Putting Public Service Above Politics: How To Do It and Why It Matters

May 12, 2016

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.

In what seems to be a never ending campaign season where we’re all bombarded with speeches, debates and enough political rhetoric to make our collective heads spin I wanted to take a moment to shift some focus back to the idea of what it means to be a public servant as opposed to a politician.

While I was growing up there was no shortage of statesmen on both sides of the aisle who I admired and looked up to. During my nine years serving as Mayor of Augusta, these were the people I sought to emulate while fulfilling my duties. From them I had learned the values of keeping a cool and unflappable composure, using diplomacy to overcome obstacles with a focus on achieving the greater good and knowing when to speak and when to listen. I also learned that patient persistence and dogged determination could be used to solve problems while soundbites and rhetoric usually contributed to them.

A focus on not giving in to getting caught up in the politics of any one given issue can be a very difficult thing for elected officials at any level to achieve. However, it can be done and a constant focus on the public service aspect of the job can achieve amazing results while drawing broad based support in the process. With this in mind here are five ways for elected officials to stay focused on providing the best possible public service to the citizens they serve.

1.) Keep your finger on the pulse

Through the years I’ve seen many public servants become insulated from the people they serve while surrounding themselves with people who only tell them what they want to hear. In order to best meet the needs of your constituents its a very good thing to spend as much time as possible with the people you serve in unscripted settings.

2.) Avoid getting caught in the echo-chamber

I’ve always made the observation that if you only spend time with people who look and think like you its hard to see the big picture. As an elected official, don’t be afraid to spend time talking with people whose views might not mirror your own. I always found it good to remember that I represented an entire city which included people who didn’t vote for me but whose needs I valued equally to those who did.

3.) Remember: it’s just a job

One thing that I always found helpful was to remind myself that my role as mayor simply represented a job and that ultimately I was a city worker just like our 2700 other employees. At the end of the day the job of a public servant is simply to do the business of the people who have elected them to serve in the most efficient and effective way possible.

4.) Hold yourself accountable and avoid the blame game

In the world of politics it seems there is a constant need to point fingers and to place blame. However, good public servants hold themselves accountable and help collaboratively craft solutions to issues they’re facing as opposed to simply blaming someone else for the problem. Remember, the role of a true public servant is to be a problem solver not a problem creator.

5.) Never put yourself above the people you serve

Always remember that you’re on equal footing with the the people you serve and simply winning an election doesn’t confer on you the title of leadership. In order to effectively lead as a public servant its absolutely necessary to put the needs of the people you serve above your own needs and to always remember that in spite of your office you’re simply a citizen like everyone else.

Putting public service above political ideology in today’s world of hyper-partisan politics can be a tricky proposition to say the least. That being said, there are many elected officials out there who undoubtedly do their jobs for all of the right reasons and who truly get what being a public servant means as well as why it matters.


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