A prince of federal service retires

You remember that first interview.

When I joined my weekly college paper, my first interview was with Harry Chapin, of all people. He was in Rochester, New York, to visit a teenager dying of cancer. Among the girl’s final wishes was meeting the folk rock legend. My main recollection of Chapin is that he lacked pretension and, although maintaining a crazy hectic schedule, was glad to stop and chat with those he encountered along the way. I also got a photo of him conferring with the patient, and it was published in the local daily.

Decades later, when I came into radio — a second career — one of the first people I interviewed was John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service. I was immediately struck by his cheerfulness and informed understanding of federal employees issues. In one of the strange phenomena of radio, I spoke with him probably two dozen timse on air before I ever met him in person, at a Service To America medals dinner.

John Palguta is stepping down after 16 years as the vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. He's shown here standing behind a "mustache cake" that was presented to him during his retirement party.
John Palguta is stepping down after 16 years as the vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. He’s shown here standing behind a “mustache cake” that was presented to him during his retirement party.

John retired Friday, receiving great tributes during informal ceremonies at the Partnership’s D.C. offices. Like Chapin, Palguta is unpretentious, more the pizza-with-the- staff type than black-tie gala.

In my interview with him last week — the final in his role as vice president for policy but likely not the last altogether — Palguta recounted highlights of his 50-year career. He worked 34 years for the federal government and 16 for the Partnership.

He started during college on the West Coast as a letter carrier while taking night classes. After graduating, he decided he wanted a federal career. Palguta said that in 1970, that wasn’t a popular choice. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the government wasn’t popular in many quarters. But he persevered, spending most of his career at the Merit Systems Protection Board. That’s where he became an expert on federal employment matters.

By coincidence, while researching exactly what Title 38 means in connection with moves sought by Veterans Affairs management, I quickly found a clearly written treatise on Title 5 and Title 38 still online from 1990. One of the authors is John Palguta, then the MSPB deputy director. I’d bet you the current crew in charge of VA also found and read this document.

Although Palguta has a command of the technical and legal complexities of federal employment, he also has other areas of knowledge and understandings that are sometimes missing in debates about it. First, a feel for the human realities of being a public servant, subject to the often ill-informed public and congressional debates, He refused to get drawn into the nastiness. Second is an understanding of the workplace itself — and the need for solid leadership in the regulated fishbowl setting of federal agencies and bureaus. Palguta always finds something positive federal managers can do when the politicals move on or try to mess things up, when funding lapses, or when some scandal engulfs part of an agency.

I’m hoping that retirement won’t totally remove Palguta’s voice and wise counsel from the federal scene.

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