Monday, May 17, 2010

Public Service—The Highest Secular Calling

Last week was Public Service Week, but what prompts me to write this column is the rancor and vile comments I hear and read on a regular basis toward public servants, especially federal employees. What troubles me is that an awful lot of Americans feel entitled to speak of, about, and even to public employees as though they were some kind of sub-human life form. All decorum and common courtesy seems to evaporate when someone has a problem with the government and people seem to think it is okay to vent there frustration to the person on the phone or behind the counter.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for the federal government as a political appointee for 10.5 years of my professional life. I served as State Director for then-Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming for four years and I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in two different offices at the U.S. Department of the Interior for six and one-half years. I am proud to have had the opportunity serve this country, and I must say with a few exceptions, I am proud of the public servants I have worked with over the years.

The quintessential justification for this rude behavior toward government employees used most often is, “I pay your salary!” While I could probably successfully argue that very few Americans pay enough taxes to cover anybody’s salary, the whole premise fails on the notion that paying a salary entitles “the boss” to be rude, abusive, and in some cases threatening. When talking about public employees in the negative, the pejorative term of choice is “Bureaucrat.” It is as though people who work for the government sit around and think of ways to make your life miserable. Moreover, if you think bureaucracy is unique to the government sector, I have a news flash for you; bureaucracy is alive and well in every large private corporation.

May I be so bold as to remind everyone that government workers at all levels may be your family members, your neighbors, the coach of your kid’s baseball team, community volunteers, and just might be a friend of yours. If they are in law enforcement, they may be called to lay down their life for you. If the government employee happens to serve in the armed services or the National Guard, then they are prepared to risk their lives to ensure that you have the freedoms we all take for granted. But, then again, I have observed that people who think it is okay to be rude to public employees rarely have the nerve to mouth off to a soldier, airman, sailor, or a marine.

I am not naïve enough to think that all public servants do a good job or that there are not a few people out there who let a little authority and power go to their heads. They are all people just like you and me, and quite frankly, the public sector does not have the monopoly on rude and incompetent employees. Somehow, we all just seem to be able to shrug our shoulders and maybe never patronize the business where the private sector employee failed to do their job, but we feel free to vent of the public employees.

One of my jobs at the Department of the Interior was Human Capital, and in that role, I had responsibilities that extended to 70,000 plus employees. While nobody can say with a straight face that they actually supervise that many employees, I had more than 100 employees working directly under me and I have had direct interaction with thousands of federal employees in my career.

In my federal career, I was always a political appointee, and if you have followed this column at all, you know that I am a conservative Republican. I make no apologies for my views, but I bring this up to make the point that if there is ever an opportunity for someone to have conflict with federal employees it is when a political appointee is trying to advance the policies of the administration that appointed them. I have encountered federal employees who have a clear bias toward both liberal and conservative philosophies. But, more importantly, my experiences have confirmed for me that the vast majority of federal employees are smart, dedicated, work hard, do what they are told to do even when they disagree, have a high degree of integrity, and are highly motivated to do the best they can for America. I am proud to have worked along side them and I know that some of what we accomplished together made government better, more accountable, performance based, and efficient.

Oh, I could tell you some horror stories too: federal employees using their government credit cards to make their mortgage payments, accessing and storing pornographic material on government computers, driving under the influence in government vehicles, and more. There was even the employee who ate her lunch everyday and then proceeded to take a nap at her desk despite her boss telling her that she was not exactly conveying the best public image of a federal employee. But, if we are honest, we know that the private sector has these same issues and the bad apples in both sectors make up a very small percentage of the work force.

I also can tell you from first hand experience that it is a myth that federal employees cannot be fired. You must have cause to remove a federal employee from service and the protections are slanted in the employee’s favor to protect career civil servants from the arbitrary and capricious actions of political appointees. All too often bad employees are left alone or even promoted to move them on, but that is a problem with supervisors taking the easy route and not documenting poor performance. Let’s face it, firing someone is an unpleasant task and most bosses will do anything to avoid it.

Having said all that, I was the deciding official in a removal action of the Chief of the U.S. Park Police. It was a very high profile and contentious action. She chose to involve the media, she was defended by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, she appealed my decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and when that failed, she went to federal court. We had documentation of her violations of policy, insubordination, failure to correct her actions, and we adhered to the appropriate processes. To make a very long story short, her removal has been sustained to this day.

I believe public service is the highest secular calling. We need the best people in our government if we want government to improve. The vast majority of public employees are just doing their job. They don’t write the rules; they just administer them. Save your angst for the policies put into place by Congress and the Executive Branch, but remember it is not personal, just business. And, the next time you feel like you have the right to yell at a public servant, or denigrate their heritage, or otherwise bash government employees, just remember this, “Keep your words warm and sweet, you may have to eat them.”

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