Sebelius optimistic about future of public service, despite current conditions

photo by: Peter Hancock

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius talks about her career in government and the future of public service during an appearance Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, at the Lawrence Arts Center where she helped the University of Kansas celebrate the 70th anniversary of its Master's in Public Administration program.

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius told a Lawrence audience Thursday that she is optimistic about the next generation of public leaders, despite what she sees as a disturbing trend of growing disrespect for public service.

“I think we have a generation of public-minded younger people who see themselves as global citizens who are eager to figure out ways that they can be involved and engaged,” Sebelius said.

Sebelius was the featured guest Thursday evening at the Lawrence Arts Center, where the University of Kansas was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its Master of Public Administration program. Sebelius received a degree from that program in 1980.

A former legislator and state insurance commissioner, Sebelius was elected governor in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. She stepped down in 2009 to become Secretary of Health and Human Sevices in President Barack Obama’s administration and continued in that role until June 2014.

When she earned her MPA, Sebelius was working as a lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. She was also active behind the scenes in Democratic politics, but in 1986 she ran for an open seat in the Kansas House in a central Topeka district where she lived at the time.

It was there, Sebelius said, that she first started witnessing a decline in the public’s respect for government employees.

“I represented a district in Topeka that had probably more public employees than any district because that was right near the Capitol and downtown,” she said. “I watched this in Washington, where elected officials spend time day-in and day-out demeaning public servants.”

“That’s not new,” she added, “but the noise around that has increased dramatically, and I think that’s a very dangerous place to be because the last thing we want to do is discourage bright, talented individuals from looking at public service as one of their opportunities.”

For about 90 minutes, Sebelius, who now lives in Lawrence, fielded questions about her career from Teresa Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, as well as from the audience.

She reflected on her decision in 1994 to run for insurance commissioner, an office that had never been held by a Democrat before, calling it, “one of the craziest things I have ever done.”

After two terms as insurance commissioner, she was elected governor in 2002 and soon built a reputation as a moderate who could forge coalitions on certain issues with Republicans, who dominated both chambers of the Kansas Legislature.

In 2009, she accepted a request to join the Obama administration as HHS secretary, where she helped steer the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and oversaw the troubled rollout of that program, which was plagued by problems with the website that was supposed to help individuals buy subsidized insurance through an online marketplace.

“As you might imagine, I still have PTSD from the experience, so I’m probably not the most accurate judge,” Sebelius said.

It was also in the early days of the Obama administration that Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, a massive economic stimulus bill that was meant to shore up an economy that was spiraling out of control at the time as the impact of the financial industry collapse and the onset of the Great Recession set in.

Sebelius described that as a massive bipartisan effort that sent billions of dollars in financial aid to state governments to shore up their Medicaid and public education programs at a time when state governments were suffering from massive revenue shortfalls.

She also said that may be the last time the American people see such a bipartisan effort for a long time.

“I don’t think any governor could count on that happening today,” she said.


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