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Honoring public servants in uncertain times

May 8, 2017 (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Following the arrival of a new administration, a federal hiring freeze that lasted three months and now the initial designs of a massive reorganization of the civilian workforce, the week-long celebration acknowledging the service provided by public sector workers comes at a time of much uncertainty.

While the contribution of federal employees remains pivotal, the face and function of that workforce is undergoing a rapid transformation that has only accelerated under the Trump administration. 

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney unveiled the White House’s plan to restructure the executive branch in a move that includes reducing the size of the civil service through workforce reduction. 

“This is something that goes much deeper and into the structure of government,” he said in an April 11 briefing with reporters. “The executive branch of government has never been rebuilt. It has grown organically over the course of the last 240 years. 

“And the president of the United States has asked all of us in the executive branch to start from scratch.”
 
The plan will unfold over the course of fiscal 2018 and 2019, first with initial job reductions based on the president’s budget and followed by agency reform plans that are currently being developed, but Mulvaney added that the job cuts were not across the board and not about attacking federal employees.
 
“One of the frustrations that government workers have is that we don’t reward those who do a really good job and we don’t punish those who do a lousy job,” he said. “Imagine what it’s like working in an organization where you do a really nice job and you don’t get rewarded for it, that you don’t even get 
acknowledged for that. 

“What kind of morale would that create within that particular organization? That’s one of the things we’ve asked the agencies to look at: How do you restructure your personnel policies in order to point out people who are doing a great job and figuring out a way to get folks who are not delivering money for the taxpayers, get them onboard with whatever policy you are trying to achieve?”

As the administration’s plans to incentivize the civil service continue to formulate, the mission of public service continues to impact society, even as its function could be changing. 

“So Public Service Recognition Week comes at a very good time,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in an April 6 interview. “We are seeing a new administration that is examining the role of our government, that’s examining the way our government is structured and the way the federal workforce is going to be operating at least for the next four years and perhaps well beyond.
 
“So it’s important, I think, as a starting point to recognize that these are public servants. These are people who are attempting in their best way possible to help Americans in all kinds of different ways, whether it’s serving veterans or keeping our nation safe or making sure that we have an environment that is healthy for our children.”

The civil service has faced a number of challenges in the past five years, starting with pay freezes that ran from 2011 to 2013 and followed with pay raises below 2 percent for the next three years.
 
Amid lower raises, federal employees also navigated a government shutdown in 2013 and are seeing more and more of their numbers dwindling from retirement and younger workers headed to the private sector. All of which makes the opportunity to showcase the positive impacts of public service that much more important for its stakeholders.

“This is an especially critical time to show our appreciation for public servants,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox in an April 10 email. 

“The outcome of the November election emboldened politicians who would like nothing better than to politicize our career civil service and roll back decades of laws that protect them and our sacred institutions from partisan overreach. The public overwhelmingly likes the services they receive from the federal government and doesn’t want to see them disappear.”

With the workforce about to undergo the most substantive change in recent history, the core mission of public service has come to the forefront not only as a reminder of the history of the civil service, but as a guidepost to its potential future.

“It comes at an opportune time because many people don’t pay a lot of attention to the actual people who are doing the service in government and these folks are working 365 days a year,” Stier said. “We ought to be thankful for them 365 days a year, but it helps to actually set up a week in which we can spend explicit, direct time understanding what they do for us and demonstrating that thanks and recognition.”

The week — running from May 7-13 — includes familiar staples, like its Public Service Charity 5K and a Government Employee Appreciation Day at Nationals Park, but its purpose remains poignant at a time when the very face of the civil service may be changing, but not its mission. 

“Public service hasn’t changed, nor has our resolve to deliver vital programs and services that benefit millions of Americans every single day,” Cox said. “What has changed — for the worst, unfortunately — is how our career civil servants are being portrayed in the public’s eye. The women and men who dedicate their lives to serving our country deserve our utmost gratitude and respect. Instead they are vilified in the court of public opinion and used as pawns to score cheap political points.”

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