Mike Causey is on vacation this week and asked several readers, friends and even critics to write guest columns in his absence. Please enjoy today’s offering from long-time Washington observer Steve Hellem:
Mike Causey asked me to think about writing a column that addresses issues and challenges that I believe are facing federal government employees at this point in a new administration, so that he could take a few well-deserved days off. I thought to myself, “no problem, we can do this.”
And then I began to think about the important role that professional governmental employees play in our government, and particularly when any new administration has completed a year and a half of a first term.
But let’s face an irrefutable fact: this administration is unlike any the present generations of government employees have ever seen or could have possibly imagined. I am not going to focus on the political atmosphere and sometime theatrics that have turned many nontraditional political followers into social media and cable addicts. I am also not going to talk about the “swamp,” because I am learning that one person’s swamp is another person’s reform and streamlining of government opportunity.
I am going to focus on the important role that all government employees play in helping our government effectively carry out existing laws and regulations as well as executive orders. These often require America’s governmental machine and the federal employees who choose to work in the governmental environment to operate and sometimes shift policies, and in a matter of a few days or weeks.
Although it may sound cynical from 30+ years of being in around Washington, D.C., administrations and congressional leaders come and go.
A few years ago, there was a deli at the corner of 15th and I streets, that until recently, when the building was renovated, had several panes of windows with the names of every president the little deli had “served” or “survived.” And I can remember going to a breakfast, right across the street from that deli to meet and listen to Bryce Harlow, who talked about his role in the Eisenhower administration and the important role that governmental professionals play every day to help make our government work. In fact, his daughter Peggy Harlow Knight followed him to the Environmental Protection Agency and was always the best representative of her father’s credo of honesty, integrity, trust and humility.
Now our country, and those who are the unelected and unappointed leaders of government are working to understand how and with whom a new administration wants to work and impact, and what the true goals are for a president to directly impact on a country. Determining how to proceed and work for any new administration can be very challenging.
So I asked a good friend and colleague, Doug Parker, who worked at EPA for many years about his thoughts and counsel. Doug’s advice was straight-forward: “As a career employee, committed to your respective mission, this is the time to strap in and focus on that mission and drown out the noise and nonsense as best you can. That is what the public deserves and needs, especially now,” he said. “It’s also a time to be vigilant. Upholding ethical standards should never be viewed as optional by any federal employee.”
I would also highly recommend the reading of two books. The first is “I Dare You!” by William H. Danforth, the grandfather of former Missouri Sen. Jack Danforth. His four-square philosophy of products is, I believe, a pretty good way to try to live any professional life, and includes standing tall, thinking tall, smiling tall and living tall. The lesson of the book today is exemplified by one last statement Doug made to me about the important and defining role that career government professionals play today and every day. “Continue … to focus on what is right and not what is expedient,” he said. “Even if your work is quiet, and in the shadows, the commitment to integrity always matters.”
The second book is Jon Meacham’s recently published “The Soul of America, The Battle For Our Better Angels.” More than any other right now, this book puts into perspective the importance of our collective futures, and to me the very special role that career governmental employees play in our democracy and its future from one administration to another.
So, my message to career governmental employees is thank you for your service. Your service is important beyond measure because you are the glue that keeps our democracy running while administrations come and go.