At this very moment, thousands of federal civil servants are racing to destroy an enemy, that, like them, is mostly invisible to the public. Years ago, this would have sounded like the plot to a science fiction movie. Today, it’s the COVID-19 reality in which all of us are trapped.
The people I speak of will not often be found at the president’s news briefings. While medical experts, economic policy advisors and disaster and emergency response officials who offer updates from the White House are leaders in their respective areas, they are supported by hundreds of thousands of professionals whose brilliant minds and diligent personalities keep this country running. It’s a truth that those of us in the federal community have long known but one that remains something of a mystery to the public at large.
For every image of a federal employee that we see on TV or in the movies, there are many more performing equally valuable work and providing critical services for the disabled, disadvantaged, disenfranchised — you name it.
These individuals do things behind the scenes like process tax refunds, stimulus payments and Social Security checks. They prepare loans so that disadvantaged students can access post-secondary education. They enforce fair housing and lending laws; conduct product safety audits at food processing facilities; develop clean air and water standards; design safer roads and transportation systems; and investigate government fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. The list is endless.
These same individuals who just last year struggled during the partial government shutdown, recently had to deal with conflicting guidance at the onset of the pandemic’s lockdown. Some of those individuals, according to reports, are now being instructed to return to their offices to work without protective equipment. Federal employees are often viewed by the public in a negative light due to policies, or sometimes a lack thereof, instituted by elected leaders. Yet, day after day, they continue to serve the American people out of a sense of duty to help others.
Perhaps recent images of Dr. Anthony Fauci providing Americans with clear, concise and credible data will inspire a new generation of scientists and researchers to join teams at federal agencies. Maybe a statistician with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will motivate students nearing graduation to pursue careers in science policy. Or a local Social Security Administration (SSA) employee may influence a grandchild to one day help seniors understand their benefits.
One thing that definitely will not inspire tomorrow’s critical thinkers to become civil servants is a pervasive misperception by the very people they serve and a lack of appreciation from those at the top. Like professionals working in the private and nonprofit sectors and, well, anywhere, federal employees thrive when they are valued and serve under effective leaders — whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.
During Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW), let’s take a moment to thank civil servants and recognize the contributions they make to our way of life, every day — pandemic or not.
Ken Thomas is the National President of NARFE, a national organization serving federal employees and retirees and advocating for the preservation and protection of their earned pay and benefits. Prior to leading NARFE, Thomas spent 35 years as a civil servant working for various agencies in the federal government.