This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
May 5 — May 11, 2019 is the 35th annual Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW). PSRW is a “time set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as federal, state, county and local government employees,” according to the Office of Personnel Management website. During PSRW we see proclamations from the House of Representatives, the Senate, the While House, federal agencies, state and local government, the unions, “good government” organizations, and others.
Those proclamations are full of flowery words. The House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan resolutions say, in part, “public service is a noble calling involving a variety of challenging and rewarding professions” and “the ability of the federal government and state and local governments to be responsive, innovative and effective depends on the outstanding performance of dedicated public servants” and “the United States is a great and prosperous country, and public service employees contribute significantly to that greatness and prosperity.”
The President said “During Public Service Recognition Week, we acknowledge the work our civil servants do for the American people on a daily basis, and we appreciate their willingness to dedicate their experience and expertise, and sometimes even their lives, to serving their fellow citizens.”
So everyone agrees that we should recognize the contributions of public servants. For the past few years, I have also written the “thank you” type of PSRW post, thinking it is a good time to recognize all that public servants do for the United States and the states, counties, towns and cities that comprise it. I believe public servants do amazing work and are some of the finest people I have ever known. I was honored to be a public servant for 33 years, and continue to do what I can via the work I have done since my retirement, particularly working with the National Academy of Public Administration, the Partnership for Public Service, and my work with clients via my employer (ICF).
The rest of this post is not going to be a series of thank you shoutouts to federal workers or other public servants. The reason is that I think it is too easy to say thanks the first week of May, then turn around and spend the next 51 weeks demonstrating that we do not really appreciate public servants. Do we seek to cut the pay of people we appreciate? Do we call them lazy, bumbling bureaucrats? Do we call them “government gropers” as some politicians labeled the hardworking officers of the Transportation Security Administration? Do we undermine their rights? Do we use them as a proxy for the policies they carry out when they do their jobs, even though they probably have nothing to do with making those policies?
The truth is that our country is divided on many issues, and public servants are among those issues. I urge people who have strong options on politics to focus your energy on the people who make the policies, rather than the public servants who carry them out. In fact, I think we need a better definition of “public service.” Elected officials gain great benefits from their offices. They often enter politics with an average net worth, then emerge as millionaires. They have power, influence, and are usually financially secure the day they leave office. People who question whether that should really be considered “public service” have a point.
On the other hand, we have the “nameless, faceless bureaucrats” who are neither nameless nor faceless. They are our family, friends and neighbors. They are us. They are the people who showed up for work for five weeks when they were not getting paid. They are the people who sat in lines of cars a mile long to get into military installations to go to work on September 12, 2001, even after they were told they could stay home. They are the people who ensured my mother received the Veteran’s benefits she needed after my father died. They are the people who show up after a disaster to clean up the mess and help people get back on their feet. They are the people who approved the black lung benefits for the retired coal miner who was our neighbor when I was in college. They are the people who do the jobs no one has ever heard of that are necessary to support the people who do the more visible work. They are the people who make certain our troops have the food, fuel, medicine and spare parts they need to go into combat. And they die in the line of duty and bleed the same American blood as those who like to bash them as ‘nameless, faceless bureaucrats.”
I think I have gotten to the point in my life where I have little patience with hypocrisy. Politicians are often the first in line to bash government workers, then the first in line to praise them one week of the year. Don’t like policies regarding immigration? Bash ICE employees. Don’t like policies regarding airport security? Bash Transportation Security Officers. Don’t like environmental laws? Bash EPA workers. Don’t like something else? Find a public servant whose work prohibits him or her from engaging in self-defense and blame them. And then remember to praise public servants once a year.
I believe we should recognize and appreciate public servants every week. And if we do not like the policies they carry out, we should vote for people who will make new policies. And do keep in mind that many of the policies federal workers carry out are actually laws. And the same people who pass the laws are often the first to complain about the public servants carrying them out.
I appreciate public servants. I appreciated them last week, and I will appreciate them next week, and next month, and next year. All year. Every day.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.