This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

July 31, 2008 - generations build or destroy the public sector

A few months ago I got to give one of my favorite talks. The topic was generations: how a combination of parenting styles and world events leads to distinct differences between us, and how those differences play out at home, in the workplace, and in society generally.

One of the people who heard the talk -- a police chief -- invited me to give it again, this time to a leadership group of police officers.

At first, I'm not sure they thought that a librarian would have much to say to them. But what I like about the topic is that it eventually touches everybody.

I learned that several metro area police departments are finding that they just don't get as many qualified officer candidates as they used to. Where once a modest ad might bring in 2,000 people, now only eight show up, and four of them really shouldn't be given badges and pistols.

Many officers reported that the way they were trained doesn't seem to be working as well with new recruits.

We talked frankly about that. What motivates potential officers today isn't the same thing that motivated officers from one or two generations ago. And they certainly don't learn the same way -- why try to teach the same way?

In short, thinking about generations isn't fluff: it's essential to the recruitment and training of qualified employees.

I find that the more I give this talk, the more harshly critical I become of my own generation: Baby Boomers.

One critique came from my own daughter who said, "No offense" (which is NEVER the way you want a comment from your children to begin), "but I -- and my generation -- are just so tired of angry Baby Boomer partisanship."

Ouch. But it's true. If you examine the record of our generation, here's mostly what we've done: destroy public institutions.

In sharp contrast to the work of the Greatest Generation -- institution builders, all -- the primary focus of most of my generation is to place our own individual convenience or values above the common good.

But here's the twist: even people in public service do it. That is, I've heard police officers disrespecting state and federal government; I've heard state workers dis the city workers. I've even heard librarians do it: speak with distrust and mistrust of government.

Government would be the people who sent firefighters and police officers up the steps of the crumbling towers on 9/11 -- to save lives. Government would be the people who have successfully eliminated a host of childhood illnesses, and taught millions of Americans to read.

So I suspect what I'm saying is AHEAD of the times, and it may be startling to you. But here it is: we need public institutions. We really do. And yes, they should be competent, and cost-effective, and responsive.

They aren't, not all the time. But then, neither is any other human enterprise: not business, not non-government not-for-profits, not anything. On the other hand, the record of local government is pretty good.

Incidentally, I put libraries right up there with police and fire and roads. An intellectual infrastructure is vital to our society, too.

For the past decade, I have directed my staff to work on this goal: to integrate our library as tightly as possible with our community. We are a vital asset: responding to individual needs on one hand, and community needs on the other.

We've done a really good job, too. We are an essential partner to both public and private education. We help people find jobs and launch businesses. We partner often and effectively to bring our research skills to bear on community issues.

We change lives. Or rather, we give people the tools they need to change their own lives.

Private institutions come and go. But the job of government is to endure, trading profit for longevity, for service both individuals and the public can depend on, for the quality of our shared lives.

Yet for more than 30 years now, Baby Boomers have been fostering an attitude of disdain and destructiveness toward public institutions. What possible result can there be but institutional failure? (Example: FEMA.)

Who wins?

I find the attitude of the Gen-Xers refreshing. Less ideological, more pragmatic, they just might save vital institutions.

The Millennials, coming up behind them, have a spirit of collaboration utterly foreign to my own generation, the willingness to entertain again the notion of public value.

I've decided that I need to change my own attitude. Do I want to live in a place where people are safe, well-educated, and healthy?

I do.

If I want quality of life, then I have to support public institutions, too. That support is not a burden -- it is both a responsibility and a privilege.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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