The election will be soon upon us and we will go to the polls to vote on our nation’s political leadership. It is one of our most sacred responsibilities as citizens, but as we fulfill it, it becomes apparent just how much the American people have come to take their career civil servants for granted … especially those who work for the federal government.

However, paradoxically, I would submit that our civil servants should take ‘being taken for granted’ as a high compliment.

You see, no matter how contentious the election (or the ensuing transition) may be, the electorate doesn’t lose a minute of sleep over whether air traffic controllers, Social Security claims specialists, Customs and Border Patrol agents, VA doctors and nurses, USDA food inspectors and hundreds of thousands of other federal employees will be on the job … the day after the most powerful nation on the planet peacefully transfers that power from one president to another.

And that doesn’t even count all of those in uniform and in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies who stand guard against our nation’s enemies, both foreign and domestic — and not against our democratic process.  

In my humble opinion, there is no greater tribute to our civil service than this taken-for-granted transition of power. As complicated as the workings of government have become, people just assume that it will continue working no matter the election’s outcome.

Oh sure, when it doesn’t — and in the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively rare occurrence — we hear about it. But by and large, our fellow citizens have a tacit and almost total faith in the government’s vast and complicated apparatus. And even as some may rail against it, we all still depend on it in almost every aspect of our daily lives and livelihoods … usually without even thinking about it.

Why? How is it that can we depend on civil servants to do their public duty and keep their personal, private political opinions (and they surely have them) separate from their professional obligations?

Part of it is the law, of course, but I would argue that it’s more than rote obedience. I think it starts (and ends) with something far more intangible: the oath of office that every federal employee takes. That’s one of the things that makes federal civil servants different.

To the vast majority of feds, it’s more than just check-the-box words that they read and recite when they’re first appointed. They swear to protect and defend the Constitution and, by implication, the rule of law. That means enforcing that law, as well as the regulations that derive from it, to the best of their ability … regardless of the consequences.

That oath also implies such core values as neutral competence ‘in service to the government of the day.’ That means that no matter who’s in charge, Americans can take it on faith that, as a general matter, federal employees will stay out of the partisan fight and fray, that they’ll speak truth to power no matter who the audience and that they’ll treat citizens and customers and constituents fairly and in accordance with the rules … and not according to someone’s political whim.

At the same time, civil servants are also duty-bound to serve the president that the people elect, as well as those whom that president may appoint to carry out their will. And while some civil servants may have personal concerns with an administration’s priorities or politics, at the end of the day, it is their duty to serve … within the confines of the law.

As most feds know, that is sometimes easier said than done, especially given the ambiguities inherent in most laws or the on-the-borderline orders of a political boss, but it is their sworn duty (literally!) to do so … and when one thinks the government of the day has crossed the line, they also have a sworn duty to say so.

I believe that such core values as these — allegiance to the rule of law as well to the government of the day, neutral competence and the courage to speak truth to power — are part of the cultural DNA of federal employees. Interestingly, those core values aren’t really listed anywhere, nor are they are really taught or talked about. Nevertheless, Americans expect their civil servants to behave according to those values (as implicit as they may be), the day before, the day of and the day after the election, as well as the inauguration that ensues.  

This too is easier said than done. After all, legal and cultural limits notwithstanding, feds are citizens, too, and they have a point of view … indeed, by definition, a particularly well-informed one. But unlike our fellow citizens, we have to separate that personal point of view from our professional conduct.

In that regard, I think civil service is like a good magic trick. If the magician is really top-notch, he or she will use one hand (the one doing all the flourishes) to draw the attention of the audience, while the other hand — the hand no one is paying attention to — actually performs the magic. That’s something good to take for granted as we go the polls.

Ron Sanders is a vice president and fellow with Booz Allen Hamilton, but as a former fed with almost 40 years of public service (and nine presidential transitions), he apologizes for still thinking like a civil servant.

In Other News
Load More