The 35-day government shutdown wrought immense suffering for federal employees and their families all over the country. At the time, I said that federal workers were victims of a political fight that they didn’t start and didn’t have the power to stop.
The former is certainly true, but I’ve since reconsidered the latter.
Turns out, federal employees played a pivotal role in bringing that sordid shutdown to an end.
They did it by telling their stories.
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Now that the lost paychecks have been restored and federal agencies are open for business, Public Service Recognition Week is an ideal time to marvel how the simple, organic act of revealing who you are and what you do for the government helped educate an entire nation about the value of our civil service.
Sure, the tales of personal financial hardship during the shutdown engendered great sympathy. But when federal employees also opened up about their jobs and why they matter, it forced Americans to think more deeply about the services their government provides.
And the more they know, the better. Cursing a faceless Washington bureaucracy is no longer an option, because it is no longer faceless.
The public saw their friends and neighbors speak proudly about how they reassure anxious taxpayers at the IRS, or plow snow for the National Park Service, or inspect new products for the Food and Drug Administration, or interdict illegal drugs at the Customs and Border Protection directorate, or make sure money-lenders treat seniors or veterans fairly.
Federal employees provided a much-needed civics lesson, just by giving everyone a sneak peek into their daily routine with a plain-spoken explanation of how their work improves the lives of regular Americans.
In return, it is up to all of us to give our federal employees adequate tools and resources, plus the protection to carry out their duties with integrity and independence. Bluntly, this means ample agency budgets and an ironclad commitment to upholding the merit system principles and the mechanisms for enforcing those principles.
Public servants, by nature, do not seek the limelight. They’d work in the private sector if they were motivated by profit or sought fame or wealth.
Instead, they signed up to work for us. And that is the greatest American story of all.
Tony Reardon is national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. For more information on NTEU’s Telling Our Stories campaign, go to TheyWorkforUS.org.