All I Really Need to Know About Public Service, I Learned in Kindergarten

Posted on February 22, 2023

The character Ralph from The Simpson's, sitting on a classroom floor, eating from a paste jar.

OR: The Death of Civility and Decorum in Public Discourse

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Matt Horn, the Director of Local Government Services for MRB Group, and a rabid fan of campy sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s (I have seen every episode of Andy Griffith). Look at his many accomplishments on LinkedIn.

What I Am Reading: The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, by Michelle Wilde Anderson – When not binge-watching MASH re-runs, I am constantly digging for stories of redemption in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and other historically challenged regions of the U.S.

What I am Watching: Just found a whole treasure trove of Taxi episodes on Paramount+, so that will keep me busy for a while…

What I am Listening to: My 6-year-old just discovered the Beastie Boys – walking him through the entire catalogue on Apple Music.


Is it me, or has public service taken a sharp turn from Parks and Recreation to American Gladiators? I’m not completely sure when it happened, but I am seeing more and more news stories about local government leaders being verbally (and in some cases, physically) threatened, abused, or otherwise harassed. I get it – we’re not perfect. Local governments make mistakes. Sometimes they make hilariously bad mistakes. Sometimes they make not-funny mistakes. And, sometimes, the shenanigans are not mistakes at all.

But – I’d stick my neck out to say that the vaaaaaast majority of challenges facing local government leaders have been arrived at honestly: the result of community leaders who are just trying to make the place better than when they found it. So why all the vitriol? My guess is that folks have forgotten about a few of the lessons we learned between visits to the Elmer’s Glue buffet. So get seated (criss–cross–applesauce) in the story circle, and let’s revisit some of those beautiful pieces of advice we got from our Kindergarten teacher.


It’s called public service for a reason. We’re here to do the public’s business. Lots of the hullabaloo I am seeing in my Google News Alert for “City Council S&!t Show” comes from a lack of information ahead of key decisions. We’re certainly not trying to hide anything, but have we done all we can to get the info out?  

I’ve written before about the dos and really dos of public engagement, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole. Suffice it to say, the more you share, the earlier you share it, the better off we’ll all be. While decision makers and constituents still have a right to assail the outcome, don’t leave an opening to assail the process.


As a staffer, a lot of the trouble we get into can be traced back to how we involve people in decision making. If you’re working with a City Council, make sure that everyone on City Council has the same information. Don’t give a little to a few and a little more to another few. In any political environment, picking favorites is a recipe for disaster. The same goes for your staff – build a project team, then share as much as you can with all of them. 


If you’re going to work in the public service kitchen, you’re going to break a few eggs (anyone counting metaphors yet?). When a mistake is made, remnants of it are everywhere. Be sure not to push off the crumbs of your poorly executed decision onto a co-worker, successor, future Board, Council, etc. Take the issue head on, fully understand the total impact, undo what can be undone, and apologize for what can’t. Quickly and thoroughly. Yourself.  


Saying sorry is a tough one. Particularly a really public sorry. But it must be done. I’ve watched Boards, Commissions, and Councils grind on each other – do battle over very tricky issues. Then, when the matter is settled, they go on about their business as if nothing ever happened. That trauma sticks with you, though.  

I had a City Councilmember once describe the first six months after a testy election as “election hangover.” Everyone is still carrying around those battle scars from the October surprise. After a tough debate, debacle, election, etc., take a moment to pull your colleagues aside, acknowledge any wrongs that were done, and plainly, clearly apologize. It will make all the difference.


You got into this business to change the trajectory of a community. You can’t do that alone, and you can’t do it effectively if others on your team are hurting. We get there faster when we’re all rowing together. Take care of your team members, and they’ll take care of you. Then the results flow like cafeteria Chicken a la King.

It’s not rocket science – it’s not even first grade math. Now everyone go outside and play for 30 minutes while I arrange your nap mats.

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