What you can learn with two ears and a smooth flight

Feds don't feel they occupy a cubicle just to follow rules and push the proverbial paper. They know their missions and endeavor to really support them.

Having spent 25 years of my career covering the federal government, I never can get enough exposure to actual federal employees. Sometimes just a few minutes can give more insight than a 500-page survey. I have federal employees next door, across the street and around the corner, but I don’t like to pester them with shop talk on the weekends.

Yesterday I flew to Orlando, Florida to spend a couple of days at the World Congress of the National Contract Management Association. The 1,200-plus attendees (an NCMA record, they want you to know) includes hundreds of federal employees from assistant secretaries to far-from-headquarters contracting officers helping to keep some program going.

My flight was like a Contracting Specialist Special, without the shrimp cocktail. I had an aisle seat. To my right in the middle, and to my left, on the other aisle, were two such people. Each had some 30 years of federal service. Each exchanged knowing declarations of how they were looking forward to retiring in five years. One worked in a large DOD agency, the other in a big civilian department. Both have done 1102 contracting as well as policy analysis and writing.

But before I could conclude, “Oy, why not quit now if it’s so boring?” they talked in more detail. Actually, they both like their work, and have special enthusiasm in working for supervisors they like and admire. One had followed a supervisor from one agency to another.

Both had worked in several agencies in their careers, and had definite ideas about which organizations were effective and which — in the works the person on my right elbow — “pays people year after year to come in and do nothing.” Her own agency is understaffed, she felt, with more cuts coming and said it was starting to affect people’s attitudes. Both were proud of the work they do, and of the number of places they’d notched.

Line level feds are skeptical of ambitious reform efforts, or interagency collaborations engineered on Capitol Hill or by contractors giving advice to the politicals. They feel bound by the rules, no matter how small or trivial, if only because ignoring or breaking one is a sure path to trouble. The Justice Department can come out with an indictment in a billion dollar Medicaid fraud scheme, but regular feds get called on the carpet for going $9 above their per diem.

Yet they don’t feel they occupy a federal cubicle just to follow rules and push the proverbial paper. They know the missions they support and endeavor to really support them. While aware of the well-publicized shortcomings of government, they could also tell a hundred stories about sneaky contractors.

Both talked animatedly almost the entire flight about their work and the experiences they’ve had. That’s not the way unmotivated or disconnected people behave. They were alert to the realities of public service and informed about the private sector.

So — skeptical, yes; jaded no. Ready to retire, yes; not putting in a full, enthusiastic week’s work, no.

People I feel I could trust with my money, yes.

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