference I just found:

        • Guy, did you see this post?

          Here’s a quote from O’Neill…

          The simple fact is that the ecosystem is not an a posteriori, empirical observation about nature. The ecosystem concept is a paradigm (sensu Kuhn 1962), an a priori intellectual structure, a specific way of looking at nature. The paradigm emphasizes and focuses on some properties of nature, while ignoring and de-emphasizing others. After a half century of application, the paradigm is showing some rust. Limitations in the concept are becoming more apparent and leading to a vigorous backlash toward ecosystem concepts in particular, and ecology in general.

          O’Neill has street cred in the ecological community and I don’t, but I couldn’t have said it better.

          Note: I taught a graduate level course at Virginia Tech on Environmental Ethics…and for that read many abstract philosophical texts. I am also now a seminary student who reads more texts on the overall theme of doing good. Here’s my take-home message after thousands of bucks in tuition, and hours spent on readings. Folks generally agree on abstract principles; e.g., “justice” ” taking care of Earth”. They disagree on the best way to achieve these principles in practice.

          • well, I’m not sure if I’ve read the post about Botkin, but I have read that O’Neill paper. If you read it, you’ll see that it’s mostly about an “ecosystem concept” derived from a cybernetics perspective. It’s irrelevant here. O’Neill is hardly denying that ecosystems exist (generally, interacting organisms and their abiotic environment, linked via nutrient cycles and energy flows, a fairly nuts-and-bolts idea). O’Neill has written extensively about ecosystems; this out-of-context quote doesn’t really relate to the thread.

    • To put this very simply:

      It all boils down to not fouling your own nest which would make life less desirable from a human point of view over the long term. The world is our shared nest. There is no conflict between those principled individuals who look at the big picture on a long term view. The problem lies in those with a short term view. This applies to an unprincipled industrialist who doesn’t care what impact his/her money grabbing actions have on the world as long as he/she can afford to live somewhere that he/she isn’t negatively affected. The same thing applies to those opposed to sound forest management because they don’t want their viewshed or favorite recreational spot or pet owl habitat to be impaired in any way regardless of the long term impact of creating an imbalance of acres on many rungs on the succession ladder which thereby negatively impacts far more species.


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