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​Public Servants Are Vital to Defeating COVID-19

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Defeating COVID-19​Each year, the U.S. celebrates the contributions of government workers during its Public Service Recognition Week, which is May 3–9. At a global level, the United Nations designates June 23 as Public Service Day, which includes announcement of the U.N. Public Service Awards, now in their 17th year.

These celebrations should take on added significance in 2020, in light of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Public health workers around the world — the doctors and nurses who tend to the afflicted in thousands of public hospitals, the government scientists who toil to find treatments and develop a vaccine, the health department workers who operate testing facilities — are the front-line warriors who are giving their time, talent, and energy to fight this terrible scourge while putting their own lives at risk.

These brave and dedicated workers justifiably receive the lion's share of our praise and admiration, but we also should acknowledge public servants at every level of government. Without them, defeating COVID-19 and tackling the other challenges facing humanity would be virtually impossible.

Two major tactics in the war on COVID-19 are social distancing and stay-at-home edicts designed to strategically limit the spread of the infection. As pressure grows to ease these limitations, we may see that strategy evolve toward mandatory testing and contact tracing. Each of these approaches can be carried out successfully because the populace continues to operate in relative comfort, despite the dramatic disruptions in their lives. This is where the rest of the public servants — the silent army, if you will — have stepped up.

It is easy to overlook all the simple daily conveniences that are made possible by those who dedicate their lives to public service. We expect to turn on the tap and have clean water come out, or that police and fire services will respond quickly when we're in trouble. We assume traffic lights will work, and that our parks and other public spaces will be well-tended and clean. While these services may be taken for granted, their connection to a public worker is obvious once pointed out.

However, there are many other aspects of our daily lives where those in public service play a significant, if not so obvious, role. We assume we will be treated fairly by the judicial system and that our civil rights will be protected, that the food on the grocery store shelves will be safe to eat, that we will have clean air to breathe, and that our tax dollars will be spent wisely. All this is made possible by faceless public servants who also bring skill and dedication to their work.

Whether in high-profile roles or toiling behind the scenes, the one common trait among these workers is a commitment to public service. This should never be taken lightly. It is common, indeed de riguere, to paint public workers as lazy, overpaid, or operating with their own agendas. But, as someone who spent more than 25 years working in the public sector, I can say with confidence that the vast majority are hard-working, dedicated, and committed to serving the public good.

This also describes public-sector auditors. Their roles in government raise the level of public service to an even higher level. These men and women dedicate their hearts and minds to detecting and deterring fraud, seeking out inefficiencies in public operations, uncovering corruption, and identifying and helping manage risk. All this helps ensure taxpayer-funded services are effective, efficient, and fair.

However, the two greatest contributions that public-sector auditors can provide — whether they are U.S. inspectors general; chief financial controllers; comptrollers general; auditors general; or state, provincial, or local auditors — are:

  • Shining the bright light of transparency and accountability on public institutions.
  • Speaking truth to power.

I have written about both these in the general context of internal auditing on many occasions, and they certainly are not limited to public-sector auditing. However, these are powerful tools that drive our public institutions to provide the best service possible. During this public health crisis, demanding the best will help defeat the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly and effectively.

To the "Guardians of Public Trust," I salute you!

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