The pandemic reminds us of the importance of public service

AmeriCorps Guam members organize bags of produce for Guahan Sustainable Culture's drive-thru service at the Guam Public Library System Archival Center in Barrigada, April 24, 2020.Free Produce 05

The week of May 4 was Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW), when the country honors those who serve as federal, state, county and local government employees and recognize the essential value of government service in American public life. PSRW was established in 1985, 35 years ago, but has not captured the popular imagination owing to persistent levels of distrust in the U.S. government. On May 4, 2020, the Brookings Institution partnered with the bipartisan National Commission on Military, National and Public Service for an event to mark the beginning of PSRW and to address ways of reversing some of the negative popular attitudes. Brookings President John R. Allen and Commission Chairman Joseph J. Heck opened the event, followed by a conversation between Allen, Heck, Commissioner Avril Haines, and Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill. I had the pleasure of moderating the discussion.

Two decades ago, the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service also initiated a National Commission on the Public Service with former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker and 10 commissioners drawn from both political parties with diverse experiences of public service. The final report from this effort was released in January 2003. In contrast with Brookings’s earlier effort, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service was set up by Congress, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, with a two-year mandate to engage the public to produce recommendations for increasing American participation in all forms of service. Brookings scholars from the Economic Studies and Governance Studies programs took part in the exercise. Avril Haines, new Foreign Policy Program affiliate, was one of the commissioners. The commission’s interim report was issued in early 2019, in the immediate aftermath of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history (from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019).

The commission released its final report, titled Inspired to Serve, in March 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when public servants, military service members, volunteers, and national service members were battling to stem the spread of the virus and to safeguard public health. In an interview with The New York Times at the beginning of April 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a highly-visible member of the White House pandemic task force, and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, was asked how he would like to be remembered when the pandemic was finally over. He replied that, most of all, he wanted to be recognized as a dedicated public servant, who had done the best that he could to mitigate a terrible disease. In the same interview, Dr. Fauci summed up the general ethos of public service as essentially trying to fix and improve things for the greater good.

Dr. Fauci was first in the national spotlight four decades ago during the early years of the HIV/AIDS public health crisis; by 2020, he has become a household name. As a result of the pandemic, Pew polls released in April 2020 indicated an increase in positive impressions of federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS), with 79% of Americans having a favorable opinion of the former and 73% of the latter. Nonetheless — as panelists discussed during the May 4 event — Dr. Fauci’s prominence, the visibility of other public servants on the frontlines of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and these positive polls, may not mark a durable shift in U.S. public understanding of the essential role public servants play in meeting the country’s challenges or in popular views of government service.

Next year, in 2021, the U.S. will commemorate the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s call to service. Since then, other U.S. leaders have promoted public and national service in a nonpartisan or bipartisan manner, often building on the work of their predecessors. The year 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of AmeriCorps by President William J. Clinton, which President George W. Bush expanded with the creation of the USA Freedom Corps in 2002, and the Medical Reserve Corps. President Bush’s initiatives were spurred by the nation’s response to the terrorist attack of 9/11. The panelists for the May 4 event all stressed that COVID-19 will require a similar national response.

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service’s March 2020 report offers one comprehensive approach to this response. In addition to policy recommendations, and specifically targeted legislation, the commission report proposes significant U.S. government and congressional investment in civic education to increase awareness of opportunities for the public, and to make national service the norm for Americans rather than the exception.