The Prestige of Public Service Employment


By WILLIAM H. VANDERBILT, Governor of Rhode Island

Delivered at Governor's Conference, Duluth, Minnesota, June 3, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 639-640.

IN a recent novel which depicted the life and growth of a middle western town, two public institution doctors, one of whom was being unjustly criticized in the public press, hold the following conversation. The first doctor says, "It gives me a strange feeling to think that anyone is after me." The second replies, "Yes, that's natural, but you will get used to it the longer you remain in the service of the State. They honor you with a State appointment: they always talk of these soft State jobs with good State money: the work is harder than private work and the pay is far less. Then they sit back and watch for the first chance to get something on you."

That brief and imaginary conversation will have a familiar sound to those in public service all over the country. It illustrates the attitude of far too many citizens toward their public servants. It demonstrates the scornful attitude which many persons display toward the man or woman in public office. This results in a condition under which well-equipped people are reluctant to enter the public service, because they do not want to run the gauntlet of derision, and in many cases suspicion, which seem to attach in the minds of the general public to anyone holding a State job. Men and women having particular qualifications who are sometimes persuaded to leave private endeavor and give their talents to the State too often regard themselves as birds of passage who plan to return to their own field as soon as their immediate mission is accomplished. I am sorry to say that the public attitude in this matter, if not completely justified by the facts, is at least understandable. Therein lies a grave and vital problem that cries for solution and may well do irreparable harm to our form of government if it is not faced squarely and dealt with.

In this world of war, public attention is directed, and rightly so, to the military and naval arms of the public service. Being of a spectacular nature defense measures loom large in the public eye. However, the home front calls for as much attention for it is there that the long-range development and growth of our American system is accomplished, and it is there that we build for the days of peace, when men have regained their senses, when men of ill-will, who believeonly in the philosophy of force, have been crushed and harmony between nations has been restored.

Let us examine this totalitarian movement that has produced a horrible total war and destruction on a scale never known to the world before. Totalitarian governments, be they Communist, Fascist or Nazi, have been brought about by different causes and circumstances in each nation. The last world war, its treaties and its mistakes were large contributing factors. There has been, however, I believe, one cause which has been common to all totalitarian forms of government. Broadly stated, this may be called a lack of confidence in the previously existing government. The stupidity of the victors in the last war, post-war depressions and inefficiency and corruption of local governments combined in the various nations in different ways to discredit the then existing governments. The people became discouraged and disheartened; they felt helpless and hopeless; and when, as apparently always happens in such cases, one man emerged and said "Give me the power, and I will return to you your self-respect as a nation, your chance to earn a living, your place in the sun of national and world affairs; I will do your planning and your thinking for you," the people had been brought to such a low ebb that they gladly gave up their responsibility, abandoned their independent thinking and were satisfied to do as they were told. From establishing totalitarianism at home, the dictator nations have so far wiped out representative governments in seven formerly independent nations in Europe. Where this destruction by force of arms will end, no one can say. But whether the dictator nations come out at the end as victors or vanquished, the totalitarian idea will still have its disciples, willing and anxious to spread its doctrine abroad over the world. As William S. Culbertson, former Ambassador to Chile, has said, "The ocean is no barrier to ideas; tariff laws and immigration laws do not exclude methods."

The national government of the United States, through the President, has announced its program of defense, entailing the expenditure of billions of dollars in regular and extraordinary appropriations for enlargement of the army, navy and air forces.

No American will oppose the principles of this program or count the cost too high, though he may argue about the methods of putting it into effect. Vital as this rearmament program is, it will be worse than useless unless there stands behind it a united citizenry determined that no inroads will ever be made to destroy the American way of life and the American method of representative government. There can be no united citizenry unless that citizenry has respect for its government, unless Americans believe that their government is honest, efficient, and trustworthy. They must believe that it truly represents them, that it spends their money wisely to achieve the best results and that it has worthy and efficient people to do the day to day work of giving service in manifold ways.

This question of the attitude of the general public toward its government was brought home to me very forcibly just the other day. I received from the State Director of Civil Service in my State a memorandum starting with the following sentence. "One of my principal concerns at the present time has to do with the relatively low prestige of public service employment in Rhode Island." He went on, "It is the exception to find good people seeking public office rather than the rule," and again further on, "It is disturbing to me to find a group of young men on the threshold of their careers who were thinking not at all of the possibilities of State public service employment." These statements simply reflect the fact that the young men and women graduating from our high schools and colleges very rarely think of the public service as offering them a life career. Is that the proper feeling for representative government to engender in the hearts of its citizens?

Is that the public attitude we want to match against the fanatic devotion apparently engendered by totalitarian systems? Why does this condition exist here, when it is a fact that in some other nations those who stand highest in the great universities almost invariably go into some branch of their government service?

Government is as much a business as banking or manufacturing. Particularly during the past few years it has become highly complex, and if it is to be operated efficiently, it requires ability, brains, training, initiative, intelligence and all the things which any business requires.

If there is a substantial group of citizens which holds the public office holder in scorn and contempt, we have no one but ourselves to blame. When I say "we", I mean the elected officers of American government, and those who have been our political forebears.

The greatest factor which has brought public office into such low repute is and has been the spoils system. The great majority of citizens who are not interested in seeking government jobs have been and are disgusted by the job-scrambling spectacle to which they have been treated. The other thing which disgusts the citizen and lowers his respect for his government is an outgrowth of the first—corruption, waste, extravagance and inefficiency.

At a dinner I attended recently, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a priest from a large parish in a neighboring State. His parish consisted entirely of people of one foreign extraction. They are intelligent people and have shown themselves to be good citizens. They are self-reliant and are proud of the fact that few of their race are on relief. They are interested in our history and enthusiastic about our form of government. They believe in our principles and are willing to take their share of responsibility as citizens. This priest told me that they study our history carefully in school; they come out imbued with the ideals for which we as anation stand, and then he said, "They run up against the well-known fact that in my city if you have $1,200 you can become a school teacher—if you haven't, you can't."

How, I ask you, can we expect young people, or for that matter any citizen, to respect the government of that city? I realize that the glaring example I have cited is the exception, not the rule. I hope and believe that the cities where such a thing can happen are very few and far between. I realize also that we can never hope to stamp out all corruption, that in every walk of life there are some crooks. I know that we can never hope to secure perfect government with one hundred per cent efficiency, but I also believe firmly that by wiping out the spoils system, by attracting to government able and honest men and women, and then assuring them of reasonable security as long as they perform their work well, we can do much to increase the respect of the average citizen for his government.

Government is never a very popular institution. It interferes with the lives of citizens, it regulates and restricts their privileges, and puts them in jail, suspends their various licenses, and worst of all it takes some of their hard earned money away from them in taxes.

If you try the patience of the average citizen too long with stupid, inefficient, wasteful, selfish government, he is going to make up his mind that the system is wrong. Then with others he is going to discuss ways and means of substituting something else for it. He is then at the stage where he is ripe for any quack philosophy that may come along.

With all its natural handicaps which include slowness, deliberation, a certain measure of cumbersomeness, and sometimes faulty reasoning, representative government needs and should have a public service second to none in the world. Then at least, the day to day functions will be performed as well as they are performed in business and industry, where competent personnel organizations are maintained.

We have maintained our form of government for over one hundred fifty years. We like it. We want to maintain our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, all the liberties set forth in the Bill of Rights. We are determined that we shall maintain them. An unexcelled public service with its consequent increase in the respect of our citizens is the best answer to the current trend to absolute dictatorship in the interest of national efficiency. I know of no other way to achieve it in a democracy than through a competent and honestly administered merit system of civil service.