In praise of Brian Murphy and public service

Personal sacrifice for the larger good is key

WHAT DO YOU think about when you think about public service?

Do you think about the toil and sacrifice of men and women who place themselves in harm’s way to defend national security or protect us against natural and man-made disasters?

Do you think of the state official who struggles to provide essential mobility services to citizens in the face of outdated infrastructure and limited resources?

Do you think of the city official who navigates citizens through the often emotional process of sorting out local zoning and development initiatives?

What do you think about when you think about public service?

I think of the people I have known in a career in and out of public service, the lawyers in the Attorney General’s office, the problem resolution officers at the Revenue Department, the planners in the Transportation Department, the bridge inspectors at the Department of Conservation & Recreation. I think of my former colleagues working long hours to solve seeming unsolvable problems, bringing all they had to give in talent, skills, and judgment to decisions that would improve some specific day-to-day life experience for people they will never meet or know. I think of people who are willing to leave good jobs, undergo exacting scrutiny, devote long hours, work without adequate resources, accept the slings and arrows of many who love to second-guess from the sidelines – all in the cause of contributing something positive to our great civic enterprise.

I respect and admire public service because I have seen it up close and intimately, and I have met some of the most extraordinary selfless and skilled people working in the public sector. When we lose someone who has devoted themselves to making government a better institution, it’s a good time to pause and reflect not just on the person but also on the values he or she embodied in a lifetime of service.

Cambridge will say goodbye this week to a young civic leader who contributed much to local and state

government in a short but impactful career. The untimely passing of Cambridge Assistant City Manager Brian Murphy last Thursday came as a shock to those of us who knew and worked with him. Brian was an associate at Hill & Barlow when I first met him, a young lawyer who was drawn like a magnet to public law and policy. It was clear from the beginning that he would not be happy or fulfilled practicing law for long – public service was his calling and his passion.

Brian went on to a successful public career as an elected member of the Cambridge City Council. When I became transportation secretary, Brian was one of the first people I called to join me, and he served as a deputy secretary of transportation with great distinction. He was a policy wonk with a sense of humor, and his legal, political, and interpersonal skills were critical in the development and enactment of the 2009 transportation reform bill. He paid attention to both the details and the nuances. He mentored a younger staff with patience, humor, and skill. He knew when to negotiate and when to play hardball, and he brought unique skills to each approach.

More recently, Brian served Cambridge as its assistant city manager for community development, and by all accounts he performed his duties without fanfare but with a keen eye toward building consensus and achieving results. In a business where people often have to say “no” (or its equivalent), he was the kind of guy who made friends more than he lost them.

There was shock and grief at the news of his death because he was so young, with so much promise, but also because it is a profound loss for the public sector and the people of Cambridge. Finding people like Brian Murphy – people who are willing to devote the long hours for modest pay, people who are truly committed to making government improve the lives of others – is not an easy thing to do. Especially in our times, when public service exposes people to exacting scrutiny, when resources are scarce, when developing consensus is too often viewed as a sign of weakness or a sell-out to principle, finding creative thinkers and skillful practitioners like Brian is extremely difficult.

You cannot be fully attracted to public service unless you have a belief system that accepts personal sacrifice for the larger good – whether that public service is military service or government service or seeking elected or appointed office. Ideology matters, but it doesn’t define the essential motivation of the successful public servant, a motivation that regardless of ideology (or despite it) is drawn to solving problems and helping people.

This notion of helping people has deep roots locally, embodied famously by the legendary James Michael Curley who went briefly to jail for taking a civil service exam posing as a constituent who Curley knew could do the job but couldn’t pass the test. “He did it for a friend” became a slogan that Curley kept with him during a lifetime in politics. Boston’s Ward 8 boss Martin Lomasney told the journalist Lincoln Steffens of his belief that “there’s got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to – no matter what he’s done – and get help. Help, you understand; none of your law and justice, but help.”

Those crude and sketchy early 20th century formulations of how government should respond to the needs of the people have little or no place in today’s world, but the underlying premise resonates: government exists to help people, and political and civic leaders are (or ought to be) duty bound to improve people’s lives. Today that means a lot of things, including maintaining transparency in government, adopting policies to ensure equity in education and mobility, and giving “everyday people” a chance to have meaningful access to and influence over public sector decision making. In that way public service can and should be ennobling and enriching. I know that it was for Brian Murphy, as it is today for countless others for whom public service is a mission.

Brian’s calling was politics and government. Whether as a candidate for office or an appointed official, he set an example for a brand of public service that is selfless, savvy, and optimistic. He brought an easy-going attitude to the most challenging of problems, and was always ready to diffuse a difficult situation with his keen, if offbeat, sense of humor. With his unique skill set he was able time and again to generate the kind of trust and good will that enabled him to develop consensus, negotiate successfully, and ultimately get meaningful results for the people he so gladly served. His life’s work was focused outward not inward, and that generous spirit of giving was clear to everyone who encountered him.

I have in my library a worn copy of a book by Stimson Bullitt, a Seattle lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1950s and wrote a meditation on public service. He observed that the rewards of public service include “the pleasure of dealing with people and the fascination of work with ideas.” Brian reveled in both, a genuine happy warrior on behalf of the people of his community who believed in the power of ideas and the importance of action.

Bullitt quotes from the essayist and activist Ahad Ha’am: “I live for the perpetuation and happiness of the community of which I am a member . . . When the individual thus values the community as his own life and strives after its happiness as though it were his individual well-being, he finds satisfaction.” I am certain that Brian found enormous satisfaction in his work. Cambridge and the Commonwealth are better places because of his public service.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.