The Service to America Medals program known as the Sammies, administered by the Partnership for Public Service, each year recognizes the most accomplished career civil servants. Here on the Federal Drive we’ve been featuring interviews with Sammies finalists each week since the spring. Tonight the Partnership will announce the winners at the Kennedy Center. To talk about all of that, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with Max Stier, the President and CEO of the Partnership.
Tom Temin And tonight, those attending, what can they expect to see?
Max Stier An amazing evening. I would never say that this is the best ever on deck because they’re all so extraordinary. But it’s the best ever. It really is a wonderful set of federal employees who are going to be honored here. We will have truly the top leadership of our government there to recognize them and to applaud them. And we will have an audience filled of admirers and leaders across sectors who care about effective government and will see it in real time with all the conversation around government shutdowns. It brings really to the fore how vital it is for us to have a vibrant workforce that is represented by these honorees.
Tom Temin And that point you made about the government leadership being there, I think that’s really crucial. And will you have a good contingent of Cabinet level types of people? Because I think the awards have so much more meaning to the career civil servants when the political appointees or the executives above them at the agencies are also there to acknowledge this because it makes it that much more meaningful.
Max Stier Hundred percent are expectations that I will have everyone from the White House chief of staff to the secretaries or the leaders of every agency that is being honored for that. Their employees are being honored in addition to a virtual complete cabinet of deputy secretaries and others. So it really is a wonderful showing. And look, the reality is these jobs are incredibly hard, whether you’re career or political, they’re all serving the public. Oftentimes, the political appointees are focused on the policy announcement and not as much on the career people who are getting it done. And this is a testament to their recognition about how important supporting the workforce is. So it’s encouraging and exciting.
Tom Temin Yeah, they say management is the art of getting things done, working through others. So the skilled political appointees understand if they want to get their agenda done, then they have got to support the standing career staff.
Max Stier You’re exactly right. And it’s the standing staff here right now, and very importantly, investing in that next generation of federal employees. The reality is we don’t have that in the pipeline right now. And it really is a leadership responsibility to invest in that future.
Tom Temin I think it’s also noteworthy that some of the Sammies finalists are not necessarily elderly. That is, they haven’t been working for 25, 35, 45 years. I know that I interviewed one entomologist, Dr. Schmidt Jeffris. She’s 34 years old and has done amazing work at the Agriculture Department in helping crop safety for the Northwest Apple producers by engineering insects that are there to devour the bad insects, this kind of thing. Only 34 years old. It’s pretty amazing.
Max Stier It is. And we have an emerging leaders category where we try to highlight those folks that are under the age of 35 and nonetheless have done extraordinary work. And obviously, there’s the team that works for the hostage recovery office at the State Department. There’s plenty of amazing folks that are younger entry in their career. I will tell you, we actually hired someone at a partnership to run our research effort who was, I believe, year one emerging leader finalist. And just yesterday I spoke to somebody who was another finalist who’s got now a senior position at OPM running the new FEB executive board network. So it’s wonderful to see these people continue in government and perform at extraordinary levels. So you’re right. I think it’s a now proposition and a future proposition.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. And something we usually don’t do in this format, but it’s probably a good idea to acknowledge the corporate support that this program gets, because otherwise it wouldn’t happen, the gala wouldn’t happen, the awards, pretty complicated and long process you have for choosing these people. You don’t pick them personally. So who are some of the top sponsors?
Max Stier Thank you. And you’re right. The reality in the nonprofit world is you have a double bottom line. You are motivated by your mission, but you have to have the money to get it done. And you get support from individuals, from companies and foundations, and from fee for service for government. On the corporate side, for Sammies, we have everyone from Microsoft and Google on the tech. SAIC is another huge sponsor of ours, Lockheed. And these are companies that recognize that an effective government and frankly, a supportive civil service is fundamental to their success and to our country’s success. So it’s wonderful to have them.
Tom Temin And just getting back to the awardees and the work that they do, it’s kind of amazing. And you can comment on this, that this work goes on, great work in large and small mission areas, lots of leverage, and it goes on throughout the political vicissitudes, operating it almost like in another planet of the government. But the day to day work is extraordinary and goes on no matter what’s going on down the mall, wherever they might be.
Max Stier Look, I think that for many Americans, when you say the federal government, they think about bickering politicians in Washington, and that is, in my view or not is in my view, the research we’ve done is what is the heart of why there is a reduction in trust in our government, which is a real problem. And the reality of it is that, as you just suggested, we have 2 million civil servants, 80% outside the Washington, D.C. area know 40% of them are veterans. These are things that most Americans don’t know, and they’re working very hard with difficult circumstances on behalf of the public doing things that really matter. And what’s more, the shutdown activities have really brought to the fore one of the extra challenges of being a public servant. The idea that you have this sword of Damocles over your head and you may be required to work without pay or required not to work without pay until the politicians do their job, that’s crazy. And it’s no way to run our government. And it hurts the American public. It frankly costs more to shut the government down than to keep it open and allow the public to get the great support that they deserve.
Tom Temin And I’m trying to remember, has there ever been a Sammies awards gala during a shutdown?
Max Stier There was in 2013. I will say that emotionally it was incredibly powerful because, again, it was an embodiment of the stupidity of shutting the government down, because here you had these amazing people who were delivering incredible services to the public and being told that they could not work. Michael Lewis, in his “The Fifth Risk” paperback volume, did a chapter on one of our Sammies honorees who was furloughed. And the loss of that involved. It’s craziness. It’s really it’s the same thing as burning down your own house. It really makes zero sense and it costs us all.
Tom Temin And occasionally, some members of Congress have been at the galas that I’ve attended. And so maybe the more of them that get over there, the less likely they’ll be to take that brinkmanship type of step.
Max Stier One would hope and we expect we’ll have several members at least this time around, too.