Though 2019 has been defined by an extraordinary, history-making government shutdown, what’s become almost common at this point is how federal employees — year after year — continue to make contributions that are far from ordinary.
But those stories are rarely told.
“You all have had a tough year,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said at the Partnership for Public Service’s annual recognition ceremony for this year’s Service to America Medals (Sammies) finalists. “With the shutdown and with the noise and with all that’s going on, and to be able to see folks on focus, on point, serving our neighbors is a remarkable gift to the country. Thank you for doing that.”
The Partnership for Public Service on Thursday recognized the 26 finalists of the 2019 Service to America Medals. Six finalists will be honored with an award at a gala in the fall.
“We started our SAMMIES program because no organization gets better if all you do is kick it,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said. “Too many of these achievements go unnoticed. We need your help in sharing them widely.”
When it comes to the federal workforce, Lankford acknowledged members of Congress and the public often remember the failures over the successes.
“It’s been interesting to me the number of people that I interact with who will say to me some complaint about some federal worker,” he said. “There’s almost always a different federal worker who they then compliment and talk about how they solved the problem. But we seem to only ever remember the first one.”
That case could be made for the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin, the veterans hospital that had earned the nickname of “Candy Land,” because of how frequently its doctors proscribed opioids and other painkillers. Employee morale was low and turnover was high at the Tomah hospital.
But when Victoria Brahm joined the VA medical center as its director about four years ago, things began to change. Providers prescribed opioids less freely, and employee engagement at the medical center has improved 27 percent during Brahm’s tenure. She’s a finalist for the management excellence medal.
“The mark of good government is good administration,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said, quoting Alexander Hamilton. “That’s what these awards are about. They’re about the thousands and thousands of men and women who have devoted their lives to service of this great republic.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also took a moment to brag about the Sammies finalists from his agency.
Jamie Rhome, a specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, created a new forecasting and warning system that more accurately predicts storm surges caused by major hurricanes.
“Our citizens cannot lose faith in their civil servants,” he said. “We must honor our outstanding government workers, so we fully understand how important they are for the efficient operation of our society. We also look to all of our civil servants to take responsibility to perform at the highest levels of their ability. They must embrace the digital revolution that has radically transformed our private sector. We must stay relevant, stay attuned to the demands of the electorate and the pressures upon our government to transform and stay ahead of the times.”
Ross recognized Chelsea Decaminada, a Commerce Department employee who was a victim of the April terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. Decaminada was an international program specialist in the department’s commercial law development project program. She died over the weekend, and Ross said the department is “grief-stricken” over her loss.
Since the Partnership began to recognize federal employees in 2002 with Service to America Medals, Stier joked that the finalists have typically been too humble.
But the humility isn’t surprising to Margaret Weichert, acting director for the Office of Personnel Management and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
“This is what you do,” she said. “You don’t do it for fanfare. You don’t do it for money. You do it because it’s critical, important work, whatever your mission is.”
Lankford has introduced a resolution in the Senate commemorating Public Service Recognition Week. Members in the House have introduced a similar one.
“We can all have disagreements and we can work through things, but the last people we’re angry at is you,” Lankford said. “You are the folks who are dreaming, and thinking and helping and serving and engaging and saying if we could cut through this bureaucratic red tape, look what we could do. Look how we could figure this out and what this would mean to people in the future. Thank you for doing that. We all very much appreciate it, and it is certainly not forgotten.”
See a full list of the 2019 Sammies finalists here.