Why Public Service Matters – Now and Always

By Tracy Wareing Evans    March 27, 2020

In a time of dynamic global economies, stormy political discourse, and a highly polarized country, the need to ground our focus in what undergirds us all has been top of mind for health and human service leaders. At the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), we have been intentionally lifting up three collective principles to which we are always committed:

  • People and public service
  • Building common ground
  • Partnering across sectors

These simple principles are core to our collective ability to work together to achieve our strategic vision whether in good times or challenging times.

Collective Principles that Define APHSA

As the entire world now wrestles with the COVID-19 pandemic, I keep coming back to the significance of these commitments to combating it in the United States and to the herculean efforts underway in states and communities across our country to stem its tide. Today, as we practice social distancing and adjust to working from home, the foundational role that the public sector plays in our ability to function as a vibrant, civil society is in full view. As leaders on the ground work in real time to literally save lives, innovate methods of service delivery on the fly, and continuously adjust to what is needed for their communities during this pandemic, we must shine a light on what is making it possible:

People and Public Service

The public sector—founded on the base belief that people want good things for each other—is about advancing the public good so that we and our neighbors can be safe and healthy, and so that all of us can contribute to a robust civil society.

The public sector focuses on questions like: Do working parents have the support they need to both contribute at work and care for their kids? Do businesses have the workforce they need to thrive? Does the local infrastructure support the needs of the whole community? What safeguards are in place in case of an emergency? The public sector works along-side businesses and community-based organizations on a daily basis to answer these questions and shape a brighter community.

In the current public health emergency, human service leaders are among the first responders working tirelessly alongside our dedicated health care professionals to ensure the safety and well-being of people. Human service professionals are working to ensure people have food in their refrigerator and pantries, a sufficient supply of necessary medication, and viable child care options—especially for those on the front lines. They are continuing to provide vital safety services like child abuse investigations, checking on children in the foster care system, and ensuring access to economic supports for working families disrupted from their jobs. These are critical services that must be in play now in order for our communities to be resilient in the face of COVID-19.

Business continuity for human services organizations and the professionals that work within them is therefore critical. These include public sector agencies at state and local levels and their entire workforce, as well as social sector organizations on the front lines who provide backbone support for communities including food banks, child care, foster care, meals for older adults, support for people with cognitive and physical disabilities, and more. In a time of extreme challenge, we see more clearly the backbone role of the sector and our partners in helping our neighborhoods and communities weather unexpected storms.

Building Common Ground

We must face head on the imperative to bridge partisan divides and come together to find practical, real time solutions.

Our systems are far from perfect as the COVID-19 public health crisis is illuminating. In just a short period of time, the pandemic has shown gaps not only in our ability to get Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other key medical supplies to where it is needed, but also fractures in our infrastructure and people-serving systems. We see more clearly the broadband disparities across the nation that limit our ability to ensure virtual access to all children who are out of school or bring telehealth options to many rural Americans. We see the gaps in our workforce supports, especially as to nimble child care options for working families and employee leave policies that are sufficiently flexible enough to assure people can continue in their jobs. Our human service delivery systems are challenged to meet the needs of a population asked to stay at home with face-to-face requirements—such as child well-being checks for children in foster care—that either do not translate easily to the virtual world or for which we currently lack the infrastructure to swiftly achieve.

And, we are all witnessing what happens when social networks are severely disrupted—something that families who face the greatest adversities have experienced long before this pandemic. We are seeing in real time what gets in the way of working families when social connections are broken or become difficult to access. We are seeing what happens when people from rural America don’t have access to mental health services or nearby medical services. In plain view, we are seeing the inequities experienced by neighborhoods and populations, often communities of color, that have been systematically marginalized for far too long.

We need to shine a light on the structural and systemic flaws that prevent us from being as modern and nimble as we wish and use this current crisis, not only to respond in the moment, but to position us for the future.  As I read recently, the idea of a “disorienting dilemma” can be a catalyst for transformation because it “dislodges” our entrenched way of doing business and traditional, historically-rooted perspectives. Now is the time to lean into our shortcomings, working to resolve and move past them. Indeed, as history has taught us over the course of wars and disasters, it is often the most challenging circumstances that spark ideas and free our institutions previously bound by inertia to do what we might have not thought possible.

Partnering Across Sectors

Together we can co-create knowledge that affects social change for the long run.

As we make major investments in our nation, we need to so with a strong future in mind. It is not enough to restore the country to a present that wasn’t where we wanted or needed it to be. For several years now we have talked about building resilient communities with the idea that it is not about “bouncing back” but about “bouncing forward”—in other words, being able to adapt and transform in this moment of hardship to do things better in the future. To do so requires that we partner across sectors and collectively reorganize around the changing environment in new and productive ways. And we must not be afraid to challenge the status quo or to spotlight our structural flaws.

We must keep at the forefront of our thinking the very humanity that binds us and our inter-connectedness to the places we all live, learn, and work. If we strive to constantly see the potential of people and harness the tremendous talent and innovation occurring across the globe, we can co-discover solutions together.

In sum, we need fresh perspectives and innovative spirit to take us through this crisis and to new levels of impact, while helping restore our nation’s understanding of why public service matters to a civil and just society. At APHSA, we take our role as a broker seriously and we are committed to sharing lessons, celebrating progress, and honoring the many people that will help take us all to the other side of this global challenge.

About the Author

Tracy Wareing Evans (full bio)

President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association


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