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Recognizing the role of recognition in public service

This year, the Tennessee legislature’s website was recognized with top honors from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Information and Communications Staff Section (NCSL LINCS) and the National Association of Legislative Information Technology (NALIT).  One state legislature, caucus or house is selected each year for the Online Democracy award, highlighting how their website “helps makes democracy user-friendly.” The Tennessee General Assembly also received this honor in 2009 (see past winners); in the words of the award committee, 2015’s winning attributes included “its inviting, warm and welcoming qualities, essential for engaging citizens….a consistent design, [and] fresh content but easy to access past information.”

No doubt a happy occasion for the General Assembly’s elected officials and legislative staff, this recognition is also a reminder of the roles that both professional organizations and specialized awards play in supporting the efforts of public servants. The steady work of public administrators is often behind the scenes, while the ebb and flow of politics takes center stage — at least when administration is going well. Recognizing the value of the “dog that didn’t bark” is always harder than complaining over a bureaucratic hurdle.  The last time that you went to to the legislative website and found the bill tracking information you needed without a hassle; that day the helpful staff member from the Revenue Department unsnarled your tax confusion over the phone; that weekend you were kept safe, unawares, by the rangers at your favorite state park — when these good things happen, the average citizen doesn’t take a moment to drop some public administrator a thank-you note.  Nor should we have to, of course; ethical, efficient and effective service in accordance with the law and infused with public administration values should be the norm.  Nonetheless, we know that the same incentives that reward high performers and team achievements in the private sector often cannot exist for public servants.  In their absence, recognition from peers takes on extra significance:  peers who understand both the wonky details and the particular challenges of the specialized work of public servants.

From the perspective of the organizations who develop and offer these awards, they serve multiple functions.  If the organization is a membership association, award programs are part of the suite of benefits offered to members.  Being able to participate in nominations and the possibility of receiving an award oneself may be potential incentives to join. The award program, the ceremonies and the press releases that accompany each year’s recognitions help publicize and legitimize the awarding organizations themselves as part of the network ecology around a public function or specific profession.   Potentially more valuable from a larger standpoint, however, are the ways in which awards could disseminate public service values, and the norms of best practice, in a particular field of government or nonprofit activity. The most effective type of recognition in this class may be those which focus on public administration work product rather than individual public servants.

So, in recognition of the role of these recognitions, here’s a far from exhaustive selection of professional organizations and awards they offer (with a bias towards my area of public budgeting and public finance), in no particular order.  In general, award process participation, nomination, and/or eligibility are conditioned on membership.  I am particularly interested in awards given for public administration work product or to organizations/agencies; of course, most professional associations in any field also have awards recognizing individuals for distinguished achievements over the short or long run. Some of the awards listed are given to only one recipient at a time, like the LINCS/NALIT Online Democracy award described above. Others, like the GFOA recognitions for high quality government financial documentation, may have as many recipients as applicants who meet the qualifications in a given period, so as to incentivize as many agencies as possible to meet the relevant standards.   Share others in the comments if I didn’t list your favorite, there are more!  And, whether you’re a student or already in service, if you have let membership in your professional association lapse (or haven’t yet joined) — remember the role they play in supporting your development and, conversely, the obligation that you have to give back to your own profession.  Speaking of, time for me to pay my ASPA dues for the year…

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