top of page

An Ethos of Public Service

(Originally published March 2021)

Anyone who has frequent contact with a public agency regarding a matter of personal importance or a family issue is likely to quickly recognize the extent to which employees of the agency are:


  • Courteous

  • Accessible

  • Responsive/helpful

  • Knowledgeable/competent

  • Trustworthy/reliable

  • Resourceful

  • Transparent in decision-making

  • Accountable   


If contact with a public agency extends over several years, it will also be easy to evaluate an agency’s adaptability and commitment, or lack of same, to improving its services. Public agencies’ organizational cultures reflect adherence, or indifference, to an ethos of public service, and have more influence over time than written policies on how employees treat various groups of people outside the agency. An organizational culture develops gradually through many thousands of  day in-day out  communications with persons inside and outside the agency and is difficult to reshape consciously, in part because social behavior is contagious and embodies unwritten rules which agency staff may not be able to articulate. 


An ethos of public service is analogous to the expectations of a for-profit business regarding consumer services.  One might expect that businesses which depend on customers seeking their services would be highly attuned to how their employees treat customers; and some are. However, when dealing with some businesses and contractors in today’s on-line world prospective customers may find it difficult to reach anyone by phone or email; or receive a return call; or be sure that  companies will reimburse the cost of bad products or faulty repairs, or even admit fault in a business dealing.  Perversely, it seems the on-line world may have negatively impacted accessibility to public employees by increasing the total volume of communications they receive daily. In addition, during the pandemic, public employees may not be working in offices.  If a caseworker does not respond to calls or emails in a timely way, a parent, foster parent, or mandated reporter may be without recourse.  Nothing undermines confidence in a public child welfare agency more quickly than the inability of someone who desperately needs help to contact a key staff person during an emergency, or for several days after.  When I was a CPS caseworker and then supervisor I learned to “write off” (if possible) working relationships with professionals who did not return my calls in a timely way.  But what if a parent, foster parent, foster child, or child advocate has nowhere else to turn? Negative word of mouth regarding the agency’s lack of concern is likely to spread around the community.  

Guideline: public child welfare agencies should establish the expectation that phone calls and emails will be returned without fail within 24 hours during the work week and no later than the next workday for communications received on weekends or holidays. Caseworkers should understand that developing a good reputation in the community and among  foster parents depends on following this rule religiously. Why should anyone trust a caseworker they have difficulty in contacting and who does return calls or email in a timely way? 


Courtesy and Responsiveness

Courtesy in public services requires more than communicating with a civil tone of voice and using respectful language. Courtesy is embodied in the quality of attention given to various community members and to parents and youth with open child welfare cases. In a small group, including everyone in a conversation is courteous behavior,  while excluding some group members from a conversation is a form of dis-respect. Everyone understands this.


Courtesy (or the lack thereof) begins the moment a person walks into an office. Compare the following:

  • You arrive at an attorney’s office for an appointment a few minutes early. The receptionist asks if you would like coffee, tea, or water while you wait. The office is nicely furnished; and has a collection of recent magazines. You are ushered into the attorney’s office less than 10 minutes after the time of your appointment.

  • You are a parent who arrives at the local child welfare office 20 minutes prior to the scheduled time for a parent-child visit. The receptionist curtly instructs you to take a seat  and offers no refreshments. The small office has some basic furniture, no refreshments or reading material and no amenities for children. The volunteer driver arrives 30 minutes late with your child. You are given no explanation of the delay and receive no apology.   


Public agencies can make people seeking their help feel unwelcome from the moment they enter the office. Courteous behavior says: “Thank you for coming in; we want you to feel welcome and comfortable.” Discourteous behavior communicates the message: “Your comfort is not our concern. Please don’t bother us until we call you, which will be when we get around to it.” It’s possible to determine whether a child welfare agency wants to create a welcoming environment within a minute or two of entering the office.  In public agencies, as in business, first impressions make a big difference. What happens at reception and the physical condition of the reception area reflects agency culture. 


When a business values customer service, every employee who has contact with a potential customer goes out of their way to be helpful. In response to requests for information or assistance, no one says “that’s not my job,” or “you’ll have to ask Tom,” when Tom is not available. However, every large public agency is likely to have employees with a bureaucratic mindset who have tunnel vision, i.e.,  they are only interested in doing their job, following rules, and staying out of trouble. These employees resent being asked to do anything that lies outside their job description. They are bureaucrats in the negative sense of the term, not public servants who find a way to be helpful regardless of a rule book or job description.  


Being Knowledgeable and Resourceful

Years ago, I gave a presentation to a professional audience on surveys of parents and stakeholders regarding their expectations of child welfare caseworkers. I commented that parents and stakeholders tend to describe the personal characteristics of caseworkers they interact with, e.g., fairness, honesty, concern, far more frequently than they mention knowledge or competence. At the end of the presentation, a Native American professional informed me privately that “in our world, we are not interested in a person’s knowledge until we know who they are.”  A caseworker’s values and moral character determine how knowledge will be used in their interactions with families  and tribal communities.


Nevertheless, once consumers of public services are assured that they will receive fair treatment, they  become interested in whether a public employee, e.g., a caseworker, has “how to” knowledge, i.e., practical ability to get things done.  Within public agencies, the understanding of how to use (sometimes manipulate) agency rules to facilitate payment, fund services, or obtain approval for an exception to policy is highly valued. This is not academic knowledge; but it is essential for the effective operation of any bureaucracy, so much so that the mastery of many complex rules and regulations is a source of personal influence within public agencies.


In child welfare, newly hired caseworkers must first learn how to utilize computer systems to survive,  which is why in basic training programs there can never be enough computer training to suit trainees, while acquisition of other knowledge and skills can be acquired more gradually. For inexperienced caseworkers, completing a risk assessment and documenting a risk assessment in computer are likely to be conflated. As amazing as it sounds, a supervisor may be more concerned with a newly hired caseworker’s ability to complete a computerized risk assessment tool than with their conceptual understanding of risk assessment. Public agencies exist in a hard, challenging world, but they are evaluated internally through a virtual world of computer documentation.  


It is a reasonable expectation that CPS caseworkers will understand the fundamentals of child protection, for example, the significance of sentinel injuries of infants and recognizing the indicators of child torture such as systematic denial of food and water and deliberate humiliation of a child. CWFS caseworkers who move children from home to home must understand how to move children in a way that minimizes emotional harm to a child. The failure of a public agency to train its staff in the fundamentals of its work and ensuring  that this knowledge is consistently utilized is a violation of public trust.   


Capable public employees do not give up on achieving an important goal when  usual practices do not work. A key test of adaptive intelligence is to observe what occurs when a professional or public agency is confronted with obstacles for which routine practices are ineffective and for which there may not be adequate funding to do what is needed. Competent public service requires more than complying with policies and procedures. In my 30-plus years of  experience in public child welfare, a human service bureaucracy never functioned effectively unless resourceful employees understood when to ignore rules and do the right thing. However, begging for forgiveness rather than asking permission in a bureaucratic structure can be risky, or even career ending! Still, any public agency that lacks employees willing to take risks to make the agency work for people will quickly become dysfunctional. Every bureaucracy needs  employees who occasionally ignore rules or figure out how to work around them  to achieve the agency mission.


Being Transparent and Accountable  

Studies of the attitudes of parents with open child welfare cases have consistently found that parents have the most positive regard for caseworkers  they believe are fair and honest, i.e., truthful in explaining agency actions. Transparency regarding agency decisions also requires clarity, that is using  simple language free of acronyms or jargon.  Honest and clear explanations of decision making will often include information regarding agency policies; but this is rarely the whole story. Most public agencies have an ‘exception to policy’ approval process, and ones that don’t require responsible and capable employees to make ad hoc decisions regarding when to ignore agency policy, possibly at their peril if something goes wrong or their decision to act outside policy is exposed during an audit.


When a public agency has an ‘exception to policy’ approval process, parents or their attorneys, foster parents and community stakeholders should ask about the possibility of an exception request when they believe following an agency policy would harm them or their client.  Caseworkers and supervisors often refer to rules and policies when explaining their decisions to deflect anger or blame, when they made decisions for other reasons . This is understandable  behavior, but it is acting in bad faith, i.e.,  refusing to “own” one’s decisions.  


In public child welfare, caseworkers should be allowed a grace period of 18-24 months when they can defend their actions (however questionable) by referring to a rule or policy. At that point, caseworkers should be willing to accept responsibility for their decisions, or honestly explain to a parent or stakeholder that she/ he does not agree with an agency decision.  Accountable public servants do not hide their personal responsibility for a tough decision behind rules. 



In public human service agencies, as in the private agency world, there is a constant tension between accountability, i.e., the willingness to acknowledge mistakes or abuse of power, and the need to minimize liability from tort actions, as well as to retain public trust. Every child welfare manger comes to understand the internal cost of disciplining or terminating employees in response to community complaints. The more difficult the job, the more public employees want managers to support them when they are attacked by persons outside the agency, come hell or high water. A responsible manager cannot make this commitment, though a caseworker or supervisor should never be demoted or fired to dampen public outrage,  or to save a top manager’s job. In every organization, the first instinct of leaders is to protect the organization and its employees. This instinct has led to widespread loss of trust in the Catholic hierarchy, police chiefs, military brass and (sometimes) child welfare directors.  There is no easy way out of this dilemma;  it is often only with 20/20 hindsight that it’s obvious what leaders should have done to accept responsibility for agency mistakes and demote or fire one or more employees without delay.  


The challenge for caseworkers and supervisors does not (or should not) involve these types of political judgments. Responsible public servants admit mistakes (which are common) and fix the mess their mistake has caused as quickly as possible. In some instances, nothing more than an apology is necessary, but mistakes or lack of conscientious practice can occasionally result in grievous harm to a child or family. Extraordinary courage is involved to admit error and make amends in these circumstances. A person’s character is both revealed and shaped during events that leave them vulnerable to the negative opinion of others, or worse. 


Curbing Abuse of Power

Every organization, public or private, that has the power to help or harm people has the potential for abuse of power. The greater the difference in income and status between agency staff and the persons they serve, the greater the possibility that power and authority will be abused. In some organizations, the main risk is financial corruption, while in police agencies and the military the temptation to misuse violence and deadly force may be ever present. Within organizational hierarchies, sexual harassment is often a frequent occurrence. In every organization, leaders have the potential to exploit employees for careerist gains, while cultivating a reputation outside the agency for probity and vision.  In recent years, there have been reports of managerial bullying in several child welfare systems, including Oregon, and anecdotal stories of similar behavior in Washington State. When child welfare leaders tolerate managerial bullying of employees, bad behavior flows downward to the detriment of the entire organization.  


Parents and children with open child welfare cases are highly vulnerable due to low income, minority status, age or disability. Foster parents are surprisingly vulnerable to caseworkers’ mistreatment because of their volunteer status and lack of legal standing in the courts. Both parents and foster parents can be victims of retaliation for making complaints, and many foster parents assert that they have been such victims. Parents whose children have been placed in foster care often feel that they have been treated with gross unfairness. It is often difficult, if not impossible, for parents with open child welfare cases or foster parents to find a child welfare manager who will listen seriously to their complaint, an experience of not being heard that leads to bitterness.


Child welfare agencies in the U.S. have not yet come to grips with how to curb abuse of power without leaving their staff vulnerable to unwarranted attacks from agency critics.  This is a challenge that public child welfare agencies must continue to grapple with, in part by creating a learning environment in which it is deemed praiseworthy for staff to admit error and make amends.   


Click here to see prior Past Sounding Board commentaries 

©Dee Wilson 


bottom of page