While I affirm the merit of reforming the structures of government, the single most effective reform is in whom we select to serve us in it.
In "Profiles in Courage," then-Sen. John Kennedy provided nine profiles of individuals who exhibited traits he believed worthy for public service and public servants. He wrote that history would review the work of all public servants, at every level, measuring whether they were persons of courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.
These are worthy metrics. Many readers note that Kennedy was intentional in not really defining courage itself. He hoped readers would discover it in the nine people featured in his book.
I like Winston Churchill’s definition: Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
People of judgment are highly desirable as well. Many elected officials have one fundamental task: “deciding." It is well to have persons who will base decision-making on evidence rather than emotion, and will decide well.
Concurring with Kennedy, I too think integrity is essential for public servants. While the news would make us think otherwise, we have many public officials who quietly serve with integrity every day.
Consider some simple ideas of integrity author Robert Fulghum posited in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. And when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Kennedy also called for our public servants to be individuals of dedication. I think he meant our public servants must be persons of industry, and love of country, as well as community. The best public servants among us know well what Jefferson meant when he wrote: Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort, to continual sacrifice.
I hope you will forbear me a little to add to Kennedy’s venerable list.
Public servants express their willingness to serve by self-selection. We do not summon persons to serve so much as persons seeking to serve offer themselves for our consideration. Shouldn't our public servants at the very least be willing to serve?
I add the quality of modesty as highly desirable for our public servants at all levels. Many people enter public life with deeply held convictions, seeking to advance the case for these convictions. That is as it should be. However, sometimes we have officials who confuse these convictions as principles and therefore cannot accept compromise.
Finally, imagination is a highly desirable virtue in our public servants. Some of the problems that vex us require an imaginative response. It can be exhibited as an ongoing aspiration or dream, such as U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky’s Marquette Plan. It also must be our aspirations for our children and their children. We should imagine big and define what is possible.
These qualities will be advanced when we reward them. Persons of courage, judgment, integrity and dedication are still to be sought in our public service. I hope we can add willingness, modesty and imagination as highly desirable qualities in our public servants, too.