Imagine a public servant delivering a message to the Iowa House of Representatives, the Iowa Senate, the governor and lieutenant governor, other statewide elected officials and to the public.
Imagine that this public servant praises the public service and the work it does. Examples of great work on the part of public servants are highlighted, and stories are told that illustrate how individual public servants make a positive difference in the lives of those they serve.
Finally, imagine that this public servant goes on to talk about how government can, should and must continually improve its services in order to provide a better return to those paying the bill. The speaker talks about the need for a culture in government that is unafraid to focus on innovation, experimentation, and expanding services to those not currently able to access them.
Think about this. Someone saying that government exists to do good, and must constantly strive to be better?
Preposterous in this day and age? An age where public servants are held hostage to the whims of political agendas and are too often viewed as necessary evils at best and the enemy at worst? Where their work is routinely scoffed at and the departments that employ them are intentionally underfunded in order to minimize the results they can produce, if not insure failure? Where the primary focus of leaders is not on achieving excellence, but on reducing the number of people employed and the dollars spent?
Well, such a message was delivered. It was delivered calmly, reasonably, intelligently, and powerfully. And this may be the most interesting thing — it received several standing ovations while it was delivered and generous applause when finished.
The messenger was Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, Mark Cady. I watched and listened to the speech from a visitors balcony in the Iowa House on Jan. 16.
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I listened to the message as a former public servant, an area manager for the Social Security Administration in Fort Dodge and as an elected city council member there.
Those experiences showed me the goods and not-so-goods of public service. The goods being how you were given a unique opportunity to positively affect the lives of thousands and to impact their future and the lives of those yet to arrive.
The not-so-goods being how difficult it was to convince those you reported to and worked for of the need to do exactly what Chief Justice Cady espoused — to embrace change, to be willing to use new tools and methods to expand and improve services, and to keep a focus on solving problems and leading. Yes, leading — not waiting for others to show the way, not listening to the constant voices encouraging delay, not giving up because others had tried and failed — but getting out there and making things happen.
Cady challenged his audience, and he challenged this state (and anyone listening from beyond) to think and act boldly. To quote from his comments:
“The Iowa way is to improve continuously. It is to plan, with each step taking us forward to the next, with each step as important as the next. Our future can no longer be about taking small steps or standing still. We need to think big and take big steps. Every day, we must seek to achieve what can be imagined.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone of Cady’s stature say words about government and those who work within it that inspired; inspired one to the point of nodding, if not audibly saying, YES!
My hope is that his words will be contagious, that other leaders in other arenas of the public service will follow his lead and focus on doing things smarter, better, and more efficiently. And to recognize that these results can only be achieved when people decide to imagine together and work together.
• John Hale is co-owner of The Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting, advocacy and communication firm focused on aging, disability and caregiving issues. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.