Public Service and Something We Can Fix

When I sat down at lunch, the first thing we were asked to do is define "public service." A list of 18 different activities were listed, and we were each asked, individually, to rank them from the thing closest to our conception of public service to the thing furthest from our conception of public service. "Adopting an 8 year old." "Participating in a weekly meditation retreat." "Writing a letter to a congressional leader about campaign finance reform." "Joining the armed forces."

So, what's public service?

Here's a question: is it possible for a Walmart executive to be a public servant in his capacity at Walmart? Most people would say no (even "of course not") -- but what if she or he is promoting sustainability within the global supply change to fight climate change? That argument swayed many (probably most) people in the room to consider that job public service -- but not me. Working for Walmart is not public service -- even if you're having a massive, positive impact on the world through your work. Public service, to me, isn't exclusively about outcomes. It's about vehicle and intent and sacrifice. Anyone can engage in acts of public service, but public service as a profession, as a calling, is a more specific thing.

Similarly, there were folks convinced that conservative Republicans in government were not engaging in public service, because their decisions led to fewer people having health care, worsening military conflicts, and bad environmental policies. While their criticisms of outcomes and the harm caused by their decisions are fair (and in my view, accurate), I don't think it's correct to say that because you disagree with a person's goals, they cannot engage in public service. That makes the term "public service" inherently arbitrary. Serving in your government, our government, is an act of public service -- a powerful and important one.

I'm part of a group of graduate students from across disciplines that will be meeting about once a month for the remainder of the academic year. Our common interest, the thing that brings us all together, is "public service." Basically, each of us checked a box that said we wished to engage in public service when applying for this program. There were people studying finance, medicine, electrical engineering, business, education, and more. 

The most interesting part of the conversation was the question of whether or not "voting" is a public service. One woman in the group said she felt very strongly that voting was an act of public service because it was so important. I'm not sure I agree that voting is a "public service;" I think it's a civic obligation, a responsibility of living in a democracy. 

This same woman was also frustrated and angry that people don't vote. How could you not vote when so many people's lives and livelihoods are on the line? She didn't blame the individuals, but it seemed to be a logical extension of the argument: how could you not vote? Why didn't you vote?

My immediate thought was an article I read a few days ago from Governing Magazine. The title speaks for itself: "Studies Show Voters Need a Graduate-Level Education to Understand Ballot Measures." That's a pretty staggering barrier, especially given the relatively tiny percentage of Americans who have a master's degree or higher. It's also something that we can fix. We can make ballot measure language more accessible and less technical. 

It also can be hard and complicated to vote in many states: remember to register to vote (and re-register when needed), finding the right polling place, carving out time in your schedule, waiting in line, bringing ID (and the "right" ID), etc. This is also something we can fix -- Oregon is paving the way with automatic voter registration and vote-by-mail.

Whether or not voting itself is an act of service, one of the most noble and important public service pursuits in 21st Century America is addressing the barriers to participation in our democracy.