I am Not a Public Servant.
Updated: Feb 8
Unpopular opinion: I am not a public servant.
I hate the phrase and think it should go.
Look, I’m a recovering English major and writer. I spend way too much time thinking about words, the meaning of words, the usage of words, and the evolving meaning of words. That’s why I've never liked the phrase "public servant" and since joining the public sector, have never used it to describe my work.
Because we don’t serve. We advocate. And the difference is vital to our industry’s future.
Servant is helpfully defined as “one that serves others,” according to good old Merriam Webster.
The public refers to “ordinary people in general; the community;”
And a public servant is defined as “a government official.”
Combined, let’s say a public servant is “a government official that serves the community.”
It’s vague, flat, and uninspiring.
That’s why I’ve always thought of my role in government as a public advocate, not a servant. In contrast to “one that serves,” an advocate is “an official appointed to advance the interests of the public.”
Now that’s what we do in government!
The term “servant” is utterly Dickensian and evokes such a grim picture: dour, downtrodden folk clad in grays and blacks, ordered about with no say in their day to day lives and no power to change their circumstance. It fails to inspire in a modern context. Servants keep their heads down and their eyes averted. They do what they’re told. They are responsible for upholding daily routines and obeying entrenched rules. Their work is a one-way street of top-down directives that maintain the status quo.
It’s important to reframe our work and move away from “public servant” to embrace “public advocate” because advocates have power. Advocates listen and leverage their positions of power to create change. Advocates welcome collaboration and constantly seek feedback from those they advocate for. Advocates are passionate about the people and causes they promote, and constantly seek new ways to move their work forward. Advocates are experts on the populations they work for and thrive on promoting the interests of those groups. Advocates win when the public wins and advocates are fueled by change.
Advocates are proactive, while servants are reactive.
Advocates are empowered, while servants are controlled.
Advocates create change, while servants maintain systems.
Why does this distinction matter? Because a government of service is entrenched in heads-down, outdated models, and the future of government requires hands-on advocacy. The old way of government was an in-person, bureaucracy-muddled, those-in-power-making decisions-for-those-without-power, top-down, exclusionary method of government. Who would want to work in that type of culture?
A government of advocacy – the government both we and our people need – is a feet-on-the-street form of government. It’s a government of action that reaches people however and wherever they are, is fueled by feedback and collaboration that drives people-first decision making, prioritizes those at the bottom for the benefit of all, and is just fine breaking the status quo. This type of government creates the type of big-impact employment opportunities so many workers now demand.
In particular, we know that Gen Z seeks purpose-driven work and is motivated not by salaries but by their ability to contribute to making positive change in the world. Arguably no industry is in a better position to do that than municipal government, but we need to overhaul how we promote our work to convey its value to these new job seekers. Every government employee, from maintenance repairers to city administrators, has the ability to connect with and listen to the public and bring public feedback to the organization in order to shape policy and processes. There’s power in all of our roles, and we need to highlight that. Reframing how we speak about our own work will not only help us market our opportunities to new workers, it will engage and inspire current employees to take more ownership of their current positions and fuel their unique ability to make the communities they serve better places. The public will benefit, and our recruitment and retention metrics will no doubt improve as our people feel empowered about their work.
Words matter and make a big impact in recruiter marketing. If the public sector wants to stay vital, let’s allow “public servant” to go the way of the fax machine, and embrace the power and potential of public advocacy.