Public servants or political footballs?

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

This is Public Service Recognition Week. Each year this week is set aside to honor the contributions of public servants at all levels. In previous years I have taken this opportunity to highlight some of the agencies and the work their employees do every day for the American people.

This year is obviously a bit different. Many public servants are on the job, in offices that may or may not be ideally suited to the social distancing practices needed to keep them safe. Others are on the job in airports, on the border, in labs, and in industrial facilities. Some are working from home, and continuing to do the people’s work in the midst of a global pandemic that has already killed almost 70,000 Americans.

One of the comments I read today that made me decide that this Public Service Recognition Week post would be different came from Bryan Lanza, former Trump 2016 campaign official, who was quoted by Politico saying “The president is eager to shepherd this economy again. It was sidelined by a bunch of unelected scientists, and now he is looking at it as an opportunity to do what America hired him to do: Act as the CEO and guide this huge mass of bureaucracy through these challenging times.”

Advertisement

Unelected scientists. Think about that. We have 2,000,000 unelected public servants in the United States government. They include physicians and scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and in other agencies. Unelected public servants support our military. In fact, the military is unable to function without those unelected public servants. The Department of Veterans Affairs cannot function without unelected public servants.

Ask the typical American who they trust more – a politician, political appointees, or NIH scientists. The vast majority will choose the latter. Unelected scientists can focus on data, on facts, and on reality. Politicians and political appointees focus on getting elected, on spinning facts to suit their political ambitions, and on their own careers. Politicians have attempted for years to use “unelected” as a smear, when, in fact, it should be a badge of honor. Congressional approval tends to hover in the 20–30% range. President Trump’s approval rating is generally in the low 40s. A Pew Research report in April 2020 rated public approval of the Centers for Disease Control at 79%.

It seems “unelected scientists” have far more credibility than elected politicians. We tolerate most politicians, but we certainly don’t love them. When our lives are on the line, do we turn to political hacks or to doctors and scientists whose loyalty is to facts?

Those of us who actually know something about public servants recognize the great work they do. We recognize that dedication to a mission, rather than slavish devotion to political leaders, is a more honorable way of making a living. During this Public Service Recognition Week, I tip my hat to the men and women who make their living doing the people’s work, and who do it based on data, science, and the interest of the American people. Thanks for all that you do, every day.

Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.