Dig these cool federal executives

Washington is a town of reports and lists. Mostly boring ones. Not so for two of this week’s lists. The Presidential Rank Awards (PRA) winners and the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.

To the public, the federal workforce may look like a blob of undifferentiated drones. Outwardly agencies may look hive-like. Big buildings with lots of regular-looking people entering and exiting. But the PRAs should remind us that what federal employees do matters to the health and well being of the nation.

Best Places reminds us that federal leadership must pay attention to and nurture the work environments they provide for their people.

Yesterday I had a sort of federal immersion. Sometimes I’m like a spider, yanking on strings from  the center of my web, which happens to be my studio. I e-mail or call to invite guests. Many who appear on The Federal Drive participate by telephone.

But yesterday I had an immersion in feds in the flesh. The day proved long. I got to the studio around 5:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until 8:30 that evening. After a stint in the studio, I Uber’d downtown to moderate a discussion among nine feds, a large contractor, and one of the industry associations. We talked about an important emerging technology. I can’t say more except that no one is marching into this technology without much research, thought and care. Yes, government can be risk-averse. In this case, it should be.

Then back to the studio for several hours of taping, editing, writing. conferring with my producers.

Then I Uber’d back to the Mayflower. I spent a couple of hours mingling at the end of the PRA day of workshops, culminating in dinner and awards to the Distinguished Rank awardees. I had the privilege of emceeing the ceremonies. Good for the Senior Executives Association for giving these impressive federal managers a chance to smile in the lights.

And what accomplished people. I was delighted to meet in person two of the winners who also appeared on my show. Wearing something cotton now (of course you are)? Thank Johnie Jenkins of the Agricultural Research Service. Think economic growth is good? Thank Gloria Steele of USAID for helping foster it literally across the globe.

The difference between the public and private sectors is that companies can disappear. For better or worse, federal agencies enjoy permanency. That is counterbalanced by several oversight mechanisms, albeit ones with varying degrees of effectiveness. Plus agencies operate under weirdly varying political leadership. It all urges the need for competent career staffing. This week’s two big lists provide a sort of health chart of the federal bureaucracy.

Perhaps most important for civil service — and exemplified by the caliber, commitment, passion and rectitude of last evening’s recipients — is care for the mission and for the institution.

Sadly, this isn’t always a given. A famous columnist I admire once wrote, in a different but still applicable context, that even big, respected institutions can be brought low by either poor leadership or indifference to problems at the lower levels.

This week Military Times, Newsweek and other news sites published an e-mail from General Raymond Thomas III, commander of Special Operations. It went to every person in SOCOM. If the military is held in generally high regard by the public, SOCOM is held in awe. It is highly respected around the world by the militaries and governments it aids. As Thomas put it, “Trust—among teammates and especially with our Nation—is our currency in Special Operations … we trade on it every day.” But Thomas wasn’t giving a sermon. In announcing a 90-day review of SOCOM, he cited “inexcusable and reprehensible violations of that trust” that can wreck that. Thomas was referring to a string of incidents by SOCOM uniformed staff over the past year resulting in charges of rape, sexual assault and murder.

I imagine Thomas having a moment of panic at the potentials here. He should. Thankfully this type of occurrence is the exception. Last night more closely represented the norm.