Tragedy shines a new light on civil servants

Ira Hobbs

Another year has passed, and, to be honest, after the horrible events of Sept. 11, I'm rather glad to see a new year start. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon followed by the anthrax mailings truly produced dark clouds over our country, indeed over the world.

And yet, as we start a new year, the silver linings from Sept. 11 are also visible. The tragedy brought people together like few other events in our nation's history have. People turned to their faiths, their families and their friends. Most have a newfound appreciation for what matters most in life.

For public-sector employees in particular, something else positive has occurred. Fearful of future terrorist attacks, Americans have a much healthier appreciation for the role of government in their lives, and, by extension, the role of public servants. The huge outpouring of praise for firefighters and police officers in New York and Virginia is perhaps the most visible example.

Beyond that, you'll find evidence that citizens now value all of us who have chosen careers in public service much more than before.

People now realize that one of government's essential functions is to protect them and their families from crime, whatever its source. They know that government workers risk their lives every day and that public servants are the ones working countless hours to prevent acts of terror. People have been reminded that if terrorists do strike, it will be public servants who risk their lives to save others. And they know that public servants are the ones who have to lead us forward in a very dangerous world.

Suddenly, big government is no longer seen as completely bad, not when it has to be bigger to make us safer. That has led to a concomitant phenomenon: Many people now want to dedicate themselves to their country by finding a career in public service. Homeland defense is the new thing, and there are countless ways people who care about our country can sign up for service. Not the least of homeland security's challenges is figuring out how to apply IT to catch bad guys and keep all levels of government informed.

In my first article for GCN, I recounted that the desire to help others, to do some good, is what led me to a career in government. I lamented, as most federal employees probably do from time to time, that the public didn't always hold us in the highest esteem. 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help' was a running joke in many, many places across the country.
What a difference a tragedy makes.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, those of us who have logged long years in public service have been presented with a fresh opportunity to demonstrate the value we add to our country. Our challenge is to build on the good will we've gained and demonstrate in our daily actions that we are worthy of this esteem.

Our obsession must be to deliver the kind of service people have always wanted and can no longer can afford to take for granted. Now when you say you're from the government and you're here to help, more people will be glad you've arrived.

Ira Hobbs is deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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