For one last time, Obama says ‘thank you’ to federal workforce

“Thank you” was the word of the day in the White House, as the Obama administration looked back on its legacy and goals and honored the federal employees that helped achieve them over the past eight years.

In celebration of the federal workforce, the White House released an impact report Dec. 13 detailing employees’ accomplishments in delivering government services to the public.

“You have hauled our government to a place where it is smarter and faster and more responsive to the needs of the American people in the 21st century,” President Barack Obama said in a video message to the workforce. “Whatever or whoever inspired you to join public service, whether you’re a young person who just signed up because you want to make a difference or a career employee who has dedicated your life to that pursuit, I want you to know that it has been my privilege to call you my colleagues.”

The administration’s impact report details agency work that tackled everything from veteran homelessness to simplifying the  federal acquisition standard, but it pays special focus to the federal employees who improved their agency’s customer service to the public.

The Food and Drug Administration, for example, cut down the time it takes for the agency to deliver a drug safety message to the public, from nine months to two.

Digital service experts at the Veterans Affairs Department developed Vets.gov, which now lets veterans more easily apply for health or education benefits through one site — rather than having to sort through 1,000 VA websites to find the correct place to submit an application.

Administration leaders also touted their agency’s work to improve government operations and services for federal employees themselves — an important priority for the President as outlined in the administration’s cross-agency priority goals.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work you’ve done, your commitment to public service,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said at the White House celebration event Dec. 13. “I also know that the President himself is proud of that work and has your back. He has a made it an absolute priority that while you’re taking care of the American citizen, we’re taking care of you.”

One year after the President signed an executive order detailing new reforms for better recruiting and developing members to the Senior Executive Service, some agencies are making some headway on one aspect of the order: streamlining the SES hiring process.

The Energy Department, for example, cut by 90 days its time to hire for new SES employees, said Beth Cobert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.

“We’re also looking at ways to enhance the way we develop leaders who are in the federal government or are coming into senior leadership ranks,” she said. “Agencies like HUD have … buil[t] and strengthened their executive onboarding programs. HUD has developed a year-long onboarding program. It doesn’t just start the day you become an SES but goes on as a learning experience for that entire year.”

Obama kicked off his “thank you” celebration last week, when he submitted an alternative pay plan to Congress calling on agencies to give employees a 2.1 percent pay raise for fiscal 2017. The order supersedes one he gave earlier this year, when he called for a 1.6 percent raise with locality pay.

“We know this has not been an easy time with sequestration and shutdowns,” Donovan said. “The president, in one of the last days of his administration, wanted to make sure that he sent a message to each and every federal employee, to everyone in this room today, that you had his back, and he has your back.”

Donovan said he’s spent a lot of time at OMB thinking about the “trust deficit” the public and government, and how he, as a government leader, can bridge the gap.

“The work that we’re all doing to make government better and stronger and faster and more efficient is also building the faith of the American people in their own government and this institution, the institutions of the federal government that we all work for,” he said. “If we all go back, for all of us, there’s a reason somewhere back in our past, that we decided to be committed to public service.”

Both Donovan and Obama encouraged the workforce to think back to the moment they decided to join public service. It was a message that clearly resonated with many of the federal employees who spoke about their projects at the White House event; many said they were  second or third-generation public servants, while many others recalled the number of years they’ve spent working in government.

For the president, public service is more important now than ever before, particularly in politically divisive times.

“By choosing public service, you carry on a proud tradition at the heart of some of this country’s greatest and most lasting achievements,” Obama said in his message. “So keep doing it. Your good work has never been more important. Public service has always been a noble calling, and it will always be a noble calling.”

Customer service awards

For the second year, the administration honored individuals and teams for their contributions to their agency’s customer service goals.

The President’s Customer Service Award winners in 2016 are:

Jack Tran, Social Security Administration: He went out of his way to personally reunite a homeless, mentally disabled customer with his family, who had been searching for him for more than 20 years. Tran also provided SSA with his own research on Vietnamese-American communities and their ability to access the agency’s services.

Frank Minnick, Homeland Security Department: Minnick developed a way to more quickly and accurately process refugee applications.

Oliver Villalobos, VA: He oversees maintenance for more than 170,000 grave sites at a VA cemetery and led a renovation project that cut safety hazards at that site.

Taxpayer Assistance Center team, Treasury Department: The team developed a system that lets taxpayers schedule an appointment to visit a TAC and receive service in person. Nearly 1 million taxpayers received help through this new program within about a year.

Federal Employee Health Benefit Program Tribal Desk, OPM: This team developed a multi-channel customer service operation, which helped people in tribal communities learn about and sign up for health benefits.

Bureau of Land Management Recreation Mapping Project team: This group developed new digital tools that shares crowd-sourced information about national parks and recreation opportunities to the public.

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