Widespread distrust in government is unfair to public servants

To the Editor:
The Capital Region owes much of its vitality and stability to the presence of state government and the public servants who keep the wheels turning. For 20 years in New York State government, I worked with hundreds of people who were dedicated, ethical, and skilled in their fields.
However, I am quite concerned that today our public servants — instead of being valued much less honored for their work — are being discouraged by the current widespread antipathy and distrust of government. Statistics bear this out.
In the 1970s, at the start of my public service, 75 percent of Americans said they believed in the good that government does. Today, the figure is 25 percent, according to the highly reputable Pew Research Center, a steep and worrisome decline. In  my new book, “Honorable Profession: My Years in Public Service,” I say that this situation undermines not only the importance of government, but the public servants who work in it.
Despite the political climate and divisiveness, public servants show up daily ready for anything, including the unusual or unexpected, from a catastrophic storm, an oil crisis, or a pandemic. Every citizen uses multiple government services every day.
We educate our youth in public schools and universities; depend day and night on the security and protection provided by police and firefighters; and we use public-health services for our children, the aging, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. The list of fundamental services that help keep society functioning is almost endless.
I believe that faith in the public sector declined significantly with President Ronald Reagan’s oft-repeated words that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Far too many politicians — ironically public servants themselves — are eroding confidence in government with their attacks on our great democratic institutions.
Government is not infallible and can always be improved, but cynical and overblown rhetoric is damaging to those in the public sector who are giving their best for the good of the greater community. I am also troubled by the effect on persons who are contemplating a career in public service.
The people I worked with in government were not seeking acclaim. I saw over and over that they found their reward in knowing their jobs had meaning and they were making a difference. I saw the enthusiasm and excitement of being at the center of action that characterizes all that goes on in our state agencies.
Most importantly of all, I saw commitment to the grand experiment that is our democracy. Public service is an honorable profession.

Arthur Y. Webb
Johnsburg, New York

Editor’s note: Arthur Y. Webb served as commissioner of the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (now the Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities), acting commissioner of the Department of Social Services, executive director of the Division of Substance Abuse Services, director of the Health Planning Commission, and deputy commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services. 

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