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Relentless Compassion

October 21, 2016

Over the past five years, I have studied the early experiences and attitudes of novice teachers in urban schools. Simply put, my work has focused on understanding: 1) why talented young people enter this enormously challenging and underappreciated line of work, and 2) how we can get more people to do it and to keep doing it. The public management literature (of all places!) provides some valuable insight.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, public administration scholars asserted that the motivations of individuals who pursue public service careers differ in important ways from other members of American society. In 1996, James Perry, professor at the University of Indiana, suggested that this Public Service Motivation (PSM) was characterized by six dimensions:

  • Attraction to public policy making
  • Commitment to the public interest
  • Civic duty
  • Social justice
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Compassion

The first three dimensions are fairly predictable. We would expect people in public service careers to be characterized, generally speaking, by an attraction to policy making (what they do), a commitment to the public interest (why they do it), and a strong sense of civic duty (why they keep doing it).

But it’s the last three dimensions – social justice, self-sacrifice, and compassion – that I believe offer the real insight. These characteristics – virtues, really – speak to how public servants do their work and for whom they do it.

Just last week, the front pages of major U.S. newspapers included stories about toxic soil forcing residents of a housing complex to relocate, high court costs entrapping nonwhite, poor juvenile offenders, the ongoing debate over the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and a growing prescription drug abuse epidemic.

These complex environmental, economic, and social issues require a public response and public leadership that is more than just committed and dutiful; they require an understanding and appreciation of the human element of these issues. They require relentless compassion and a self-sacrificing commitment to social justice.

Graduate programs in public policy and public administration play an important role in preparing people to take on these challenges. Much of our educational charge is focused on providing students with the technical skills and know-how to be effective and efficient public leaders. But graduating skilled technicians is no longer enough—it probably never was. We need to think more broadly about public affairs education to include coursework and programming that actively and intentionally fosters compassion, challenges bias, and discourages cynicism.  

People who are motivated by and educated with an appreciation for all the dimensions of Perry’s public service motivation are ultimately going to be the ones who will not only take on our most challenging public work, but will persist and succeed in that work in ways that advance our society and reflect our country’s deepest public values.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu