5 Ways Public Servants Can Stay on Track

Five ways public service is like the Olympics.

Like many readers, I spent the month of July in front of the television watching the Olympic Games. From pole vaulting and marathons to intense swimming, it’s amazing to see what athletes can accomplish with dedication and inspiration.

In many ways, public servants are like Olympians (and not just the poor pay). As such, here are five ways public service is like the Olympics and how you can prepare to be a gold-medal winner:

  • Years of Preparation for One Day. In the Olympics, athletes typically train four years for one event on one day. And they must perform flawlessly for maybe an hour on that one day. This is often true for government — we prepare a continuity of operations plan and emergency alerting — not for daily use, but for that one day when we need them and we cannot mess up.
  • The Handoff Is Everything. For the last few Olympics, USA was the favorite to win the 4x100 women’s relay, but lost due to a fumbled baton handoff. In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast the team is running or how much preparation is done if the ball is dropped. In government, if a project handoff goes poorly, it fails.
  • The Audience Rarely Cares. For most of the Olympic sports, the average public doesn’t care about the sport until this one time every four years. That is the same with most of government services — 99 percent of citizens are too busy to be regularly engaged with the city. However, they deeply care about the issue the one time a year they must renew a license or find information about switching schools. You have to shine in those moments.
  • Mission Focused. At the Next Generation of Government Summit — sponsored by Young Government Leaders and GovLoop — two-time silver-medal shotput Olympian Adam Nelson spoke about how public service is like the Olympics. He noted that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well, which holds true with public service.
  • We Must Adapt. The way people engaged during this year’s event was radically different than in 2008. Viewer expectations were much higher, and NBC increased the number of hours available across its multiple channels, integrated social media versus being a side activity, and optimized for multiple screens (Web, phone, tablet, TV). Even still, NBC faced lots of complaints about tape delays and struggled to meet the new expectations. Fundamentally, government is facing the same problem — citizens have increasingly higher demands, want to engage in real time, and want their problems solved in multiple formats and mediums.

The next Olympiad is four years away, but I’m sure this year’s Olympians and 2016 hopefuls already are training for their big day. Let’s make sure government is doing the same — preparing for big events and making evolutions in each cycle.  


Miriam Jones is chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. She joined e.Republic in 2000 as an editor of Converge magazine.