Public servant at your service

By Alana Cox

Both of my parents were public employees and I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in government.

I got my first taste when I interned for a U.S. senator during college and the waves of cynicism came fast. Harried young staffers burned out before reaching 30. So many smart people were working so hard, but it seemed like nothing was happening. I got my first view of the sausage factory, and I suddenly wanted nothing to do with hot dogs. I called my dad in frustration, thinking maybe government wasn’t where I should go to make things happen. He said, “You need to go more local. That’s where the difference you make is more tangible.”

Public servant Alana Cox

Public servant Alana Cox

I landed in state government out of law school. Maybe someday I will go more local still- county or city or district. But for now, I really enjoy my job. Here are a few things I would like to share with my non-public-servant friends out there:

  • Public servants are people too, my friend.
  • Yes, taxes pay my salary, so if you pay taxes, you contribute to the pool of money that my salary comes from. But that’s probably not relevant to whatever you are talking about. I bet you don’t march into the Gap and insist someone stop everything to do something for you (usually something against the rules), and support your statement with “That sweater I bought last year pays your salary!”
  • Working in government is hard. Every email you write can be disclosed as a public record, workloads are high, pressure is intense, and mistakes can get you fired, publicly humiliated, or both. It’s not just a gravy train to a cushy retirement. (If anyone is aware of a gravy train to a cushy retirement, I am interested).
  • People who give government a bad name make me really, really mad. They make it harder for the rest of us. They undermine the public trust. There is no government-wide conspiracy to give you the runaround, or if there is, no one has invited me. Like every workplace, the government is made up of a variety of people, most of whom are dedicated and ethical, and some of whom are lazy and unscrupulous. Public employees are rightly held to a higher standard, but the people who make the news for incompetence (or worse) are not a representative sample.
  • Working in government is really rewarding. I feel like I am working for the “good guys”, which is important to me. Participating in making government better is cool. Sometimes when I am getting screamed at (yes, yes, I know your taxes pay my salary), it is important to remind myself that I have been a part of good things that have had real impacts on people’s lives. There are certainly days when the sausage grinding machine has me down, but it’s important to remember the delicious hot dogs that come out of the factory.
  • When it seems like a public employee is doing something arbitrary or absurd, or a system is unnecessarily complex, there is probably a reason. Maybe not a great reason, but a reason. No one hates absurd policies and laws with unintended consequences more than the people who have to implement them. It’s very easy to say “it shouldn’t be this hard to [get a government service].” But until you have had to implement a policy based on overlapping federal and state laws and administrative rules, anticipating every possible situation and exception, it’s difficult to understand how you could land at a place where you need two notarized copies of a form that you must sign blindfolded while holding your breath. How do you think the public employee feels who has to say, “Sir, are you peeking? Are you holding your breath?” That public employee may be working hard in the background to get the law changed or to streamline the process, but until they do, they are often stuck with policies that they know are absurd.
hot dog with cabbage

Sometimes the sausage grinding machine produces delicious hot dogs.

OK, rant over. Did I mention I like my job and I feel lucky to have it? Moreover, I feel lucky to work with so many dedicated fellow public servants. They are generous with their time, and they are dedicated to making government better.

One of the hardest things about the job is also the best: we answer to the public. We get to do the right thing not because it will also help our profit margin or be good PR, but because it’s the right thing. That’s pretty awesome.

Hot dog image: wp.clipart.com

Alana Cox is an attorney and public servant living in the thriving metropolis of Salem, Oregon, with her husband Jason.

Editor’s note: Alana is the middle child of our good friends Elsa and Tom Guiney, who we’ve known since our college days. She and our daughter Simone seem to be leading parallel lives. Both attended East Coast colleges, then returned to Oregon, got married and bought a home. For a time, they even worked in the same state agency in Salem. IMHO, Alana is a great blend of intellect and sass.

Tomorrow: “Dateline: Dallas” by Michael Granberry

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11 thoughts on “Public servant at your service

  1. I have little regard for — or more likely, I have disdain for — people who automatically criticize government workers and treat them badly. In my previous work and now, as a volunteer in child protection matters, I have seen and see dedicated people who, as you said, are working with and for the good guys. Are some short of the mark? Of course, just as they are in private employment as well. Your father gave you good advice about going local. A lot gets done there.

  2. It’s too bad that so many people shoot the messenger, Alana, rather than trying to understand that government is a big machine with wheels that turn slowly. I have a lot of experience working in the peripheral areas of government and have seen first hand that the people are not the problem (generally), but the system … as with most everything! Thanks for the good reminder.

  3. As a public educator, I too thank you for your piece, Alana. Get this… my 6th grade daughter aspires to be a politician, so she can eventually become Secretary of State and help bring peace to the world. I try to tell her that the only way you can become Secretary of State is to be very wealthy and donate a lot of money to someone’s winning campaign, but she isn’t getting it. (On that note, I am having a really hard time explaining to her why I am not as enthusiastic about Hillary as I used to be. If you can think of a simple explanation that doesn’t require going into a long conversation about Elizabeth Warren, I would appreciate it.)

  4. “Participating in making government better is cool.” Totally cool. You’re cool! And you’re appreciated by many of us, as are the majority of your colleagues.
    Thank you!

  5. I have to agree with the advice to “go local” if you want to make a difference. It seems the only way things will get better is if it’s lead from the ground up. A lot of my family have worked in government and I appreciate the amount of effort it takes to keep our states and cities running. You have my thanks!

  6. Thank you for sharing your insight from inside the machine! I always feel bad for the person on the other side of the counter who has to implement the absurd policy they know is absurd.

  7. What a line: ‘I bet you don’t march into the Gap and insist someone stop everything to do something for you (usually something against the rules), and support your statement with “That sweater I bought last year pays your salary!”
    Thanks for giving the “inside story.”

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