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The Coffee Break Is Over

November 11, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

A baby starves to death in our land of prosperity. A social worker assigned to watch over this child's troubled upbringing is dismissed. The union representing the social worker says the firing is unwarranted.

Far removed from our new ordeals, old struggles carry on. But with added meaning.

After a long interval of declining faith, people now express renewed trust in government. A CBS/New York Times poll found that 55% of the country believes government does right most of the time, a 30-year high.

Whether this number rises or once again recedes depends on two things. One of them is endlessly talked about: whether the government and its leaders manage the threats of terrorism.

The other consideration does not receive the same attention, but is equally important: whether the men and women whom we call public servants--the social workers, customs agents, DMV clerks and all the rest--seize this opportunity to once again enjoy society's esteem. Or, beaten down and diminished for so long, do they loaf along with their feet up on the desk, sneers on their faces, hiding behind their union cards?

Government is not merely an idea or a necessary nuisance but a social organism. If we are to collectively pursue our best interests, somebody has to make the rounds. The public servant is thus judged for efficiency and disposition, not once but every day in every encounter.

The story of baby Danzel's agony in the lost shadows of Los Angeles poverty was told poignantly by Times writer Evelyn Larrubia. What could be more shocking than the starvation of an 11-month-old baby, supposedly entrusted to government's foster care system?

Only that such a story is not surprising. Our system of social services has been stretched and hollowed out and denigrated. We have come to expect its failings even as they make us cry.

The downward spiral of public service is not someone else's doing but ours. For a generation, we've danced merrily to the tune that government is out to get us. No surprise, government workers responded by giving back what was expected of them.

On Sept. 11, the nation's long-held disdain for public servants was turned on its head by the sight of firefighters filing into the World Trade Center while everyone else was spilling out.

The debate over airport security rises from those ashes: Do we turn the job over to people with the guts and drive of the firefighters? Or will we end up with more featherbedders with attitude?

And how many scores of other decisions about "contracting out" our civic work will be similarly decided?

I have gone back one year in my own experience. Outside of my work, I can recall 10 encounters with agencies of government. Four passed without complaint, including when the IRS caught an omission in my taxes. In another, I was inspired--when I spent a semester in a high-school classroom with a teacher who gave everything of herself.

But in the other five instances, to various degrees, I found myself wanting to shout out: What is it about the word "service" that you public servants don't understand? The imperious and punitive airport immigration agent, the uninformed and haughty DMV workers, the unconcerned and petty municipal permit authorities, the infuriatingly unhelpful bus driver, the sloppy INS adoption clerk.

Minor stuff. Nothing to match a baby left to starve. Nothing compared to the tone-deaf Los Angeles Police Department union trying to scam a three-day workweek out of taxpayers. Nothing like the awful stories I hear from contractors who spend forever trying to rouse building inspectors off their lazy rumps. Nothing to equal the nightmarish letters I get from readers who cannot get the attention of the Social Security Administration or the Veterans Administration.

I'm not suggesting that public employees are worse overall than those so-called service employees we deal with in the private sector. But our expectations are rightfully higher. And, as with the case of baby Danzel, the responsibilities are greater.

In the weeks ahead, while Americans are favorable to rethinking their attitudes about government, public employees have a choice again.

For the first time in a very long time, they can advance their cause and ours. They can slipstream behind the Sept. 11 deeds of New York firefighters and prove, anew, that energetic public service is the honorable, and fair, way to achieve social order and progress.

Or they can, yawn, glance at their watches. What train? Pulling out of what station? Who cares? I'm on break.

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