A Border Patrol agent guards a suspect caught along the Rio Grande River in Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Federal Times invited readers to reflect on the state of public service and on what, if anything, should be done to improve it. Following are excerpts.
Paul Carlson, executive director, Seattle Federal Executive Board:
For most of the past decade, I served in a key federal role to promote strategies to end homelessness. The general public may not know just how much success local communities have had in decreasing homelessness, especially with those persons long-term on the streets who were thought beyond hope.
Federal officials led the way. We went on the stump all over the country, met with governors, mayors, city and county councils, business leaders. We cajoled and persuaded, pushed, rallied, problem-solved and organized. When signs of success appeared, we cheered on local efforts and faded into the background. We knew the federal role would ultimately be seen as merely supportive. The reality was that we were the principal agents of systemic change, the ones who turned the tide.
My current role as executive director of the Seattle Federal Executive Board gives me a unique vantage to see the critical leadership provided by federal staff on many social and economic issues. This leadership is understated, behind the scenes, willingly giving credit to others, eager to serve others.
I see the superb cadre of federal scientists of the National Weather Service, their dedicated work and research without which TV weather personalities would have nothing to say. The Environmental Protection Agency withstands the heat of controversy in preserving clean air and water, but rarely receives credit for the success its efforts routinely achieve. The oft-maligned U.S. Postal Service gets compared with private carriers who do not have to faithfully serve Barrow, Alaska, or La Pine, Ore.
In May, Federal Executive Boards across the country celebrate Public Service Recognition Week with awards ceremonies. We honor a few thousand outstanding federal staff each year. These stories reveal the unassuming character of employees whose work goes beyond merely doing a good job. They innovate and create new ways of better serving the American public.
What a contrast with certain opinions about federal employees in recent years. It is disappointing, knowing the critical yet anonymous role federal staff play on so many issues. But we can live with that anonymity. The job gets done, the public served. But to see our roles not only taken for granted, but denigrated and our reputations abused?
Is this relentless criticism of public officials really a surrogate debate about the role of government? It would seem so. One can only lament that a casualty of this debate is the devaluing of public service.
No matter what decisions are made that will shape the government of the future, the country will continue to require dedicated employees who regard their roles as a calling and their work as an opportunity for true service to their country.
Joe Gaines, chief technology officer and director of science and technology, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, Ind.:
Contrary to popular rhetoric, innovation in the federal sector often leads to vast economic development, entrepreneurialism and innovation in the private sector, almost always with a higher-paying, higher-technology end. Even in today’s contentious political environment, we can tap opportunities by deploying a system for entrepreneurialism and innovation across the federal sector.
By encouraging deployment of such systems, we can drive higher efficiencies and better effectiveness in the public sector, along with economic development in the private sector.
In his 2012 book, “Relentless Innovation,” Jeffrey Phillips introduces the concept of shifting from a culture of “Business as Usual” to a culture of “Innovation Business as Usual.” We can emulate some of the best practices in our public service by adopting and adapting innovation and entrepreneurialism as a disciplined, core function in our agencies and creating a culture that is more meaningful and responsive to today’s seemingly intractable issues.
Within the Navy, we have a multitude of examples where innovation by public servants can lead to entrepreneurialism and startups in the private sector. A Navy scientist developed a material to simulate human skin and underlying soft tissue. The Navy used the simulated skin in ballistic testing to understand the impact of nonlethal ammunition on human skin. This technology was adopted and adapted by a student at a university partner, Ball State University, with impressive results. As part of an award-winning Military 2 Market program, the student developed business plans around this Navy innovation resulting in an entrepreneurial startup working to adapt the technology for the private medical sector. Now medical students, nurses, doctors and medical personnel are collaborating with the startup to ultimately develop products for use in medical training for surgery, vaccinations and other procedures. The medical application simulates realistic versions of skin and tissue. So a surgical student can now know what it is like to operate on an 87-year-old female or a 6-year-old boy and the different challenges presented by both before ever having to perform the procedure in an operating room.
The analogy for the public sector is that implementing systems and processes that can encourage transformational innovation has the potential to pay off in efficiency, effectiveness and economic development.
The best companies are focusing their future on systems that manage for “total innovation” rather than praying for positive outcomes from a collection of ad hoc efforts and serendipity. Innovation and entrepreneurial pilots and demonstrations in public service have the promise of producing transformational results in an era of turbulence and chaos.
Stephen Condrey, president, American Society for Public Administration (ASPA):
As ASPA president, I have set a goal to begin to raise the positive public profile of public servants and public service. I have spent more than 30 years as a public human resource management professor and consultant. I believe the attacks on federal employees have never been so pointed and so damaging. The damage is not only being inflicted on current employees through pay freezes and partisan rhetoric, it is also having a deleterious effect on the future workforce.
When then-candidate Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he promised to make government service a high calling. Harkening back to President Kennedy’s call for the “best and the brightest” to serve their country, Obama appointed John Berry as head of the Office of Personnel Management, and Berry worked tirelessly as an advocate of public service and federal public servants in particular. However, even Obama and Berry were unable to stem the tide of ill-informed and undeserved criticism of the federal workforce as the country slipped into deep recession.
Economic scarcity results in fractious politics. This political and economic environment has led to furloughs, pay freezes and, most importantly, an uncertain future for many federal employees.
Federal employees provide valuable public services — they serve our veterans, conduct research to find cures to disease, protect our borders and represent our interests abroad. We are fortunate to have dedicated workers who have sacrificed to serve their country. They deserve our praise and respect. We must all work to protect and promote public service and to ensure that public service careers are desirable for future workers as well.
ASPA is celebrating its 75th anniversary as an organization this year. The theme of our annual conference March 14-18 in Washington will be “Celebrating Public Service.” We plan to showcase public service success stories from all levels of government. However, we should not restrict our praise of public servants to events such as annual conferences and Public Service Recognition Week. Ours should be a steady drumbeat of praise for the unselfish service that public servants provide.
J. David Cox, national president, American Federation of Government Employees:
This is a tough time to be a federal employee. Even under the leadership of a party that typically supports working-class Americans, federal employees have been targeted repeatedly for sacrifices to deficit reduction that no other group has been forced to make.
Federal employees have suffered three consecutive years of frozen pay — an unprecedented action. Meanwhile, the work gets harder because so many vacant positions are left unfilled due to hiring freezes and budget cutbacks. More than a million civil servants are facing lengthy, costly furloughs and other pay cuts as a result of sequestration. And just last month, the Obama administration proposed a budget that would cut federal retirement benefits, cut federal employee health benefits, cut Social Security benefits and cut federal jobs.
Despite these hardships, federal employees continue to go to work every day. They know the work they do makes an important and positive difference in people’s lives. Federal employees are the Veterans Affairs Department doctors, nurses and support staff who run the best health care system in the world. Federal employees are the claims processors who make sure the disabled and senior citizens get their Social Security checks each month. Federal employees are the law enforcement and security officers guarding our nation’s borders, prisons, airports and buildings. Federal employees support the military mission by inspecting ships, maintaining tanks, manufacturing and repairing artillery and weapons, tracking the movement of supplies and equipment from the warehouse to the battlefield, and working in commissaries, day care centers and other facilities that soldiers, veterans and their families rely on.
Federal employees do all of this and more to keep our country and its citizens safe, secure and sound. They deserve our admiration and gratitude — not just during Public Service Recognition Week, but every day of the year.
I hope that lawmakers think about the federal employees in their districts when they confront the terrible proposals that would further cut federal benefits and take-home pay. The average salary of the federal employees AFGE represents is $50,000 a year. After subtracting health insurance, retirement and taxes, they take home between $500 and $600 a week. Many employees could make far more in the private sector, but they stay in government because the work they do matters. It matters to them, and it should matter to all of us.
Dennis Purifoy, 39-year federal employee and Murrah Building survivor:
There are several ways to assess the state of federal service, but one comparison is telling. President Clinton vowed after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to never again use the pejorative “bureaucrat” when referring to federal employees, who were the majority of the casualties in that terrorist attack. Compare that vow to the use of “bureaucrat” or “bureaucracy” in the House Republican-proposed 2014 budget; that document uses those terms about 30 times, and always negatively. The term “federal employee” is used in that document only in calls to reduce pay and benefits.
Or consider another comparison. The federal government used to aspire to be a “model employer.” Now there are resounding calls to reduce benefits and pay, so the federal government would not only not be a model employer, but rather an employer that prospective employees would go to only as a last resort. Forget “the best and the brightest”!
Let’s not understate what is at stake here. One requirement to maintaining a strong democracy is to have a government that is responsive to citizens. When the Social Security Administration or the Veterans Affairs Department is chronically understaffed and underfunded, with the result that disability claims take many months to resolve, democracy is weakened. Those who focus only on the cost of government to citizens as a threat to democracy have faulty eyesight at best. Weak services to citizens also are a threat to democracy. Why can they see this threat in countries like Egypt or Afghanistan, Mexico or Venezuela, but not the U.S.A.?
One starting point to improve the state of federal service is for politicians to stop trying to score political points by bashing federal employees. This includes equating “federal employee” to “bureaucrat.” It would also extend to Congress taking responsibility for true congressional oversight of federal agencies, rather than the “gotcha” mentality that prevails today. If Congress was better at oversight, federal agencies could be more efficient and effective, and probably cost less. No one would argue with those results, and it wouldn’t take pejorative language to do it.
Raymond Marbury, federal program manager and CEO, Education Institute of Capitol Hill:
Benjamin Franklin said that by failing to prepare, organizations are preparing to fail. These words describe the potential state of human capital and succession planning in the U.S. government today.
According to the Government Accountability Office, 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population, or 70 million Americans, will be 65 years old or older by 2030. Within executive branch departments alone, this accounts for nearly 760,000 employees eligible for retirement in 2016. Half of the retirement-eligible employees are supervisors, which leaves a significant gap between entry-level employees and managers. As a result, there is a large shortfall of midcareer employees prepared for government leadership roles in the next decade.
This forecast may have a negative impact on the stability of government operations due to knowledge loss and attrition. Additionally, the scenario would expose agencies to human capital deficiencies that could compromise the government’s ability to protect public health and hinder the delivery of critical anti-terrorism services in intelligence and defense communities.
Financially, failing to prepare for succession may increase human capital expenditures by 30 percent, or an average of $21 billion over the next 10 years, according to briefs submitted to Congress by the Project for Government Oversight and the Federal Managers Association. Alternatively, if Congress invests in the federal workforce by increasing human capital and knowledge management expenditures to prepare for retirements, agencies collectively could save $10 billion to $100 billion over the next 10 years, according to Jack Phillips, an expert on human capital measurements and evaluation.
The effects of our nation’s budget situation are already evident with the Office of Personnel Management reporting a 25 percent increase in retirement applications in early 2013. Many federal employees have suggested that the political climate is a major factor in the rapid acceleration of retirement decisions.
This begs the question: Should Congress invest in the federal workforce or compromise public services? The answer lies in whether congressional leaders decide to execute a balanced approach to reduce the deficit, while investing in America’s private- and public-sector infrastructures.
Richard Thissen, national treasurer, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association:
During Public Service Recognition Week, it is difficult not to think about the challenges America and its public employees face. We saw in Boston how vulnerable we are to persons who wish to do us harm, and we also saw the outpouring of support from those willing to risk their lives and step in when things get tough.
This is the time when public service is most important. The safety of our airports, food, prescription drugs and so many things central to our lives depends on a strong federal structure. Further, public servants, both military and civilian, protect our country every day within the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments, as well as intelligence agencies.
Unfortunately, a dedicated campaign to denigrate the service of public employees and their contributions to our society has lowered the general public’s respect and support for public employees. This, in turn, has led to vicious attacks on the pay and benefits of public employees. The federal community, aware of how budget crises affect the government and the American public, is willing to make shared sacrifices to get our country back on track; however, to date, we have been singled out for cuts above and beyond what others are asked to give.
The continual attack on the contributions and integrity of public service threatens to turn our finest young minds away from considering public employment. When you consider the number of retirements looming, this could have devastating effects on programs critical to our country.
The question becomes: How do we stop this? There must be a concentrated effort to educate the public, as well our politicians, on the essential nature of our service. One Public Service Recognition Week out of the year is not going to be enough. Every public employee and supporting organization must take it upon themselves to educate others on our contributions to their daily lives.
We can be the shining light that eventually proves the purveyors of distortion to be wrong.
As a former public servant who is proud of my service, I salute all current and former public servants for their dedication. Having been stationed overseas for nine years, I can say without hesitation that we are not perfect, but we are the best.
Colleen Kelley, national president, National Treasury Employees Union:
Put yourself in the place of a federal employee. Your goal is to do your job the best you can for the American people. That is why you chose public service. To fulfill that goal, your agency must have the necessary resources — tools, equipment, training programs and employees. Without that, you, as a federal worker, will fall short.
When asking about sequestration and budget cuts to date, a survey of NTEU members found widespread concern about the effective functioning of all 31 agencies where we represent employees. With further cuts, taxes owed will not be collected; destructive pests will slip into the country; food safety will be compromised; toxic releases will go unreported; and infants and children will not get the nutrition they need to grow up healthy. Identity theft through tax fraud will impact more seniors and other vulnerable citizens as the Internal Revenue Service struggles with severe underfunding.
Federal employees are dedicated, middle-class working people who already have contributed an enormous $114 billion to deficit reduction and economic recovery. Their pay has been frozen. Many are facing unpaid furlough days that will cut their pay 10 to 20 percent. They are making personal financial sacrifices like forgoing needed medical treatment and pulling children out of college. Nearly three-fourths of those answering the NTEU survey are having trouble making ends meet.
One employee described it as “the feeling of going down and never coming back up.”
Said another, “We, as federal employees, did not create this problem. Yet, we, as federal employees, are being asked to shoulder the burden to solve it.”
Against this background of professional and personal challenges, federal employees stay focused on their work. They remain passionate about the missions of their agencies and dedicated to making Congress see how our country will be worse off without those services.
The damage of sequestration can be mitigated if Congress ends this devastating policy. Lawmakers must take steps to address our economic circumstances in a balanced and reasonable way without the damage caused by across-the-board and indiscriminate cuts to federal programs.
We need to focus on how these dedicated workers can best serve their fellow Americans and how to get them the resources they and their agencies need and deserve in our name and in our service.
Imagine the damage that will be done if we continue down our current path of starving federal agencies and attacking federal employees. Fewer of our talented citizens will answer the call to serve their country. The most professional and effective civil service in the world will be threatened, and the harm to our nation will be irrevocable.
Christine Fortner, secretary, Internal Revenue Service, Fort Collins, Colo.:
Since coming to the IRS, I have felt such pride, as I did in my private-sector jobs, to feel I was bringing a good and strong work ethic to public service, in spite of the negative opinion people hold of this agency.
Early in my first position, I was appalled at the method of operation I saw. I thought: “There’s no way a ‘company’ would operate like this. They’d fail!” I proposed and subsequently received an award for initiating a job aid that made our team fluent in our work.
As things stand, Republicans are instigating the push on cutting agency budgets across the board, and although it works disfavorably to me — and as a single mom I can’t afford any unpaid days — I understand what they’re seeing. I only see within my own organization, of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that it could be more streamlined and efficient. I’d like to see the IRS gain the confidence of the people we’re supposed to serve by having a well-oiled machine.
James M. Pegram, project manager, Joint Munitions Command, Rock Island, Ill.:
Writing as one who has served our country's needs for more than 34 years, as a member of the armed forces and currently civil service: Our government fails to ensure progression of its most astute employees into management positions.
The benefits of promoting your most astute employees is that they have been engaged in the mission so much that they can quote every step of every function of their mission assigned. Placing such an employee at the helm of decision-making eliminates errors, which equates to dollars saved, which equates to deficit reduction beginning at the user level.
It may be too late to tap into such a goldmine of deficit-reducing know-how, since many have grown tired of being taken for granted. Action must be immediate or we will lose them all by their much earned retirement.
William Dougan, national president, National Federation of Federal Employees:
An ancient Chinese proverb reads, “May you live in interesting times.” For many in the federal workforce today, there is little doubt that we occupy a unique position in the history of our government and our nation.
We have seen shrinking budgets, pay frozen for years on end, cuts to retirement and jobs, and a seemingly endless chorus of malintent from our elected leaders. We’ve seen crisis after crisis threatening furloughs, reductions in force and even fiscal cliffs. We’ve seen the biggest retirement wave the workforce has ever witnessed, and it is only growing stronger.
Interesting times, indeed.
But this proverb is one of three related proverbs. Its lesser-known companions: “May you come to the attention of those in authority,” and “May you find what you are looking for.” In Chinese tradition, each wish is believed to be more potent than the one before.
In these interesting times, it would be easy to throw our hands up and accept our fate. One would not be hard-pressed to find thousands of federal workers who feel they have targets painted on their backs. In many ways, they are justified in feeling that way. But there is a way out of our bind.
In every crisis, there is opportunity. The times compel us to rise above our routine and fight for something greater than ourselves; they call us to become agents of change in forming the world as we want to see it.
Federal employees must stand up to come to the attention of the authorities — our elected officials — and tell them that we will no longer stand idle while they dismantle the civil service as we know it. We must call or visit our elected officials, speak out at town halls and engage our fellow workers in letter-writing campaigns.
This, my fellow federal employees, is the path to change. You know the value of the work you do — defend it.
Do this, and you just may find what you are looking for.
Robert Tobiassen, member of board of directors, Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association, who retired in 2012 as chief counsel, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Treasury Department:
The federal government is always open to new approaches, like telework, in its efforts to improve public service. But responsible policymakers, executives and managers must always be open to assessing the unforeseen or unintended consequences of the new approaches.
Full-time telework has many positive benefits ranging from reducing employee stress arising from urban commutes to mitigating adverse environmental and congested transportation impacts. The agency benefits too from its reduced office space needs and lower transit subsidies. The agency may have lower information technology costs as well, as emphasized in the “bring your own device” framework under which agencies establish IT systems that enable employees to use personal computers, tablets and smartphones to access agency databases and perform their duties remotely.
But what are the true costs of the telework benefit to the employee? Are we seeing the private resources of the employees subsidizing the true operating costs of their employing agencies?
■The agency gains the economic benefits of the employee’s “home office” and use of personal equipment. Should agencies reimburse employees the fair market value of this office space and equipment?
■Is the true cost of running the agency distorted by the use of these private resources? Without compensating employees for their private resources, the actual cost of carrying out the agency program is not known to the White House or Congress in its budget oversight.
■Having once adopted this business model of reliance on employee “home offices” and personal equipment use, do transaction costs foreclose going back to the old model if program efficiencies or success require it?
■As the White House and Congress focus on streamlining federal programs, are agencies more likely to face mergers or termination because the transaction costs of closing down an agency leveraged by a large full-time telework force are smaller? For example, there are fewer, if any, office leases to buy out of and far less furniture and equipment to surplus, sell or warehouse.
■How does the public find the agency when it wants to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” under the First Amendment when an agency has virtually no office presence? Are employees working at their official “home offices” possibly facing citizens delivering grievances to their front yards?
The world of telework is here to stay, and many employees love it. As we celebrate Public Service Recognition Week, it is incumbent on policymakers, executives, and managers to consider the fairness of the burdens that federal employees face in using their private resources without remuneration for the benefit of their agency. With pay freezes and furloughs shrinking the personal financial resources of dedicated public employees, this is an important question. Moreover, the true costs of programs must be transparent to fiscal oversight officials. Reducing costs through improved efficiencies is necessary, but reallocating normal operating costs to employees is not the way to honor and celebrate their dedication to public service.
Robert L Gray, Gulf Breeze, Fla:
I am a 31-year-plus retiree of the federal government, with work at the Marine Corps, U.S. Postal Service and National Park Service. I found that public service employees become complacent and develop an attitude of “they owe me.”
Many public employees are overpaid compared with their civilian counterparts.
A custodial person at WalMart might make $8-$9 an hour, whereas a custodian in the government at Wage Grade 4-5 will make $15-plus and have benefits the WalMart employee doesn’t have. A National Park Service employee who does programs for visitors makes a minimum of about $32,000 a year plus benefits, while we have teachers, police officers and firefighters in some parts of the country make making much less.
Government employees had better wake up because the bank is going dry unless we bring jobs back from overseas so that we can have workers contributing to the tax system.
David Senderling, contracting officer, Energy Department, Lexington, Ky.:
I have been a public servant for 28 years, and my opinion is the public fails to acknowledge the positive outcomes of those of us serving this country. Certainly, rightfully so, military service personnel receive nothing but the highest marks for their public service, yet those who support them behind the scenes or serve in the many other federal programs are shown in a negative light. Of late, during tough economic times and despite our service, the spin from politicians and those who support them is negative.
There needs to be a positive discussion about public service and the hard work that has been done and will continue to get done. Our leaders, supervisors and managers need to step up to the plate, improve morale and better explain to the public the positive outcomes to stop all the negative press.
Ray Brewer, chairman, Greater Los Angeles Federal Executive Board and field office director, Los Angeles, and acting field office director, Santa Ana, Department of Housing and Urban Development:
I am honored to work with an extremely dedicated federal workforce. Against all odds, the employees in the Greater Los Angeles area are working hard and meeting the needs of the public we serve.
In the field is where federal employees get to see the direct impact of their efforts, and I believe this inspires us to excel. Despite declining budget, reduced staffing and a barrage of criticism, federal employees remain devoted to what they do.
The Federal Executive Board is even more valuable to federal leaders during turbulent times. President Kennedy created FEBs in 1961, and his vision endures. FEBs are committed to assisting agencies in meeting challenges and supporting the federal workforce by leveraging our scare resources through collaboration and sharing. More specifically, the Los Angeles FEB will strive to develop a central training portal — identifying low- or no-cost training open to all Southern California federal employees. This is critical given agencies’ budget constraints. As proven by the statistics, FEB training seminars, leadership and development programs, mediation services, continuing operations and emergency notification programs and more drastically cut expenses for financially strapped agencies.
To help employees through these stressful times, the FEB Southern California Feds Get Fit program and Young Government Leaders chapter will continue to partner to support a community of healthy employees by offering health and wellness services and outlets.
If you are in a city that has an FEB, get involved. Your offices will benefit from networking opportunities, and FEB programs can only enhance your employees’ performance and your department’s efficiency.
Howard Egerman, AFGE vice president, Local 3172, Oakland, Calif.:
In his inaugural address, the late President Reagan proclaimed that government is not the solution, it is the problem.
Government employees are not the problem. Government employees are the solution. Government requires human beings to process the legislation Congress enacts. Government workers try to help people in dealing with a maze of regulations.
Our challenge is to encourage younger employees to hang with us, to recognize that serving the public has great rewards and that being a federal worker is a calling that benefits our entire country.