Hear about the Platonist bureaucrat? He was obsessed with forms

Here are a few encouraging takeaways for the federal workforce after the end of a strenuous year.

2021 has arrived. So smile a little.

When’s the last time you had a good laugh? When’s the last time the nation had a good laugh? Certainly not during the recent election, presumably concluded, an unfunny downer if there ever was one.

The late one-liner king Henny Youngman said this about two earlier presidential candidates:

“Mr. Dukakis. There’s a guy who complains about headaches. Mr. Dukakis, when you get out of bed it’s feet first.”

“Mr. Bush, is he mixed up! He went to a luncheon last week. He kissed the sandwich and bit the baby.”

That could almost be Trump and Biden.

It may not seem like the time for hee haws, but it is a good time to consider what is positive going into 2021. And to savor what was good. I’m not minimizing the pandemic. It has touched my own family in a close and profound way. But it also caused me to make a two-list, good-bad summary of the year personally. So I thought I’d talk a little about what was good in the year that concluded last night.

First and foremost, federal people have done important work in the past year. Take a bow. Through hundreds of interviews on Ring Central, I’ve seen federal employee living rooms, kitchens, dens, even bedrooms. That’s where many of you have been working and will continue to do so for who knows how long. Yet the work got done.

The pandemic scrambled work life at nearly every agency, including those crucial to the response itself. NIH, Treasury including the IRS, Small Business Administration, Veterans Affairs, the armed services — you name it. Yet all those checks went out; no one tried to attack the United States; supplies of masks and ventilators materialized. Planning and operations were messy at times, but it happened.

Government and industry produced a vaccine in record time. Yes it was messy and confusing, but that’s war.

Agencies — clumsily in some cases — ultimately managed to get their people equipped to work remotely and barely miss a beat.

When talking to federal managers for the Federal Drive, I often sense their pride in the work they do. Pandemic hasn’t diminished that pride, nor kept them from their appointed rounds.

A sample of recent cases in point from my 2020 interviews of hundreds of federal people:

  • Navy Capt. Hassan Tetteh, a physician, is working with the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and the Defense Innovation Unit on ways to vastly improve cancer detection and treatment. I wanted to go look through his super-duper microscope myself. Many federal practitioners are doing important work in the health domain. Dr. Leith States, Chief Medical Officer in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, described his work in improving access to good care for the aged who have chronic health problems.
  • Federal scientists are at work on so many fronts. Like Prasanna Balaprakash of the Argonne National Lab, using AI and supercomputers to try and crash through the final frontier of a problem that vexes millions daily — traffic. NASA’s Clair Parkinson established what the agency considers the gold standard for how to examining sea ice from satellites, to better understand how and why it changes.
  • Charmain Bogue is is executive director of the GI Bill Education Service at the Veterans Benefits Administration. She’s serious about ensuring veterans who want it get backing to go to trade schools for technical careers.
  • Teri Gullo may be largely unknown to the public, but when they find out what this or that congressional bill would cost, it’s thanks to Gullo, the director of budget analysis at the Congressional Budget Office

I know a 1% pay raise doesn’t seem like much. It isn’t. But, notwithstanding the much debated lower-than-average federal salaries, the total federal package remains among the top tier when you throw in the health care insurance and retirement options. Federal pay and benefits may not rival those of the World Bank, but it’s not flipping burgers either. Like you, I feel a good outcome of the past year was continuous work I like doing and also take pride in.

Tough as the year has been, sometimes, I’m a little hesitant to say, seeing the travails of others puts one’s own situation into a better light. Last evening I was reading about the travails of the gentleman who owns the Washington Football Team, a rich yet hapless outfit. The owner seems to be universally loathed, and at the moment is tangled in several bitter, high-stakes legal suits and league investigations. I was thinking, good Lord, how can you be blessed with the means to own a franchise worth $3.5 billion — and go to the games in your own helicopter! — and yet manage to spoil it all so thoroughly?

So yes, things could be worse. And 2021 will be better because we choose to make it so.

I asked a comic I know to tell me his best COVID-19 joke. He wouldn’t. I asked why. He said it would take me a week to know if I got it.

Happy 2021!

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